One of the things that I’ve become really aware of lately is how much time is wasted in schools on things that really don’t have a big enough impact on kids to make them worthwhile. Some examples of things that I think take up a TON of time and don’t have a huge return on the investment:
- Staff meetings where we review things that are already written down somewhere
- Elaborate newsletters and parents notes that barely get read by parents because they’re so overwhelming and generally TMI
- Professional development where there is no expectation of anyone doing anything once they’ve attended
- Most emails from anyone about anything
- Parent conferences where we tell every parents the same thing…but just meet with them individually because it makes us feel like we’re doing something
But the one time-waster that I hear about 97.13341329480981234% of folks talking about and referring to? PLCs.
For those of you who have somehow escaped the hype, PLC refers to Professional Learning Community. When I ask what a PLC does, things start to get murky.
Here’s what I’ve heard:
- PLCs are the place where we talk about student data (My thought: So then why do you have PLCs AND data meetings? Aren’t they the same thing?)
- PLCs are the place where we don’t name kids by name (My thought: So then what on earth do you say? “Student X, who shall remain nameless, needs intervention for something that we can’t talk about.”????)
- PLCs are different from staff meetings, professional development and team or department meetings (My thought: Then why can’t anyone explain to me HOW they’re different? Or better yet…why they’re different?)
- PLCs require a lot of training (My thought: I talk to hundreds of folks who have been to PLC training for days in another state and come back and can’t answer the on-the-ground who/what/when/where/why/how questions about it.)
- PLCs are not for lesson planning (My thought: If perfecting lesson planning is a major way to improve the quality of our instruction, then why on earth would be meet not talk about lesson planning and lesson results? Or better yet DO THE WORK that prepares us to teach well?
- PLCs are the safe place where teachers can come together and talk about new ideas and try new things (My thought: I’m all for this! But I think know that trust is built while we do the work and by talking about the work, we aren’t doing the work, so how do we build a safe place for teachers to try things when we don’t get around to doing those things
I could go on and on, but I won’t. Because I’m starting to sound like I hate PLCs. I don’t. I mean, I might hate them…if I knew what they were!
Here’s the real deal: I think PLCs are the new name for something we’ve wanted teachers to do for a long time: work together to make the job of teaching kids do-able and spend a lot of time putting their heads together to think of logical ways to teach kids things so they learn them and retain them and do really well on assessments that show what they know and in life in general.
But I think that title is a little too long? We could do what us educators do really well: give it an acronym! WTTMTJOTKDASALOTPTHTTTOLWTTKTSTLTARTADRWOATSWTKAILIG.
If all we wanted teachers to do is WTTMTJOTKDASALOTPTHTTTOLWTTKTSTLTARTADRWOATSWTKAILIG (I’m laughing just typing that!), then why do we make it so fussy and difficult! And even more importantly, why don’t the people who have to do PLCs each week know what a PLC is and what it should look like when it’s running well?
I have added PLCs to my list of things that are huge time wasters on school campuses because I don’t see that we have consensus about what they are and why we do them. Anything that doesn’t have purpose and an outcome or something to go and do because of the meeting is a huge waste of time, in my experience. I think it’s easy to say “we are doing PLCs” or “we are having our PLC” but what I’d really love to hear is “I can’t WAIT until our PLC where we can discuss ____________________________” or “My PLC isn’t going to BELIEVE how my kids knocked that last quiz out of the part because I changed my lesson in X way.”
But I don’t hear that.
I think that PLCs have an identity problem that’s leading to a lack of meaning. And an identity problem can lead people to wonder, “Okay…but…what’s the POINT?”
I kind of wonder that when I’m thinking about how our clients and other educators I run into use PLCs. I guess that’s the real question: What are we using PLCs for? To talk about kids? To talk about teaching? To talk about school climate? To talk about assessments?
I guess what I would love to see happen every single day in schools is this:
Teachers getting together for WTTMTJOTKDASALOTPTHTTTOLWTTKTSTLTARTADRWOATSWTKAILIG…remember that good, ol’ fashioned, simple acronym I shared above?
What does WTTMTJOTKDASALOTPTHTTTOLWTTKTSTLTARTADRWOATSWTKAILIG look like?
- Teachers meet to talk about kids
- Teachers look at data to be able to talk about kids
- Teachers spend some time talking about how recent professional development will help them solve problems or concerns about data
- Teachers spend time talking about how implementing the stuff they learned from professional development should have impact on their kids
- Teachers spend time sketching out how they will do the thing from professional development with their kids
- Teachers set a time limit to try the new thing they’ll do to solve problems or concerns about the data
- Teachers pick a time to come back and bring their data a check-up on how it went
Why do I think that this plan works?
- Because it’s focused on the thing that we have control over (what the kids do, what we do)
- Because it’s focused on doing things, not just talking about them
- Because it’s an honest plan (we use the data, not just how we feel about things, to determine what we need to work on and what’s worked
- Because it focuses on the thing that is most important on school campuses (the quality of the teaching)
- Because it takes the magnitude of making changes in the classroom less dramatic (we talk more like, “Let’s try this thing for two weeks and come back and report how it went.” Nothing’s permanent unless it’s working and we make it permanent)
- Because it’s built upon the idea that teaching is flexible…it’s experimental to a certain degree
- Because it puts the control in teachers’ hands
I mean it’s not really about PLCs…it’s about thoughtful use of time we have with colleagues. If time is so limited (in fact, it is the #1 thing that teachers tell me about what makes their jobs challenging), then I think we have to be especially choosy about how we spend the time we do have. I think that the practice of collaboration (PLCs or otherwise!) is a great place to start analyzing.
I’d like to encourage you to start by asking your teammates this question…
QUESTION OF THE DAY: Are we talking about the right things during our meetings or are we just talking about things?
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like to waste time, then you’ll appreciate this!
I suffer from good-idea-itis. I have trouble sorting out the good ideas from the good ideas that are right for my organization. Can you relate? When we work with schools, we see a bunch of hugely motivated people often working on the wrong thing. Or at least the wrong thing for them. I find that this is a great time to stop and take stock so we don’t spin our wheels all year long and wonder how on earth it happened!
Here are my most helpful “taking stock” questions:
Question 1: What are you willing to “go big” on?
What is it that is so important, instructionally, that if every teacher improved it just a little bit would make a huge impact on student achievement?
Question 2: What will you have to do to “go big” on that thing?
- What will the people need to do?
- What will you need to do?
- What will your leadership team have to do?
- How will teacher teams need to work on this?
- What materials do you have to get this done?
Question 3: What good ideas will you have to leave behind?
Good ideas WILL need to be left on the table to make room for the really great, important ones. What are good ideas that you don’t want to give up, but need to, so that you can move forward on the excellent stuff?
Here’s an example of what that might look like in real life!
Question 1: What are you willing to “go big” on?
We are willing to go big on using instructional aides to teach important skills to the most struggling students during language arts instruction for 40 minutes daily instead of pulling students out to work outside of the classroom teacher’s control.
Question 2: What will you have to do to “go big” on that thing?
- We will have to look at the data to determine which grades need the most instructional time with aides right now
- We will have to adjust schedules in all grade levels
- We will have to stop using aides to cover classes or duties as needed – will need a permanent solutions to how they “fill in”
- We will have to find co-planning time with aides and classroom teachers
- We will have to train instructional aides on very specific techniques for intervening on the foundational skills with the lowest performers
- We will have to design routines for the aide entering the classroom and getting kids to the right spot so we don’t lose instructional time
- We will plan to reassess this plan every six weeks and make adjustments
Question 3: What good ideas will you have to leave behind?
- That our new program will solve every problem we currently have in bringing kids to benchmark in LA
- That lowering class size/group size is our #1 priority and will make the biggest difference
- That centers are the answer to grouping kids and providing targeted instruction
- That by isolating students outside of the classroom in small groups makes them focus even more than if they were peeled off within the classroom
If you found this post helpful, you’ll probably really find this and this helpful, too!
Question: What kind of teaching work do you do on the weekends?
Answer: Truth be told, I carried work home with me, set it by the front door and then never touched it until I picked it up early Monday morning to cart it back to school! Note: See #3 in this series for more on this!
If I did take something home to work on during the weekend, I made sure it was something that was creative and mindless…something I could do while I watched TV or chilled out on the coach. Maybe something that I wouldn’t normally take a ton of time on during the week like prepping an art project, looking online for ideas for an upcoming unit, sorting papers or cleaning up my files.
I just realized really quickly that a teacher who had worked all weekend was a crabbier teacher on Monday.
We need our breaks…and I take breaks pretty seriously!
Question: What do you do when you know a lesson is tanking?
Answer: Well, this happens to all of us for different reasons. Sometimes a lesson tanks because I haven’t prepped properly, sometimes because I thought they knew something that the needed to know and they really didn’t or…well…because it’s a full freaking moon! You know how that goes!
I have been given really good advice in my life that totally applies to a tanking lesson: When you’re in a hole, stop digging.
Yep. When I notice a lesson isn’t going well and my attempts to fix it are falling flat, I just say to the kids something like, “You know what? We’re having trouble here and we need to start over again.” And then I start over.
Usually the kids look at me like, “Yeah, it wasn’t really going well!” It’s not a mystery when a lesson is struggling!
I also thinks that hitting that ‘start over’ button is a really good model of resilience.
I am, admittedly, becoming an old lady who really is loving spending time thinking about things. I remember growing up hearing about people taking weeks and months and years to think about things in order to form their opinion or action on something. I thought that just sounded plain ol’ BORING. I mean…just sitting around thinking? Um…no thank you. I am all about action. (Ha!)
But I find myself more and more distressed and curious about how things are in education. How, in my opinion, we are just off and running on things that really don’t have anything to do with teaching.
If you’ve heard me talk at all, you know I take shots at trends in education that I really find ridiculous and downright demeaning to our profession. (You know, things like spending a preponderance of time and resources on flexible seating…) But one of the things that I am really thinking a lot about and doing some researching on is this concept of equity in education. It appears to the be the buzzword of the year and, in my opinion, has some veiled something underneath it…it’s a loaded term.
Today I decided to go to the good ol’ YouTube and search “equity in the classroom” and I watched this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiEKs01ZIho. It was the first one that popped up in my search, so I decided to watch it even though I don’t know the man in the video and I don’t know of his organization.
He starts off giving a pretty rambling definition of what equity is and I’m already suspect because if something can’t be easily explained then I think it’s a veil for something else. Confusion where we need clarity is dangerous, I’ve come to see. And I have encountered a ton of confusion and double-talking and rambling from the “experts” on the subject of equity. But I digress…
Here is his rough definition:
“The need to focus more directly not simply on equal opportunity. This is making sure kids have access to schools. Also, focusing outcomes and results. Most parent practice equity with their own kids by not treating them all the same. Schools should focus on outcomes.”
Um. Ok. Wait…what?
So, to use his analogy, if a parent has two children and one struggles to settle into bedtime and the other doesn’t, their nighttime routines might need to be different. The easy-to-bed child might need brushing teeth, a story, a kiss and a squeeze and goodnight…maybe a 15 minute process.
The hard-to-settle-into-bed might need a 30-45 minute routine that includes a timer set to keep things moving and a choice of pajama options and TV turned off 30 minutes before bedtime and laying out of the clothes for tomorrow and a full debrief of the day. The end result or the outcome, is the same: settling down and going to sleep in bed for the night.
Now let’s equate that to a 1st grade teacher: She has two students. One is highly performing and comes to her class with excellent skills in place. The other student doesn’t have quite the same skills and requires more practice. So, the teacher does some pre-teaching with the not-as-skilled student before teaching is so she’s primed the pump and given extra repetitions on the skills to boost up the student. When she teaches the new concept to the whole class, the skilled and not-so-skilled student both learn the concept, but the path to learning the concept has been a bit different.
Is this equity? Because it sounds an awful lot like differentiation. And haven’t we been doing this for a long time?
Why the need for the word “equity” and its rolling definition when we’re really describing something teachers have been doing for a long time?
I’m left wondering what’s REALLY going on here?
If you’re into things like clarity and simple messaging, then you’ll probably like this and this.
Today I am thinking about hard and soft skills in teaching and how I think we’re headed down a very slippery slope.
Let me explain…
I have done professional development and coaching of teachers (and their coaches and leaders) for a decade and a half. I have seen a lot. Correction: I have seen it ALL!
Most of my work is with some of the most struggling schools in each state in the U.S. The districts and schools come to me because they aren’t getting the results they want, despite a lot of energy and time spent on the job. Sometimes people are under-motivated, feeling the results of really bad leadership or they’re just not a good fit for the hard job of being a teacher.
But most of the time, they need help because they can’t pull themselves off of the trajectory toward failure. They need a lifeline or help or whatever you want to call it.
When I go to schools and I suggest that they try something (like simplifying their morning routine or sorting their kids for reading instruction), the first question they ask is: Okay, how do I do that?
That question right there (How do I do that?) is a question that begs for a HARD SKILL response. In other words, most teachers are asking to be taught a SKILL to help them improve their performance or that of their students. Hands down, teachers want to learn to do things. They don’t just want to talk about them, feel good about talking about them or ruminate on big ideas.
They want answers and solutions. They’re looking for hard skills that will help them get better results.
Here’s where the slippery slope comes in.
I speak at a lot of conferences and lately I’ve noticed a bunch of sessions (maybe half?) on the conference dockets are about what I would consider SOFT SKILLS. I see sessions on equity in the classroom, building resilient kids…or my latest favorite buzz word (gag!) student efficacy. First off (and I promise I won’t go off on a tangent about this!), I don’t even know what those words really mean. Or more specifically, these words mean things that encompass so many things that they don’t have much meaning at all!
Do I believe in building resilient kids? Of course I do!
Do I believe in equity in the classroom? Of course I do!
Do I believe in student efficacy (feeling like they can get the job done)? Of course I do!
But…I don’t believe that resiliency, equity and efficacy (soft skills) are won through soft skill work of the teacher. I think they’re won through the teacher’s hard skills…the hard skills that the teacher uses each day that ensures that kids master the most important content. (A few examples of hard skills off the top of my head: how to set up a flawless management system, how to redirect students off-task, how to lesson plan for a killer lesson, how to teach vocabulary so that students internalize the words, how to break down your student data and make smart decisions. You get the idea.)
So, I actually think we do a disservice to teachers by getting them pumped up about the soft skills stuff without arming them with the hard skills. After all, when the conference session is done or the professional development session is over, they are left with this: either they have the skill to do what they need to do tomorrow, or they don’t.
In my 15+ years of doing this work, I have never had a teacher ask me, “How do I build resiliency in my students?” or “How do I create a spirit of equity in my classroom?” Nope. The questions are much more practical and skill-focused. Teachers want to get BETTER at BEING great teachers…not just talking about being better teaches.
There is no amount of pump up, big picture vision or fancy worded conference session that is going to cover for a lack of skill.
Actually, let’s flip that: No pump up, big picture vision or fancy worded conference session can outshine a teacher with excellently honed hard teaching skills.
The sooner we admit that excellent teaching comes down to the teacher being really good at certain things, then the REAL party starts. Until then, we’re hunting and pecking for superficial fix-its.
And we are better than that.
P.S. If you liked the vibe of this, then you probably want to check this and this out.