I came to Virtual Arkansas in July 2018. We are a blended online virtual program that is the state of Arkansas’ Public Education option for offering courses that Public Education schools may not be able to offer themselves due to regional, economic or school size challenges. We eliminate the issue of availability and provide equitable access for students to take courses that otherwise they may not have had.
When I began my position as Director of Curriculum and Instruction, one of my responsibilities was to oversee the PLC process. Coming from what my Virtual Arkansas colleagues call a “Brick and Mortar” situation, I had lots of questions on how PLCs could be effective in a virtual platform. What I soon learned was, not only was it possible through Zoom, but Virtual Arkansas had already done so much work to lay the groundwork for PLCs. They had the structures in place and it was an embedded belief that to do the work of Virtual Arkansas, PLCs were a living part of the culture of continuous improvement.
It is without a doubt I took on a solid PLC process. As most Lead Learners would agree, when coming into an organization that has solid practices, it is best to observe and learn before making changes. So I watched, and I learned FROM my teachers and learned WITH them.
During this same time, I had the privilege of attending Solution Tree’s “PLC Works” with one of my campus directors and a teacher leader from our concurrent team, CTE (Career and Technology Education) team and Core (core subject content) team. These training sessions are ongoing and began in September and will finish in March. During the training in November, we had to identify our current reality between our culture and our collaboration. One area that had come apparent to me in the meetings was that the PLCs were working well on the surface, but true transparency and trust were areas that needed attention. Before I could ask my teachers to openly talk about their own effectiveness of their instruction, share student performance data, determine alignment between curriculum and assessment, and find ways to raise the Depth of Knowledge within student discussions and activities, I had to determine where my teachers were as a team with trust and transparency.
I realized that I needed to design an opportunity for this dialogue to occur. I established a plan for that dialogue that I ended up calling “Quality Check PLC Meetings.”
Before each team came to the meeting they were asked to assess where they felt their team fell on the “Tuckman’s Curve” through an anonymous Google Form. On this same form, I asked for each individual to reflect on the norms their team had determined by consensus in early September and reflect on questions regarding the health of their PLC.
The questions to determine PLC health are listed in the following image.
During the Quality Check, I first had them read the text “Do We Have Team Norms or ‘Nice to Knows’?” using the Making Meaning Protocol (Adapted for Use with a Text).
Teams evaluated their current norms, what they have done when norms have been breached and how do they plan to address norm “derailment” in the future to ensure they continue to work toward being performing teams. At the end of the text rendering, I posed the question, “Implication for our Work: How might this particular text influence your work as a PLC?”
I then shared a plotted image of the Tuckman’s curve where I had gathered information from the form that each individual filled out before the “Quality Check PLC” and shared how the team “rated” in regards to forming-storming-norming-performing. At that point, there was a discussion that I stepped back and allowed for free flow. Finally, I asked for each member to reflect by responding to two final questions after taking a period of time to think and then email myself and their campus director. Those two questions can be found on the shared sample google slide show I used to structure the Zoom “Quality Check PLC.”
From that point I responded to over 70 emails where teachers had reflected and responded to the questions:
- What can we do as a PLC moving forward?
- What can YOU do to keep your PLC performing where you continue to move toward a high impact and highly effective team?
What I have learned from this “Quality Check” process.
- None of the teams had a plan in place if there was a norm “breech.” Furthermore, there are not a lot of resources to “coach” teams that are struggling with norm “derailment” or how to establish a protocol to address when a breach occurs.
- Some teams define performing as “everyone” gets along. That has tasked me with the work of identifying complacency and helping our teams gain an understanding that PLCs are about challenging the current status quo and pushing our thinking to improve student learning and instruction. As Eric Thomas states, “To get to that next level, you gotta learn to get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
- Relationships. Relationships. Relationships. If the PLC teams in my organization are going to be successful they have to have profound respect and appreciation for one another. At one time in my educational journey, I went to a training on PLCs the presenter said emphatically that PLCs can work without one having to like/get along with the others on the team. I held on to that statement for too long, often blaming myself when a team didn’t work well together, believing that as long as we focused on the work the “feelings” on the team should not matter. However, we never performed as well as teams that truly cared for and respected one another. If I could go back, I would have focused on building the relationships on my team first, because if I had done that, in the long run, the work would have been more focused and more productive. Because of a lesson I learned a little too late for teams from my past, I have coached all my teams to make space in their agenda and in their everyday practices (email, text, messaging, etc.) to connect and build/maintain community within their teams. Never take for granted the importance of team culture!
At first, I wasn’t sure this process was a good idea. I did have push back and sometimes the email responses were filled with issues and unhappiness. I poured into these situations with a positive solution-oriented response and with more questions from me asking for suggestions from the teachers I responded to on how we can move forward: as individuals, for their team, and as an entire organization. I also leaned on my administration team during this time expressing the mental fatigue that unexpectedly impacted me and vulnerably shared my struggles. This in turn built up our administration team, too.
In the weeks that followed with some of my Lead Learners (designated the “team lead”), there was purposeful time invested in them to encourage them, especially when teams started asking the hard questions and truly storming. It was uncomfortable, messy, and for my Lead Learners hurtful. They saw this storming as a failure on their part. We worked through that and helped them to see that storming, as long as it is honest, open and moves forward authentically, is a catalyst for growth.
This also caused me to reflect and add some changes to the Leadership PLC that I have with my Lead Learners. I chose to be more vulnerable AND added a section that focuses solely on PLC growth which allows for us to discuss ways we can continue to grow the community and overall health of our PLC teams. In just a few short weeks this change has made an incredible impact.
I will say now, that this was a process worth doing, and I will do it again. Not only do we need to progress monitor our students and their growth, but we need to progress monitor the health, and growth of our PLCs. The work of the PLC, when done well, is the greatest work we can do for students. It is where we build collective efficacy (1.57 effect size) and teacher clarity (.75 effect size), two highly impactful influences on effect size in regards to student achievement, according to John Hattie.
Baron, Daniel. “The Making Meaning Protocol: Adapted for Use with a Text.” www.schoolreforminitiative.org, School Reform Initiative, 16 Nov. 2016, schoolreforminitiative.org/doc/making_meaning.pdf.
“‘Tuckman’s Team Development Model.’” Tuckman’s Team Development Model, University of Glasgow, http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_358180_en.pdf.
Waack, S, and J Hattie. “Hattie Effect Size List – 256 Influences Related To Achievement .” VISIBLE LEARNING, Visible Learning, 28 Mar. 2018, visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/.
Williams, Kenneth C. “All Things PLC: Do We Have Team Norms or ‘Nice to Knows?”.” About PLCs | All Things PLC | Powered by Solution Tree, Solution Tree, 25 Oct. 2010, http://www.allthingsplc.info/blog/view/90/do-we-have-team-norms-or-nice-to-knows.