One of the most popular sessions that I deliver at Solution Tree’s PLC Institutes is titled, “We’re Meeting. Now What?”
The session is designed to introduce participants to basic tools—data conversation protocols, conflict resolution strategies, information gathering surveys—that can make collaborative meetings more efficient.
Inevitably, though, participants ask tons of questions about what the “right” learning teams look like.
I figured I’d answer three of the most popular questions here.
Hopefully, my answers—which are built on my own experiences as a teacher on collaborative teams AND on the hours I have spent learning from PLC experts like Rick and Becky DuFour, Mike Mattos and Bob Eaker—will help principals to structure meaningful collaborative teams for their teachers:
How many different learning teams should each teacher be assigned to?
This question is asked dozens of times by participants at PLC Institutes and the answer given by Rick and Becky DuFour is direct, simple and consistent:
Teachers should never be assigned to more than two learning teams—and ideally, teachers would only work on one learning team.
I think principals—especially those who have no experience as members of collaborative teaching teams—can fall into the trap of believing that if collaborative work with ONE group of colleagues is valuable, collaborative work with THREE or FOUR groups of colleagues is even better.
Unless your district is flush with cabbage and has decided to give teachers three hours of planning time per day, that kind of thinking is a disaster waiting to happen.
You see, collaborative work and collective inquiry around practice just isn’t as easy as you think it is. It takes a TON of time and mental energy.
Getting ONE group working smoothly will consume all of the shared planning time that you create for your teachers.
If you require teachers to work on multiple teams, they will attend every meeting—we’re smart enough to know that we can’t defy your direct orders—but they will also avoid challenging conversations at all costs.
Challenging conversations are time consuming and we just don’t have the time for three or four challenging conversations every single week.
Remember that we still have papers to grade, lessons to write, parents to contact, IEP meetings to attend, hallways to supervise, teams to coach, faculty meetings to attend, classrooms to clean, families to raise and lives beyond school to live.
Long story short: In an ideal world, teachers would have the time to work in several different collaborative groups per week, exploring several different topics together.
But we don’t live in an ideal world.
If you want collaboration to be productive, you’ve got to limit the numbers of collaborative groups that you assign your teachers to.
How big should learning teams be?
At every Institute that I have presented at in the past two years, I’ve heard HORROR stories about principals of large schools creating teams 8-10 teachers.
If I could corner their principals, I’d ask them one simple question: When was the last time that YOU productively worked in a group of 8 or more people?
Better question: What would you say to a teacher who regularly tried to pair students into groups of 8 or more in their classrooms?
Right—because you know full well that the larger a group becomes, the more challenging it can be to find common ground, you’d suggest that teachers keep student groups small.
You also know that the larger a group becomes, the more likely it is that individual members will intellectually hitchhike, letting their collaborative partners do all the heavy lifting while they sit passively on the sidelines.
The same lessons apply to collaborative groups of teachers, y’all. Bigger DEFINITELY doesn’t mean better when talking about learning teams.
So what is the right size for the PLCs in your building? If it is possible given the size of your school, teachers should work on teams of 3-5.
Fewer than 3 teachers in a collaborative group makes it difficult to introduce intellectual diversity to a team.
More than 5 teachers in a collaborative group makes it difficult to have efficient meetings that start and end on time.
In large elementary schools with 6-10 classes per grade level, that means dividing teachers into two smaller groups.
While both groups should sit down together a few times each year to write common assessments and to review collective progress, the regular weekly PLC meeting that teachers attend should always be in the smaller groups.
Who should teachers work with—peers teaching the same content or peers working with the same kids?
The most efficient and effective learning teams are those that pair teachers who are teaching the same content to students at the same grade level.
In my large middle school, that means the most efficient and effective learning teams are content AND grade level specific: Sixth grade science teachers, Seventh grade math teachers, Eighth grade language arts teachers.
Teachers on teams with peers working in the same content and at the same grade level can easily develop—and spot trends in—common assessments with one another.
They can also offer targeted and timely instructional support to one another.
But content and grade level learning teams aren’t the ONLY learning teams that work in buildings—and for teachers in small schools or for teachers in unique content areas, content and grade level learning teams simply aren’t possible.
In those circumstances, I like to encourage schools to pair teachers into groups based on the kinds of skills that students need to master in order to be successful in their courses.
An example: In seventh grade here in North Carolina, students learn all about evaluation and persuasion. They write countless evaluative and persuasive essays.
Interestingly enough, evaluation and persuasion are also an important part of the visual arts curriculum in middle school. Students need to learn to set criteria to judge the final products that they are creating together.
That means our visual arts teacher could be paired with the seventh grade language arts teachers in a learning team.
Over the course of the school year, they could study persuasion and evaluation because it is a skill that both groups share in common.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that all too often, PLCs stumble because they create structures that are not conducive to adult learning—or feasible, given the time that we have available for collaboration.
Here’s to hoping that answering these questions will help your learning communities to move forward in a productive way.