Late last week, I worked to provide some advice to an elementary principal named Tom who was wondering about the role that ability grouping should play in professional learning communities.

The second part of his original question—what do you do with teachers who resist regrouping because they only want to teach their students—is equally important.

Here’s how I’d respond if I were in Tom’s shoes:

I’d start by trying to find out what the reasons for resistance really were.

One of the mistakes that I’ve seen principals in Tom’s position make is assuming bad intentions on the part of teachers who resist what seems to be a perfectly reasonable request.

“They don’t want to share students because they don’t believe in PLCs!” they’ll think.  “They’re being insubordinate!”

Organizational experts Joseph Grenny and Kerry Patterson—authors of the Crucial Conversations series—suggest that the best approach when faced with unexpected resistance is to ask yourself one simple question:

Why would a reasonable, rationale person act this way?

If Tom asks Grenny and Patterson’s question in his building, he might be surprised by what he finds.  His teachers might be resisting because they’re not sure how to create a schedule that makes regrouping for interventions possible.

They might be resisting because they don’t have enough experience with one another to believe that regrouping for interventions is going to be worth the effort.

They might be resisting because they simply don’t have the time to pull together an entire set of remediation and enrichment lessons.

The good news for Tom is that all of these challenges are manageable.

Armed with reliable information—rather than assumptions—he can take practical steps towards providing his teachers with the supports they need in order to improve their practice.

Then, I’d provide as much structure and support for teams and teachers as I could.

As a teacher who has worked on learning teams for a long while, I can tell you that regrouping students across the hallway for interventions is no easy task.

One of the greatest challenges is simply figuring out which students are going to be assigned to which teachers.  Generally, that means giving some kind of common assessment and then analyzing student learning results.

While that’s a core practice for professional learning teams, it’s incredibly time-consuming in most buildings because teachers rarely have tools that automate data collection and analysis.

Instead, we try to sort students by hand using three ring binders and sticky notes—something I see as an epic data fail.

We also always worry about how to handle the large groups of kids that inevitably end up in the enrichment rooms because we’re trying to keep our remediation numbers as small as we can.

Motivated principals like Tom help to alleviate these challenges for their teachers.

They invest in data collection tools like sets of student responders, they provide release time for teachers to look at data OR they assign the responsibility for number crunching and trend spotting to instructional support staffers or assistant principals.

Automating the process of data collection and analysis—or at least freeing teachers from the grunt work that goes along with efforts to regroup for interventions—makes it far more likely that teachers will embrace this new practice.

Motivated leaders like Tom also make it clear that EVERY staff member is going to be involved in remediation and enrichment efforts.

When a learning team can count on three or four extra sets of hands—media specialists, administrative assistants, custodians, administrators—during their intervention periods, the work becomes far more manageable.

Does this make sense?

Essentially, Tom has to find ways to tackle some of the very real challenges his teachers are going to face when they’re working to regroup across their grade level for intervention time.

Finally, I’d make interventions based on data a core expectation that every teacher was held accountable for no matter who they are working with.

One of the trickiest tightropes that Tom has to walk as a principal is the balance between loose-tight leadership.

You can almost hear it in his voice.

He very much wants to empower his teachers, but he also very much believes that regrouping for interventions—a practice that some of his teachers haven’t embraced—matters.

The solution is to make interventions based on data a core expectation that every teacher is held accountable for.

“I don’t care if you regroup across the entire grade level for intervention periods,” he could say, “but you must be able to show me that you are responding to student learning data in your room.

“I want to see evidence that you’ve given students who need remediation additional opportunities to master content and that you’ve given students who need enrichment additional opportunities to move forward in their studies.

“If you can’t prove with data that your interventions are as effective as the team-based interventions put together by your peers, I’m going to ask you to either join your peers or to rework your intervention strategy.”

Faced with this nonnegotiable requirement, most teachers are going to choose to work together on interventions simply because working together is a heck of a lot easier than trying to provide interventions for an entire classroom by yourself.

The trick for Tom is being tight about his core expectation that interventions are not optional even if the approach teachers take to interventions is open to discussion.

If the handful of teachers who decide to intervene on their own are not monitored carefully and held to the same performance expectations as teachers who choose to work together to intervene, though, Tom will have a frustrated staff and failing students in no time.

In the end, regrouping for interventions is a responsible practice that is worth pursuing in Tom’s school.  It is not, however, an easy practice that can be implemented by decree.

Principals have to listen carefully to their faculties to find potential barriers before they derail intervention efforts.  They also need to find ways to structure and support data collection and analysis efforts.

Finally, they need to make interventions based on data a nonnegotiable in order to be successful.

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