"How can we help grow our teacher leaders?" is one the very best questions that school leaders can ask of themselves (and me!) The power of a teacher-led professional learning community is that it is teacher-led, not admin-led, coach-led, or no-led.
Facilitating teacher teams is absolutely a leadership skill that can be (and needs to be) cultivated and grown. For authentic collective efficacy to develop in our teams, the members of the team must feel they are the owners of the brainstorming and decision-making conversations.
And while we can all nod our heads in agreement to these aforementioned statements, the truth of the matter is: It's really hard to lead a group of our peers. As a teacher leader, facilitating cyclical conversations, week-after-week requires us to anticipate both the fluid and ragged moments between teammates. Often, we can feel lost in where to take a conversation, lost in how to recover after a particularly harsh statement or vulnerable admittance from a colleague, or lost in general with what the heck we're trying to accomplish in the conversation.
In order to support our teacher leaders in their facilitation of PLCs, incorporate these five practices within your building or district.
Practice #1: Establish a Leadership Team (for your PLC leaders)
Ah ha! There it is--the clear distinction I am talking about: this leadership team is made up of your PLC leaders, and when you meet, you talk about...you guessed it: the progress and health of your PLCs.
Nearly every building principal has created something withing their building that they call a leadership team. This may currently be your SIP (School Improvement Plan) Team, your grade level chair leadership team, your department head leaders, or interdisciplinary team leaders. At a district level, this may be viewed as curriculum leadership teams, guiding PLC coalition team members, or some other name for teacher leaders.
Because there may be other existing names for teacher leader teams within your building or within your district--words matter. If you want to intentionally grow your PLC leaders and their abilities to grow their own facilitation skills in these kinds of meetings, you need a monthly PLC specific leadership check-in. And, the beauty is: your job, building leader, is to hold the time and the space. Eventually, your leaders can be the ones who set the topics, set the agendas, bring items to share. this does not have to be another major meeting that you plan. You simply need to hold the time and hold the space.
Practice #2: Utilize the Power of Social Influence
One of the easiest, simplest, most immediate (and totally free) ways that you can help your teacher leaders improve their facilitation skills is to hold PLC meetings in one common space, at one common time, for your entire building.
There is a synergy--an movement--a "we can all do this!" type of collective feeling that develops when buildings meet together in one space to host their PLCs.
For some teachers and leaders, this idea sounds radically insane--almost unthinkable, unimaginable. Perhaps you are someone who participated in PLCs in a previous school--and you were used to the structure of meeting in someone's classroom--and maybe when it was convenient for you, or during your common prep time. You were used to projecting items up on your overhead screen, or grabbing classroom materials to look through. And so, this idea of bringing all of the teams together in one space feels weird, unnecessary, and maybe a bit loud and overbearing.
If you're feeling this way, you aren't alone, and I'm about to offer some different perspectives on the power of social influence in supporting our teams.
Rich, complex, student-centered and data-driven conversations can be challenging. For many of us, they are also uncomfortable. Saying the true things, when they are hard things, can prove nearly impossible. As teachers, we are an overly polite bunch of humans, and we tend to love the people we work with. We love them so much, we'd rather avoid
a tough conversation of truth than potentially hurt a colleagues' feelings.
It is easier to avoid the tough team conversations if we are separated around the building, sequestered in our rooms, than if we see that everyone on our staff is gathered together, attempting to have the same tough conversations that we are.
As a building leader, you actually provide your teacher leaders with more support and follow-through by holding PLCs in one common space, at one common time. You signal, "Here is our school expectations for these conversations" and that alone takes some of the muscle of facilitation off the shoulders of your leaders. It's just clearer--to everyone--what type of conversations they're supposed to have.
There's a reason we see the benefit of bringing our families together to eat around a table rather than always eating on our own, or around the house in various spaces. There's a shared "us-ness" that can develop when we sit around spaces together. And, social-distancing notwithstanding, I would argue there's a stronger sense of urgency and co-development that occurs when we sit around a table, vs. spread out around a classroom.
Practice #3: Pause and Hold
One of my absolute favorite podcasts is We Can Do Hard Things, hosted by Glennon Doyle, Abby Wambach, and Amanda Doyle. On a recent episode entitled, "Life Hacks: Strategies to Suffer Less," a pod-squader called in to share what I'll call The Power of the Pause. She suggested that listeners take a pause after making requests, posing questions, and/or setting a boundary.
As my best friends and I listen to this podcast without fail, every single week, I immediately texted the group and said, "Oh my gosh! I talk about this all the time with my teams and in coaching! There is so much power in holding space and using the power of the pause."
Podcast connection aside, here is what I mean by using the power of the pause in a PLC meeting. In any good learning experience, there will come a time when the brains in the room need a moment to stop, process, and think before proceeding with action or response. I would argue that we are not holding enough space in our classrooms for pausing and processing, and I would also argue we may not be holding enough space for pausing and processing in our PLCs, either.
One of the simplest, most direct ways a teacher leader can improve their facilitation skills is to simply plan for and allow the pause moments to occur. Ask a question--then sit with the silence. Prompt your team--then allow them time and space to jot down some ideas, mull over your words, consider multiple options.
When looking at data, in particular, we need to utilize the power of the pause and hold space for observing the data before jumping straight in to analysis. We need time to hold multiple options, to consider various perspectives, to ponder.
Really great facilitators choose their words carefully, and they get comfortable with the power of the pause. Shoot--some of my best PLC leaders would even use the signal phrase, "Let's pause here for a moment" to signal the team needed to excavate more ideas.
Administrators can model this skill in their own facilitation (of PLC leadership teams) and they can also help to point out when leaders are providing enough pause space for their teammates.
Thinking time is not wasted time; it is reinvested.
Practice #4: Use a 3rd Point
We know that visuals are a powerful learning tool in our classrooms, but why do we so easily forget they are powerful learning tools with our PLCs, too? A visual provides a 3rd point--something between you and between me--that we can collectively focus on together. During a brainstorming and planning meeting, it's helpful to focus our collective attention on a common item--so that we can process it together. We co-create an understanding by co-analyzing a 3rd point. Some useful PLC-related 3rd points may include:
A commonly shared PLC agenda
Data collection sheets or tools
Links to state standards
A PLC Toolkit of strategies
Another way I'd encourage leaders to use 3rd points is to actually use materials that engage all teammates. For example, use sticky notes or notecards to brainstorm or share strategies. Add a table to your agenda, and ask everyone to edit/add ideas during the meeting. Bring pieces of chart paper or butcher paper, break into smaller teams to list ideas or strategies.
Often, PLC leaders will ask me, "What do I do when my teammates won't share?" My response is almost always: Don't allow them to opt out. Use TPTs (Total Participation Techniques) the way you would in your classroom. Draw them in by asking everyone to write down their ideas. Facilitate the conversation by finding new ways to hear from all voices (even if the voices are written down first).
Practice #5: Reflect on Your Facilitation
A really important attribute of all skilled leaders is their ability to self-reflect and on their performance and effectiveness as a leader. So often, PLC leaders and school administrators alike as the question: What qualities make a skilled PLC leaders? What I have found to be true over the years is that the strongest, most effective PLC leaders are the ones who can listen and lead through facilitation. These are leaders who ask great questions, prompt with thoughtful responses, hold space for curiosity and pondering, and summarize back to the team what they believe they are hearing. In many, many ways, when I support an admin team--I operate as their facilitator, and I try to model the "look fors in PLC leaders" as best as I can.
I'm not someone who was born with a natural strength at listening. It is most definitely a skill I have worked to develop--and I venture to guess I'll always work on refining my facilitation skills. I'll never just feel super natural at it. And I think perhaps because facilitation is truly a skill--it's a muscle we can stretch and develop, and this is really good news. This means we can all strengthen these skills (and nothing is "wrong with us" if we do need to work at it).
One of my favorite self-assessment tools is this Responsive Facilitation Protocol list shared by National School Reform Faculty. To help teams, I gathered the research and items, and formatted it in a self-check format. Feel free to download your own copy of the Responsive Facilitator Reflection Protocol to use with your team.
Regardless of where you are with your leadership experience, you can always grow as a reflective, purposeful facilitator. There's a difference between leading and managing, and ultimately you're wanting to guide, facilitate, and lead.
If you're wanting to explore more supports for developing your own leadership skills or your teachers' PLC development, consider our resource, PLC Leadership 101 as a synchronous way to develop your skills. You may also choose to explore our free Strengthening Our PLCs course (30 minute session) with your leadership team. Use the tool to reflect on which practices are supporting (or hindering) your leaders and make your action steps for improvements.