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Teachers working on #teams can build a strong community of practice

May 14, 2016

There is excellent information in the literature that when schools provide time, space, and structure for their teachers to work on teams, doing meaningful work, the community of practice that results can improve instruction and student outcomes.  The time we allocate can come in a variety of configurations, such as grade-level planning meetings, meetings by discipline, or vertical planning meetings.  The space we provide for teachers to meet should be inviting, a professionally-oriented space that contains all the materials they need to take their ideas into action.  Finally, the structure we provide should guide teachers towards improving their practice, giving them sufficient flexibility to assess their students’ needs and progress while adjusting the pathways to better serve the needs of all students.

In ASCD’s recent edition of Educational Leadership, Naomi Theirs interviewed Richard DuFour for an article entitled, Educators Deserve Better.  I have always been impressed with Richard DuFour’s clarity of vision for effective team practice through a professional learning community structure.  As he spells out in the interview, there are two conditions that teacher teams must meet in order for their collaborative practice to make a difference.

First, absolute clarity about what they are collaborating on-what is the nature of the work, what is the right work.  Second, the support needed so they can succeed at what they are being asked to do.  (page 13)

The administrative leader provides the guidance and support for the second condition, time and space.  Administrators need to create the conditions, regular scheduled time for teacher teams to meet and a professional learning space that contains all the materials needed to launch ideas into action.  Leaders cannot take either of these responsibilities lightly.  Can you imagine Google, Apple, First Data, Facebook, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or any other excellent corporate or non-profit entity not supporting their teams with team to plan and a professional space in which to plan?  We know these organization invest heavily in supporting teams of people working collaboratively towards shared goals.  How do we measure up in our schools?  

Richard DuFour points out that schools and districts that have seriously invested in professional learning communities (PLC) have demonstrated significant progress in student improvement indicators.  However, teachers in PLCs don’t just meet to discuss random topics that surface in their work.  They meet with a common purpose and use agreed upon protocols.  

There has to be a common goal, a common accountability.  (page 13)

Teams have to set objectives and decide on important questions that they intend to address through their collaboration.  Here are some questions DuFour suggests teams use in setting up their work (page 13). 

  1. What do we expect students to learn in the course and in unit by unit?   We can think of this first question through the lens of what we want students to know, understand and be able to do (KUD).
  2. What evidence will they gather along the path of learning to be sure that students are mastery the targets we want them to hit?  He references the importance of teacher teams creating common formative assessments.  Creating these assessments helps teachers focus on the learning outcomes they expect from their students.  This evidence is what teacher teams use to make adjustments in their strategies to be sure all students are learning, whether they are struggling or advanced learners. 

The important work of teacher teams is to create a culture in which each teacher recognizes the strengths and challenges of every other member.  In order to move the team’s practice to new levels of competency, there has to be open and honest communication on the team.  Each person has to be willing to share his or her strengths to improve the team, as well as being willing to learn from other team member’s strengths.  “Rising tide raises all ships.”  In their HBR article, The Discipline of Teams, Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith distinguish between groups and teams.  On teams, individuals share leadership, are mutually accountable, share a common purpose, have collective work products, have open and honest conversations, engage in problem solving, evaluate their work products, and do “real work” together (page 113).  While DuFour does not elaborate extensively on “how” people work or the culture they create, Katzenbach and Smith provide that context.  So thinking about how their models could work seamlessly, side-by-side represents the answer to the question: How can we best create and support effective team cultures within our schools?

DuFour points out:

In schools that have sustained a commitment to the process (PLCs) over time, and have focused on the right work, it’s been terrific (the outcomes). (page 14)

What I like about the interview with DuFour is that he draws a clear dichotomy between teachers working on teams and teacher evaluation.  He points out that administrators should do the absolute minimum when it comes to “evaluating” teachers.  Administrators should invest all their energy into setting up and supporting an effective PLC structure.  If they do that really well, then teachers can “self-evaluate” and hold themselves accountable to the team.

The way we are going to improve schools is not by supervising and evaluating individual teachers into better performance’ it’s by creating a culture in which teams of teachers are helping one another get better.

For me, this is a powerful idea!  Help teachers shift from being groups of individuals working in silos to teams of teachers working on shared goals towards a common purpose.  Teachers should be accountable to one another, learning from one another what it takes to master the complex craft of teaching.  However, we cannot will this culture into existence.  Administrators, in collaboration with teachers, need to learn the strategies for working effectively on teams, implement them with fidelity, and practice being in open, honest dialogue with one another.  In DuFour’s world, it is very important that the conversations on teaching and learning be “evidence-based.”  If they’re structured this way, he writes:

The other thing is to train team leaders in terms of having difficult conversations and strategies for presenting things in a way that isn’t hurtful.  If conversations are actually based on evidence and you’ve got a leader who knows how to lead that discussion, you can move away from the gentlemen’s agreement that we won’t be critical of one another.  (page 15)

 But let’s not pretend that achieving this outcome is easy.  It takes patience, expert guidance, and lots of practice.  The pillar that holds up the whole structure is open, honest and respectful conversation between people.  Knowledgeable and sensitive administrators have to groom teachers at all levels to be leaders so that the school has a coalition of teachers who can take on these responsibilities within PLCs.

DuFour points out that principals and other school administrators need a ‘critical friends community’ in which they’re working through their own leadership challenges so they have the knowledge, support and bandwidth to effectively lead teachers into a PLC structure.  This is hard work that requires a high-level of commitment on the part of schools or school districts.  We have to invest energy and resources to achieve these important outcomes.

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