A few weeks back, I sat down with a friend named Gretta who is the principal of an area school working to strengthen their professional learning community. Her first question is one that I’m asked all the time.
“Bill,” she said, “how should we organize our learning teams? Is it best to have teachers on the same grade level working together? Teachers in the same content area? What about vertical teams?”
The answer to Gretta’s question is that there is no one “right way” to organize the learning teams in a building!
Indeed, any group of teachers who are working together to deepen their collective knowledge of what works in schools can be called a “professional learning team.”
And while many principals and teachers find that the most productive learning teams pair colleagues working together in the same grade level and content area—allowing teachers to easily develop and deliver common assessments and to talk about shared instructional practices—I’d argue that rigid commitments to any one organizational strategy can inadvertently hurt the professional learning that takes place in your building.
What does that mean for principals?
When organizing the collaborative groups in your school, remember that some of the best learning teams are short-lived, focused on a specific area of study, and self-selected!
I can already hear half the administrators who read the Radical groaning. In fact, I’ve heard about a million different reasons why school leaders are skeptical of allowing teachers to self-select the learning teams that they join.
Don’t believe me?
Then check out this imaginary back-and-forth, drawn from dozens of conversations that I’ve had with principals in the past five years:
Administrator: Bill, have you ever tried to write a master schedule?! I can’t possibly guarantee on-the-clock opportunities for teams to meet if they’re not on the same grade level or in the same content area.
The Voice of Bill: I hear you—and no, I’ve never even thought about writing master schedules! I failed high school math, remember?
But I also know that if you gave me the opportunity to work with a group of teachers who I respected greatly and to study topics that were incredibly important to me, I’d make time to meet before or after school. For me—and I’d bet a handful of teachers in every building—learning is more important than learning on-the-clock.
Do I know colleagues who will choose to meet with teachers that share planning periods because they’ve got busy personal lives and can’t find the time to meet outside of school hours?
Sure. In fact, I’d even bet that the majority of your teachers would choose to work with peers in the same grade level and content area. Not only is the shared planning period that you made possible important to them, but so is the opportunity to carefully study what they do every day.
All that I’m asking is that you give teachers the freedom to work beyond those set groups if they want to.
Administrator: But how would that work? Are you saying that groups of teachers might come together for a year, study a topic, then join a new group of teachers next year? Shouldn’t learning teams stay together for a long period of time so they really get to know each other?
The Voice of Bill: Sure, it would be great if learning teams stayed together for a long period of time. Relationships built on shared experiences are, after all, the foundation of productive learning.
But how long does your average learning team stay “together” as it is?
With 50% of teachers leaving the profession within five years, with the economy tanking causing families to move to find work, with mothers taking time off to raise their children, with transfers between schools in your own district, and with the inevitable in-house moves that your forced to make to staff your classrooms, I’d bet that you don’t have many learning teams that stay “together” for longer than a year anyway.
Rather than resisting this reality, refocus the work that learning teams are doing. Make short-term projects with specific objectives and outcomes the norm. Have self-selected teams define exactly what it is that they plan to study during your in-service days in August. In January, require progress reports backed up by student learning results. In June, share what each team has learned with the entire faculty and plan new focus groups for the fall.
When learning teams recognize that there is a beginning and an ending to their work, they’re more likely to work with a purpose.
Administrator: But what if teachers on self-selected teams constantly choose to work just with teachers that they like—and what if I get stuck with a learning team full of professional duds? How will that help kids?
The Voice of Bill: Let’s face it—you don’t have a ton of time to offer teachers to do their collective work on-the-clock, do you? Worst case scenario, you’re giving learning teams an hour a week to meet with one another and best case scenario, they have an hour a day.
What’s more, you probably haven’t been able to take many responsibilities off of your teachers’ professional plates: They still have to grade papers, have parent conferences, plan field trips, supervise in the hallways, take their kids to lunch, and earn renewal credits, right?
That means if your learning teams are going to learn anything, they’ve got to hit the ground running. They can’t spend months building relationships, writing norms, and developing decision-making protocols.
The problem is that the “Forming and Storming” stages of team development are pretty darn time consuming—and while they often lead to stronger teams, they also lead to initially inefficient and incredibly frustrated teams.
So letting the teachers who are interested form teams with colleagues that they like really isn’t a bad thing. The forming and storming that teachers unfamiliar with one another have to work through before a team identity develops has already happened through formal and informal interactions with one another both in and out of school.
Basically, you’re fast-forwarding the team development process.
Are you going to get teams of professional duds? Sure. It’s inevitable. And that’s where you’re going to need to spend the majority of your supervision and professional development resources. You’d better not skip too many of their meetings and you’d better develop your Crucial Confrontation skills because it’s likely that you’re going to need to push a bit more on these teams to ensure that they’re being productive.
But you’re also going to reenergize professional learning for some of your employees, too. Teachers that are motivated to learn with one another and who can get into the meat of collective study without having to muddle their way around in the relationship-nightmare that cause new teams to stumble are going to love their time together.
Can you say that for all of the teachers in your current building? Do they love learning together? Shouldn’t they?
Administrator: I’m not sure if all of my teachers love learning together, but I am sure that the teachers who struggle in my building are in a room with some of my best teachers—and that’s got to improve the quality of instruction in their classrooms, doesn’t it?
The Voice of Bill: You know, your first phrase stings. If you’ve got teachers who don’t love learning with one another, can you really keep calling your school a “professional learning community?” I’d argue that your first concern should be to create conditions that give all of your faculty members the opportunity to feel completely jazzed about learning.
I get what you’re saying about struggling teachers, but I don’t think self-selected learning teams mean that struggling teachers will be pushed aside by their colleagues. You might have to make some suggestions about teams that they might like to join—or have to reach out to a few of the mentors on your staff and ask that they welcome a struggling colleague on to their learning team—but in all but the most extreme cases, I’ll bet that every teacher finds a place learn.
Administrator: Alright, so what if I did allow some of my teachers to self-select their learning teams. How would I evaluate their work? How can I ensure that what they choose to focus on is productive and connected to our school’s goals?
The Voice of Bill: I actually think that evaluation of self-selected learning teams is probably easier than you’d think primarily because teachers who choose to self-select an area of study have some kind of internal motivation, don’t they? If you were a professional dud, wouldn’t it be easier to join your assigned learning team and go through the motions, pretending to collaborate?
As a school leader, I’d think the first step you should take is to require that self-selected learning teams clearly articulate their purpose and their plan of study for the year. If teams can’t connect their intentions to your school’s mission or vision, then you’d definitely have the right to put the squeeze on them until they’d made meaningful revisions.
Then, I’d require self-selected teams to develop systems for collecting evidence of the impact of their work. Much like the common assessments developed by more traditional learning teams, self-selected teams would have to use meaningful data to make decisions and would have to show how they were assessing student learning and changing direction to ensure student success.
Your expectations might have to change a bit based on the composition of the self-selected teams—common assessments for the band teacher working with two history teachers to find ways to connect their curriculum are probably going to be different than anything you’ve ever seen—but the chances are good that teachers self-selecting will have the internal drive necessary to learn together.
And if they don’t, you can always collapse their teams! (That’s the nice part of being the bossman.)
The point that I’m trying to make is that it is important for school leaders to ask themselves whether the organizational strategy that they’ve chosen for their collaborative teams is ensuring that every teacher has meaningful opportunities to learn.
If the answer to that question is no, then it’s time to take action.
Forcing teachers into teams with one another simply because they teach the same content, the same set of students, or the same grade level may make organizing your teachers easy, but whoever said that professional learning communities were easy?!
Being open to a more organic and fluid approach to the composition of the collaborative groups in your building ensures that learning remains at the center of every decision in your school.