An interesting email landed in my inbox this week from a private school teacher—we’ll call him Jim—who attended one of my sessions at this summer’s Solution Tree PLC Institutes.

Jim wrote:

One of the main messages I picked up on [at the Institute] was that you need to have the school schedule designed in such a way so that teachers have time to collaborate with one another in order to do this right.

Collaboration couldn’t be something extra you did before or after school. My principal seemed to be on board with that while at the conference.

Well…things have changed…In our meeting yesterday, our principal mentioned that we probably wouldn’t be able to alter the schedule for next year. She mentioned that we would have to “find the time elsewhere.”

Any advice?

Anyone who has worked to see their school transition from a traditional structure to a professional learning community is nodding their heads right now, right?

The simple truth is that there is always going to be tension around collaboration in new professional learning communities simply because teachers still have a TON of individual work to do.

Add new team meetings on top of traditional-yet-essential tasks like planning, grading, answering emails and doing hallway duty and we buckle, y’all.

Luckily, there are a few practical steps that both Jim AND his principal can take to make the time challenge more manageable.

Here’s three.

Remember that teachers should be working on one—but no more than two—collaborative teams at any given time.

Easily the biggest mistake that principals new to learning communities make is requiring that teachers meet with EVERYONE.

Rightly convinced that collaboration can change practices and improve student achievement, they push for new meetings with new groups on new days and at new times.

In our middle school—which was led by a remarkably brilliant guy that I believed in completely—that well-intentioned reasoning resulted in teachers meeting with a grade level team, a content team and a vertical team every single week.

I went to every meeting because I was required to, but I sat silently in most of them waiting—often impatiently—to get back to the tasks that mattered the most for my own day-to-day survival.

We went from being a professional learning community to being a professional minute counting community in no time.

What does this mean for principals?

Unless your school board is flush with cash and you have the cabbage to provide your teachers with 3-5 MORE hours of planning per week than they currently have, keep your expectations for new collaborative meetings to a minimum.

Remember that sustainable change starts with thinking at the edges of the boxes. It’s about evolution, not revolution.

Tossing teachers new to PLCs onto three or four teams without providing any new time to collaborate is a disaster waiting to happen.

Remember that high-functioning PLCs spend EVERY spare minute focused on collective inquiry around student learning.

EVERY spare minute, y’all.

I’ve become convinced over the past seven years of my work with professional learning communities that schools have PLENTY of on-the-clock time for collaboration.

We just waste too much of it on things that are unconnected to student learning.

What does that mean for Jim’s principal?

Faculty meetings need to change. It’s just NOT OKAY to spend 60 minutes a month on the kinds of email-able announcements that we typically fill our time together with.

What’s more, professional development days need to change. If collective inquiry around practice is important, then PD days need to center around the work of collaborative teams studying practice.

What does that mean for Jim?

Our notions of “team meetings” need to change. Agenda items need to be scrutinized carefully and anything that’s not connected to collective inquiry around student learning needs to be ditched.

The meeting agenda that I share with teams has spaces for 3 items and 3 items only. That’s intentional. If a team has more than 3 items on their agenda, none of the items is going to get any kind of meaningful time and attention.

More importantly, by forcing teams to choose THREE items to talk about, you are forcing prioritization—which naturally leads to more efficient collaboration.

Once schools and teams start to focus—truly focus—on the RIGHT kinds of conversations and behaviors, they often find that they have more than enough time to collaborate.

Remember to start small.

Strangely enough, the WORST thing that ever happened in my own work on professional learning teams was being assigned to work with some of the BEST teachers I’ve ever known.

Crazy, huh? I mean you’d think a guy would be excited to collaborate with excellence, wouldn’t you?

Here’s the hitch: My team tried to do too much straight out of the gate.

We were talking about instructional practices and trying to pace our daily lessons.

We were designing common assessments and trying to look at student learning data. We were dividing kids up across our grade level for instruction from several different teachers.

We were writing essential objectives for our entire curriculum and inviting parents in to be a more meaningful part of the learning process.

And while every one of those tasks was meaningful and productive, we were ready to quit 4 months after we started.

Today, I recommend that every learning team keep things simple in their first months together.

Pick ONE unit to focus your collective efforts on. Decide on 2 or 3 key skills that you want every kid to master in that unit.

Develop a short (10-15 question) common assessment that measures those skills. Let teachers design their own instruction. On a set date, deliver your common assessment and make a list of students who don’t pass the test.

Then, take action together to help the students on that list master the content that they are struggling with.

There’s nothing overwhelming or time consuming about that process, y’all. Learning teams can tackle those tasks in about 30-40 minutes of shared planning per week.

Over time, you’ll notice that your team is ready for increasingly complex work—but keeping collaborative tasks simple from the start means you’ll keep working at it.

Anything make sense here? I guess what I’m saying is that the good news is that you can begin taking initial steps towards being a more collaborative school without a TON of extra time.

It just takes a commitment to staying focused on the right work and a willingness to start small and then work towards more complex actions and behaviors.


Related Radical Reads:

PLC Tip: Teaming Structure

PLC Tip: Working Together With Wikis and Google Docs

Make Like an Obstetrician and Deliver

Evolutionary Lessons for PLC Principals

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