Sitting here on the morning after our four-day focused conversation with Rick and Becky DuFour on structuring professional learning communities, I find myself in a familiar place:  Trying to sort out exactly what it is that I’ve learned.

While I’m sure that I’ll be mentally wrestling with questions raised during our conversation for weeks, here are some initial reflections that I know I’m going to hold on to:

Professional learning communities depend on champions, and sometimes those champions end up completely exhausted:  One of my favorite strands of conversation became what Mr. Monkey described as his very own “PLC Intervention!”  Frustrated with his learning team, he’d pulled back a bit from collaboration, and dozens of digital peers spent three days trying to coax him back from the professional edge.

Mr. Monkey didn’t sound like the only frustrated teacher in our conversation, though.  David—who teaches high school in California—expressed similar concerns with the slow pace of change in his building.

Their comments resonate completely with me because I’ve been-there and-done-that more than once in the past six years as my learning team and school community has muddled through the process of growing together.  Ask my colleagues and every one of them can probably tell you the story of some conflict or another that left them convinced that PLCs were nothing more than the greatest headache since the mimeograph machine!

What hurts guys like David and the Monkey is that their investments of time and energy end up looking like failure—and failure isn’t something that motivated educators are accustomed to.  To make matters worse, when you’re wrapped in conflict and struggling to move forward, it’s difficult to remember that individuals and organizations only move forward once they’re good and uncomfortable.

For school leaders, this means that a critical requirement (responsibility?) for driving successful change is keeping a finger on the emotional pulse of those core staff members that push their peers in positive directions.  Take time to touch base with them often.  Celebrate their efforts privately and publicly.  Find ways to acknowledge and reward their efforts.  Ask for feedback about school strengths and weaknesses, and offer specific guidance for overcoming immediate challenges.

If principals lose the emotional support and professional commitment of their best players, professional learning communities are doomed!

Professional learning communities ARE NOT about standardizing instruction and taking away teacher autonomy:  Ask any teacher new to professional learning communities about their greatest fears and you’ll get one answer:  “I don’t want to lose the right to make decisions about the instructional strategies that I use in my classroom.”

And their fears are warranted!

Schools and districts have spent the better part of the past ten years trying to standardize instruction.  Rigid pacing guides are rolled out, detailing exactly how long teachers should spend on particular units and offering “suggested lessons” that many leaders expect to see being delivered in every classroom, every day.

That’s why it was so nice to hear Rick and Becky DuFour both say time-and-again in our conversation that any school leader that uses the professional learning community concept to push for lockstep instruction has misunderstood the foundational principles of PLCs.

PLCs, Rick and Becky remind us, ARE about standardizing only one thing:  The content that students are exposed to in the classrooms across our hallways.  Working to identify essential outcomes and to develop common assessments, learning teams eventually detail exactly what it is that students should know and be able to do at the end of a year’s instruction.

From that point, however, good learning teams are constantly tinkering with instructional practices.  Cycles of action research are used to collect information about what works and what doesn’t in classrooms.  Practices are reviewed, refined and polished over time. While some standardization naturally occurs as teachers on collaborative teams identify practices that are particularly effective at helping students to learn, a spirit of experimentation ALWAYS drives the best learning teams.

As a full-time practitioner who always feels pressured by district-wide pacing guides, it felt good to hear that message ringing loud-and-clear!

Perhaps the greatest tool to moving learning communities forward is a shared language and history:  During the course of our four-day conversation, participants kept touching on the idea that a shared language and history is a critical—albeit often overlooked—first step to moving learning communities forward.

Participants asked for clear definitions of core terms and concepts like “common assessments” and “professional learning teams.”  The use of stories and catchphrases to communicate the fundamental beliefs of was discussed.  Examples of situations where the lack of a shared vocabulary led to misunderstandings were shared.

It was almost amazing to hear participant after participant talking about the ways that language had become a stumbling block to their collective efforts.  Shouldn’t finding resources for enrichment and remediation be a bigger barrier?  Wouldn’t you expect manipulating data or designing schedules for school-wide interventions to be the source of greatest frustration for learning communities?

But it was also strangely encouraging to find out that something so simple was causing so many problems!  After all, shared language is easy to fix—Rick, Becky and Bob even included a comprehensive PLC glossary in Revisiting that might make a good first step to introducing key concepts in your building.

The only requirement for working through this challenge is a deliberate and intentional effort on the part of core faculty members to building—and consistently using—a collective vocabulary and shared memory that everyone can draw from when making decisions.  Leaving language to chance is a mistake that no one HAS to make!

Now it’s your turn to reflect: If you stopped by our conversation this week, what lessons are you walking away with?  What ideas resonated with you?  What do you still need to wrestle with?

Most importantly, what do you plan to do TODAY to drive change in your building or in your community?  We can’t just walk away from this conversation and return to business as usual, can we?

On a side note:  While commenting is now closed, know that our conversation will be available for viewing until the end of time!  You can share the link—found here—with anyone at any time who you think needs to learn a bit more about professional learning communities!

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