Last month the staff at Little Mountain started on a new journey. We had been down the PLC road previously, and that road eventually led to a dead end with me as the driver. In my mind, I knew what PLCs should look like. At least I thought I did. I was reading every DuFour book I could get my hands on, and I truly thought I understood how our staff was going to improve their instructional strategies through increased collaboration. We participated in team-building activities and personality identifiers in order to better understand our similarities and differences, strengths and weaknesses. We practiced agenda building and norm creating. We introduced data gathering and figured out which data was most important to us. None of it seemed to make a difference in the team rooms when all of that prep and practice was supposed to translate into increased academic scores and improved teaching.
In my 7 years as an elementary principal, my failure to mold the PLC process into a productive system was one of my biggest regrets and left a host of questions unanswered. Where are the holes? What are we missing? What training do we need to get better? Who has the answers? Eventually, like so many other failed programs or initiatives, PLCs fizzled out. Teams were still meeting, but not with a true purpose. Our teams collaborate exceptionally well, but when I would meet with teams I could tell the PLC process wasn’t leading to improvement or collaboration that improved student learning in the way we all hoped.
Fast forward to the summer of 2019. Monticello hosted the PLC 2.0 conference with First Educational Resources. The authors of PLC 2.0, Garth Larson and Cale Birk, gave me their book to read the night before the conference started, and it was like they were speaking to me directly. The obstacles that other leaders were facing were laid out in front of me. The struggles of PLCs from leadership and staff perspectives were spelled out clearly. We were not alone in the ineffective PLC sinkhole that we found ourselves in. But the research was still clear; effective collaboration can make an immediate impact on classroom instruction and student achievement. It was time for a reboot, and as everyone in education (and life) knows, going after anything the second time after a setback doesn’t guarantee success.
When I got deep into reading PLC 2.0 (and constantly heckling Cale and Garth for more information) I realized observable impact was more than just a process for collaborative time. Observable impact should drive all things in the classroom. When we incorporate a certain strategy, what is the observable impact? When we use this engagement strategy, what is the observable impact? When we introduce learning targets a certain way and cycle back to them throughout the lesson, what is the observable impact? There are too many strategies, tools, initiatives, and assessments in education for us to not ask the question, “how do we know?” If we look at everything we do with a focus on “how do we know”, I believe it will lead us to weed out what doesn’t work and focus on what does.
We were fortunate to have Cale Birk work with our staff last month to keep moving forward and get a better understanding of how PLC 2.0 is a process for collaboration and improvement rather than an initiative. We are early in the learning curve, but I’ve already seen the positive impact our collaboration time can have in 2.0 just by asking the PLC teams to identify their areas of focus. Teachers and staff having full input in where we focus our energy and how we address areas of concern is a powerful approach. I’m not bringing a stack of assessment data to a PLC to analyze and talk about only to repeat the next time. Our teams are beginning to address their biggest concerns in everything from student engagement to assessments. We have created our vision of a learner at Little Mountain, we have identified our biggest concerns in the classroom, and now we will turn to the 2.0 toolkit during collaborative time to help guide our next steps and document our progress. To be continued…