Set the Intention to Hold the Tension
I had a planning/in-take meeting with a curriculum director yesterday. He's in his first year in the role, and prior to serving within this district he had experience as a state specialist and building level administrator. The intent of our meeting was to brainstorm possible supports for his current teams (who happen to be in their initial, roll-out year of professional learning communities/curriculum development). After a few minutes of updating me on the state of the union with his schools, we jointly quipped about how truly difficult this work is and how, as we've both found, if you're not ready to take this on as a district--it's best that you don't.
To be clear--he wasn't suggesting that his current district was unready; rather he recalled work he had started--but then had been stopped--by other districts who realized they weren't ready to dive in to the structure, accountability, and systems required for teams to truly thrive.
I've been thinking lately that professional learning communities, or PLCs as we often refer to them, honestly could be called TLCs--Team Learning Communities. I've also seen that some districts call them TLCs, but it standards for Teaching and Learning Communities. I like both of these because it brings a personal feel that's strong than the word "professional." With that being said, I also whole-heartedly advocate that we just call the team what it is--a PLC--when it is, in fact one.
Which leads me to an important distinction that I often need to make early on with my district teams: What's the difference between a general team and a PLC?
I suppose the simple answer is that a PLC is a type of educational team--one that is grounded in the analysis of data to drive problem-solving, question-asking, and decision-making. A PLC team is led by a teacher, not a coach, department head, or administrator, and it is the team who determines what next steps they will collectively take to improve instruction and learning for students. For a great, succinct definition of a PLC, I often point people to this short article by Richard Dufour, "What is a Professional Learning Community."
There are various other types of teams that are important and needed within a school setting, and some times depending on your school size or make-up, you may need interdisciplinary groups to serve as PLCs (rather than grade level teams in elementary or departmental teams in secondary).
You might have your leadership team, your MTSS team, your SIP team--and each of these is made up of various staff members helping you work towards various goals. At my previous district, Brownsburg High School (as well as the two middle schools) created grade level cohorts for students so that they cycle with a common counselor and assistant principal for their years within the buildings. We call those groups teams, and the adults in these teams work together to meet the needs of each unique student who is in their cohort.
Within districts, we have central office teams, principal teams, curriculum teams, equity and inclusion teams, SEL teams, special education, and more. The term team is broadly used across various groups of people, but there's one important commonality that must hold true for all: leaders of strong teams know to set the intention to hold the tension.
The term team is broadly used across various groups of people, but there's one important commonality that must hold true for all: leaders of strong teams know to set the intention to hold the tension.
Why do some district teams implement PLCs while others do not? One reason (though it's not the only reason) is that developing a culture of teamwork and collaboration requires people to have the ability to disagree with one another. Collaboration is real when we curiously question ideas as they are put forth. Collaboration is absent (or fake) when there is an illusion of curiosity and group decision-making--but in reality, the path has been pre-determined.
All teams have predictable group dynamics, and we often build in exercises for our teams to name these tensions early in their process. One step that is often overlooked is the power of leaders to anticipate these tensions--and then normalize them. We aren't trying to create shame-induced cultures; we are trying to normalize the fact that honest, curious, questioning is a core part of healthy teams and that is often a difficult culture for teams to create right away.
Healthy teams take time.
Authors Laura Lipton and Bruce Wellman provide helpful insights in their text Groups at Work. In addition to their work on group dynamics, we also encourage teams to start every year by developing norms. Each team has its own culture, so each team needs its own norms. To help facilitate the team to determining authentic norms that will help (not hurt), we encourage people to reflect on what helps them thrive vs. barely survive when they're in teams. Check out our simple Team Dynamics downloadable as a resource.
If you set aside the time for PLCs, if you ask your teams to collaborate on common curriculum conversations, if you show them data to reflect on--but never normalize the types of tension that will occur in healthy, collaborative conversations--the topics will remain surface level and stagnant. Without permission (or the intention) to have the tension, colleagues and teammates will often choose to avoid the perceived discomfort of questioning.
Another great resource I've found is The 8 Paradoxes of Great Leadership with Dr. Tim Elmore, a two-part podcast series from The Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast. Dr. Tim Elmore discusses the need for paradoxes and tensions of leaders, and how leaders need the paradox to be the strongest, most effective leaders possible.
Whether you're exploring your own paradoxes as a leader, or equipping your PLC leaders to do the same, there's power in collective permission and acknowledgement that great teams take work. They don't happen by accident, they don't just fall into our laps. Great leaders know how to cultivate the culture of open curiosity by giving permission--and often requiring--tension to occur.