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Reinvigorating PLCs: Lessons learned from a bad gig

Not where you want to be?

It should have been a great evening, but it wasn’t. I was playing music with people I enjoy and care about, but I would have rather have been almost anywhere else. Music should be about creating something and enjoying a shared experience. In this setting, however, we were background noise filling the space between DJs. It was no one‘s fault, but going through the motions to simply provide ambiance was exhausting.

The same thing can happen when teachers attend planning meetings each week.

Most teachers or administrators have had this experience: You have the right people in the room. They are passionate about what they do. They spend their free time online looking for new ideas, their evenings discussing school at the dinner table, and their nights dreaming about their students. When a team member is sick, the others help pull together materials and help with plans for the substitute. They go to weddings and funerals, decorate for baby showers and wedding showers, and take time to check in on one another.

Yet when they sit down across from each other to plan and reflect on what we know they love, that passion often dissipates. The teachers who walked in laughing and asking about each other’s families are suddenly quiet.

The good news? You can transform lethargy into motivation when you reinvigorate your team, harness your passions, and find something that excites you.

Reinvigorate your team

Soon after that gig, the band booked a show at a large venue to raise money for a backpacks program that provides food for thousands of students each year. That gave the band a purpose for our practice. We dedicated our time to learning a couple of new songs as well as working out new arrangements and harmonies for tunes already in our repertoire. In the safety of my basement, we tried new things, made short recordings and listened back to them, and were honest about what was working and what was not. By the time we stepped through the curtain on the night of the show, we were excited, prepared, and proud of what we were about to do.

The same is true for meetings. There is a natural ebb and flow to life and we should expect down times, but when our time together is consistently uninspiring, we lose motivation and progress stops. Teams of teachers need positive experiences to reinvigorate professional learning communities even more than I needed a fresh start with my music.

To start, refocus the team on the purpose for meeting: improving learning for the students we love. Create new learning by focusing on a new skill or topic or by taking a new approach with an existing lesson or unit. Find safe ways to rehearse new techniques and strategies that change your thinking and practice.

Harness the power of your passions

As a drummer and singer, it takes the same skill, energy, and focus to play top 40 hits that it does to play the original music that motivated me to join the band in the first place. The difference is that my passion for original music excites the audience and their energy comes back to me and leaves everyone feeling that we have experienced something special.

As educators, our passion is for working with students. We are proud of the impact we have on students’ lives and want to be “that teacher” for each student who crosses our path.  We can use our time together to harness the power of our passion and create experiences that excite our passions.

Going through the motions of a meeting can be exhausting and even counterproductive, sapping our energy and dulling our passion. Once the purpose for meeting is clear, take advantage of teachers’ love of teaching. Create time to share innovative approaches and experiments, questions and problems that are coming up in class, and anecdotes about their students. Measure impact in ways that acknowledge the growth of students and help teachers to realize that they have the power to address those tough situations when they get back to class.

Your passion for learning will excite your colleagues and their energy will come back to you, leaving everyone feeling that they have experienced something special.

Find something that excites you

The practice I’m most excited about right now is micro-teaching. In micro-teaching, we take a video clip of a specific teaching practice happening in the context of the classroom or in a smaller group. We watch together and we are not just thinking about instruction in the abstract, we are seeing it happen with kids we care about. We analyze what we see and hear and describe the strengths in what our colleagues and our students are doing and learning.

Next, the teacher featured in the video takes time to reflect and share how she can improve. Finally, we “try it on” together. Taking turns in the roles of teacher, student, and observer, we practice, work things out, and improve on what we’ve already learned to do. Check out Leading Impact Teams for a clear description of how to incorporate micro-teaching (and eight equally powerful protocols) into your PLC.

The experience is real and in the moment, yet supported by the people we work with every day. It’s easy to draw the connection from what we do in this type of session to what we do in the classroom. The thinking and actions are the same, but we are practicing in a low-risk, high-support environment.

If you’ve ever been sitting in a meeting wondering what you were doing there or thinking about the dozen other things you need to do, make it your goal to reinvigorate your PLC. Find ways to incorporate teaching methods and practice into your discussions of students and lessons. Consider micro-teaching as your next step.

Whatever you do, celebrate the skills and expertise of your team and find ways to plan and reflect that leave you looking forward to the next time you can get together with your colleagues to share and learn. Then you can play the same top-40 hits with the same old guys — but with new energy and a fresh purpose.

Isaac Wells

Isaac Wells is an instructional coach for Henderson County Public Schools in grades K-5. He has taught Kindergarten, 2nd, 4th and 5th grade over ten years in Transylvania and Henderson counties. He has a passion for working with learners of all ages and is currently enjoying working with and learning from educators throughout NC as a Hope Street Group Fellow, a Master Literacy Trainer, and a writer for the Tools for Teachers MSP grant. A partner consultant with the Core Collaborative, Wells partners with educators across the country to bring student-centered learning and assessment into all types of classrooms. Wells has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Elementary Education from Elon University and is a National Board Certified Middle Childhood Generalist.