Friday, March 9, 2012

A Functional PLC

This morning I read a post about dysfunctional PLC's. It was posted and promoted heavily on Twitter by the author Joe Bower and several other well followed individuals.

It bothered me for several reasons. First, it seemed as though Joe was not writing from his own experience, but was basing his dysfunctional analysis on the hearsay of teachers he knows.  As he says,
"I have always been fortunate enough to be a part of a team where we respected each other enough to know that our instructional and assessment practices would differ based on our individual students' needs."
The rest of his post is about "some PLC's" and then goes on to include what he sees as the problems with those dysfunctional groups.  Unfortunately, a lot of what he saw as dysfunction my PLC views as our strengths.

Joe says, "Some PLCs meet for no other reason than to arrive at a "consensus" for how all the teachers will instruct and assess their students." That is exactly right.  Our 9th grade English team meets twice a week to check in with each other. We co-created all of our units based on the Common Core standards and we worked together to do it. We did use consensus and in the best sense of the word. We did not vote and impose the majority on the minority; we built a curriculum we could all agree on and if someone objected to something we took that veto seriously and worked it out.

We do not advocate what Joe objects to as a "one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning".  Our team came together because we were detracking our classes. We realized that we would need to support each other to be able to provide a differentiated curriculum to all of our students.  Our PLC time together is often spent creating materials that will work for our various levels of students, brainstorming ways to provide additional support for students who are struggling and looking at student work to consider our next steps.

Joe asserts that part of the rationale for PLC's is to "decrease the likelihood that a student or parent might complain about one teacher or favor another" but he says that is a farce because of course teachers are different.  He is right we are different, but we can all deliver a quality education to our students especially when we are working together. Some members of our team are literacy experts, others are really good at creating student materials quickly and I represent the ed tech strength. In isolation our differences would be maximized. Together we balance each other out and collectively improve the education students are getting in all of our classrooms.

Joe says, "There's a lot wrong with a PLC that standardizes teaching and learning," I really don't think so.  I see why he objects to teacher groups that vote on curriculum and impose the result on everyone. I don't think there is anything wrong with all teachers agreeing to use a common curriculum and supporting each other to do so.

Joe's post about dysfunctional PLC's leaves the reader with the impression that a PLC can become a very bad thing all too quickly.  There are groups who behave as he described, but they aren't PLC's and I am saddened that the term is now associated with dysfunction in the minds of many who might be just beginning to think about collaborating with their colleagues.

A group that isn't working well together needs to know more about examples of groups that do work well together.  Joe says. "I have had the opportunity to be a part of a work environment filled with professionals who were committed to help[ing] children."  The people in "some PLC's" who are not working functionally, or who attempt to impose a common curriculum without true consensus, are not less committed to helping children then those of us who have been able to build constructive PLC's. 

Our team meets twice a week, much more than the site requirement of every two weeks. We share a folder in Dropbox where we organize all of our materials by unit. (More on how we use Dropbox.) We communicate daily in email threads about a rather amazing array of subjects. I should add that I'm not the leader of this group. In fact, I was the last to join and the only one who has not taught 9th grade before. I would joke that I am the weakest link, but someone in the group would object and mention my contribution to technology integration in our units.  Without this team I would have worked way more hours this year preparing curriculum and second guessed myself much more frequently.
9th Grade Team 2011-2012

With this team I go to more meetings, but spend far less time creating curriculum while simultaneously delivering higher quality instruction to my students. With this team I look at my students work differently. Together we are a Professional Learning Community and we function quite well, thank you very much.

P.S. I could go on just as long about all the ways our team has been good for all of our students from the gifted to the struggling and every single child in between.

PSS. I'd also like to add that I have great respect for the way Joe Bower is questioning things about traditional education. We have a lot we need to look at. But, there is a great deal of good that happens when teachers honestly come together to support each other in teaching all students.