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Avoiding Learning Team Burnout

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Why is it that the best ideas are sometimes the hardest to implement? Take professional learning communities as an example. The PLC concept is unquestionably terrific. With PLCs:

• teams of teachers work together to study, learn, and improve their teaching;

• student learning and achievement improves; and

• the school culture becomes supportive and collaborative.

As part of a new partnership, is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

This research-based practice is definitely the way to go. But in my experience as a professional learning-team consultant and trainer, many PLC attempts falter long before they come to fruition. Teachers sigh (some with relief), and another promising practice is tucked away in the back of the file drawer marked "Just Won't Work."

Here’s what generally happens. Most or all of your team members buy into the PLC idea at some level. Teams get off to a good start. Then the inevitable happens: The daily grind of the school year crashes in and team members are tugged back into comfortable and familiar ways of doing things. Enthusiasm and effort wane.

Sound familiar? It’s easier to fall back into old patterns than change instructional practices and build a new mental model of "how we do school." And that's a real shame, because the payoffs for students and teachers from a fully realized professional learning community are well-documented and well worth the effort.

In my own work with professional learning teams, the following strategies have helped team members keep up their enthusiasm and momentum over the long haul. They depend in part, as you will see, on the effective support of principals and other school leaders who believe in the value of PLCs and are knowledgeable about adult learning. They work best when teams begin with a clear sense of what they want to accomplish—whether it's learning more about a particular teaching strategy or rethinking a major component of the school curriculum (like literacy instruction).

What PLC Team Members Can Do . . .

Get a firm handle on your team’s purpose and revisit it frequently. Your team needs a clear roadmap and destination if you plan to arrive somewhere.

Build in opportunities for success. Set short term, doable benchmarks that your team can achieve. Frequently ask yourselves, “What have we accomplished as a result of this collaborative venture?” Look for evidence of ways teachers have changed and students have changed.

Keep negative energy at bay. Gain consensus on meeting rules and be sure one of them reads, “We will be positive during our meeting!” Call attention to that rule at the beginning of each meeting to suppress negativity that can drag the team down.

Relax and experiment. Give yourselves permission to try new teaching strategies and be unsuccessful. (Oddly, we often learn much more from our failures than from our successes.) Make "It's Okay!" cards for all team members to signify that it's OK not to succeed at first, as long as you keep working.

Develop a concrete product that demonstrates what your team is accomplishing. Create a rubric, matrix, lesson plan, or a video of team members using a particular strategy the team is working on. Share it school-wide.

Take a deep breath and reflect. At the end of each meeting, ask yourselves, "What did we accomplish with today’s meeting?" If team members can't answer that, then rethink what’s happening at the meetings. Then decide, "What do we want to accomplish at the next meeting?"

Always make a decision as a team before leaving the meeting. Even if the decision is to NOT use a particular strategy you’re considering, you've at least made a decision. If team members leave without making a decision of some sort, the meeting will not seem as valuable.

Rotate responsibilities to avoid member burnout. Give team members a chance to experience a variety of roles and perspectives.

What Principals and Leaders Can Do ...

Provide teams with frequent feedback. Teams should keep logs, and principals should read these regularly to get snapshots of what's going on. Provide brief, productive responses to team members on their progress.

Keep PLC meetings on the front burner as a major school initiative and give the work of learning teams plenty of visibility. Post what teachers are studying and doing in team meetings in school newsletters. Give a report at the PTA. Let at least one team share at every faculty meeting. Take photos of teachers during their meeting and post them on the school bulletin board in a place where students can see that adults learn, too!

Provide support. Give teams the resources they need (books, outside experts, DVDs, access to research databases on the Internet, etc.) in order to learn and implement.

Accept invitations from teams to meet and discuss their work—but don't micromanage. Learning teams are most effective when they have the freedom to pursue what matters most to them. Remember: You want self-directed teams, not principal-dependent teams.

Build your PLC knowledge base. Spend a portion of the time you devote to your own professional development reading the research literature about effective learning communities. Pay close attention to the insights gained by PLC experts who have built successful communities in real schools. (The site All Things PLC is a good place to start.)

Keep your finger on the pulse of the teams. When you feel their excitement and energy levels waning, find a way to show your appreciation for their efforts. Be alert to roadblocks that emerge to productive teamwork so that you can find ways to smooth the way over these barriers.

Emphasize classroom results. The biggest motivation-driver for teachers, facilitators, and principals is seeing students begin to "get it." When learning increases—both student and teacher learning—the energy level of the whole school ratchets up.

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