By Daniel R. Venables
Mr. Bell is a 7th grade science teacher who was asked by his principal to lead the science PLC at his small suburban public middle school. He and five other colleagues from other departments attended the Grapple One Institute, a three-day training for PLC facilitators. All six teacher leaders left the training confident and excited to implement and lead authentic PLCs in their school.
As part of his training, Mr. Bell learned the importance of establishing a foundation of trust and collaboration, and he and his colleagues practiced strategies to do this. Early on, he engaged his PLC in activities and discussions that helped build a collaborative foundation for the team. All went well at the beginning; members of his PLC were willing to engage in those early activities. When he tried to engage them in protocols for looking at student work, the team seemed much more reluctant to actively participate. Instead, the teachers were mostly quiet, and there were long, awkward periods of silence between comments. The contributions his teachers made either stated the obvious or cautiously stayed on the surface. Mr. Bell also learned the importance of debriefing every protocol at his PLC training and giving PLC members ample opportunity to openly discuss the processes they experience. But every time he engaged his team in a debrief, his PLC offered no usable reflections on the experience and instead said things like
“It was fine” or “I think we did OK” or “I liked it.” Convinced that it wasn’t so fine, he contacted me for support. After he shared a summary of the situation, I asked Mr. Bell a lot of questions:
- What do you think is really going on here?
- Did you move too fast, looking at student work before an adequate foundation of trust was laid?
- Do you think members of your PLC are having the “parking lot meeting”—the meeting that happens after the meeting in which teachers speak candidly with each other about their PLC? If so, what do you think they’re saying?
- Are you sufficiently stating the purpose of the protocol and explaining how it works before engaging in it?
- Was the protocol an invaluable tool for this experience or were you just going through the motions of using it?
After some discussion back and forth, I suggested that Mr. Bell try doing an anonymous debrief the next time a protocol was used (or after any other experience). I referred him to the Anonymous Debrief document that we shared during the Grapple One Institute, and he tried it at his next PLC meeting. After reviewing the responses, he e-mailed them to me.
The results were as I predicted. Teachers in the PLC suddenly felt comfortable being very candid about how they thought the PLC meetings were going, both generally and specifically. Teachers that had some degree of frustration with the meetings were able to say so and explain why. They mentioned things like meetings not starting on time, some members of the PLC not doing the necessary work between meetings, and individual members dominating the discussions without Mr. Bell acknowledging or addressing it. The information Mr. Bell gleaned from these responses helped him do a better job as a facilitator and gave him a clear sense of where his PLC members were in their thinking. At the beginning of the next PLC meeting, Mr. Bell shared with his team the highlights of the Anonymous Debrief responses and led his team in a very useful and very open discussion about how things could be better. It was apparent that no teacher on the team was giving up on PLCs but rather that some changes would help encourage more contributions from members and promote deeper discussions.
When Mr. Bell contacted me a second time telling me how much better things were, I reminded him that his recent experience was what a growth spurt looks like in an authentic PLC. I assured him that his PLC just got stronger from having experienced it.
Daniel R. Venables is an education consultant for the Center for Authentic PLCs and the author of The Practice of Authentic PLCs: A Guide to Effective Teacher Teams (Corwin, 2011), How Teachers Can Turn Data into Action (ASCD, 2014), and Facilitating Authentic PLCs: The Human Side of Leading Teacher Teams (ASCD, forthcoming in 2016). He can be reached at email@example.com.