The best instructors expect students to participate in small-group activities. We intentionally teach effective collaboration strategies, provide structures to assist in student discussion, and even score students on their ability to engage and produce work with their peers. According to a 2017 study published by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, “Ability to work in a team” was the second most sought-after skill employers look for on resumes. This is in line with the first Speaking and Listening College and Career Readiness Standard, “Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.”
What is surprising is how many of us struggle when it comes to the effective collegial collaboration. In my teacher-education program 15 years ago, although we were sometimes assigned group activities, we were never explicitly taught how to effectively work with others. Since then, I have come to realize what other experienced educators know: assigning a task and teaching a skill are not the same thing.
Because policy makers are increasingly realizing the importance of collaboration in the education field, many districts, including my own, have officially inserted designated time for professional learning communities (PLCs) to meet in the contracted workweek.
As chair of our high school’s English department, I worked closely with my building principals over the past few years to support productive PLC time. Through this endeavor, I have found it most helpful to consider how I facilitate effective collaboration for my own students.
Most of us are aware of the importance of setting basic expectations. When our district first implemented weekly PLC time, “Learning Improvement Fridays,” about five years ago, they provided us with norms for collaboration. However, it quickly became clear that these sanctioned, generic norms did not meet the needs of our 12-person department. Vague language combined with an absence of personal connection contributed to the lack of buy in. With my principal’s permission, I facilitated an open-discussion forum wherein my English colleagues and I brainstormed and selected norms more personalized to our department’s values and needs. I published these norms on all our PLC-notetaking forms and displayed them on the projector screen in our meeting room. Every so often, I asked the team whether the norms still worked or whether we should edit them. My colleagues always shrugged and said they were fine.
Why were my colleagues not adhering to our department’s ground rules?
Except, they were not fine. The two years we stuck with those original norms, our PLC teams struggled with several issues. These included overt disrespectful comments and arguing, team members showing up to collaboration time unprepared, and people not following through with agreements. Why were my colleagues not adhering to our department’s ground rules?
In reflection, the deficiencies were obvious. As our department norms were decided upon in a whole-group discussion, the loudest voices made the decisions. Also, because it was the first time we had an official system and calendar for PLC meetings, we did not yet know our needs. This combination led to teachers’ apathy toward the agreements.
Equitabally Co-Creating Norms
Mirroring best classroom practices, I began this school year’s first PLC meeting by asking each English teacher to independently reflect upon the last year or two and to list the three top obstacles hindering effective collaboration. I collected their swaths of paper to prepare a list of the most-identified issues to share with the department the following week. At our next meeting, we discussed the results and quickly came up with five new norms that addressed the recorded concerns. I now post these in our department digital notebook and on the meeting-room projector screen. While we still have some collaboration hiccups, the more fair-minded and thoughtfully created norms make a noticeable difference.
Getting Off On the Right Foot
In our collaboration, I also noticed how important it is to set a positive tone for our work sessions. Just as we intentionally greet students at the door and decorate and organize our classrooms to ensure a welcoming, safe environment, it is important to do the same for our colleagues.I always try to provide tantalizing treats for my department. My coworkers comment on what a burden this must be, but I think the payoff is more than worth it. Not only do I create a congenial environment by greeting my peers with yummy foodstuffs and by personally greeting each as they arrive, I also win their loyalty. Whenever I ask for volunteers for a project, such as helping with an after-school SAT prep session or stuffing envelopes for my parent outreach project, my co-teachers happily oblige.
Finding Systems That Work
Similarly, just as we provide engaging entry tasks and anticipatory sets as we begin a lesson or new unit, it is important to engage teams in an activity that establishes an encouraging mindset. My principal began the ritual of asking each teacher to take a minute to share something positive with the rest of the group. While this sharing activity served the purpose of guiding team members to an optimistic and good-humored attitude, it also was time consuming. Some teachers complained because they felt it cut into our valuable work time. I reworked our PLC entry tasks so that now, when each team member arrives, he or she grabs a school emblem-emblazoned postcard (and a treat) and writes a quick note to a deserving student. This way, nobody has to wait around for latecomers, and we are fulfilling our school goal of personally connecting with students and families. The activity takes just a few minutes, and my only job is to drop the postcards in the “needs postage” box on my way out of the building. Of course as I pass through the office, I always take a minute to read my colleagues’ kind comments to their students. They are compassionate, witty, and selfless. It baffles me how any of us ever struggled in collaboration with one another!
Reflect on the purpose, personalities, and challenges in your own PLC team. What manageable strategies can you implement to improve productivity and accomplish the essential goal of supporting student success?
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