“How Do I Better Coach a Splintered Professional Learning Community?”
Dear Rick & Rebecca: I am a new high school instructional coach and need some help managing our professional learning community of English teachers.
This year, some teachers from one high school were moved into our school. Now, our English department is at war. The current teachers have worked here for 20-plus years and are set in their routines. They won’t budge from how they have always done things; the two new teachers joining the department want to integrate technology and high-interest reading into their curriculum.
During our professional learning community time, the groups always seem to splinter and go on their way to do their own thing. The hardest part is that my principal agrees with his own veteran teachers and feels that the new teachers should assimilate into “our” culture. I feel stuck in the middle. I am trying to stay unbiased as a new coach joining the school and I can see valid points on both sides, depending on the educational topic. I agree with some of what the new teachers believe, but also know that I must tread lightly because my principal is on the side of his veterans. I’m not really sure how to move forward. This is my first shot at coaching and I don’t want to mess it up. –Stuck in the Middle
Dear “Stuck in the Middle”
Thank you so much for writing to us. It is never easy merging two groups of people together who have opposing epistemologies. Emotions can run high and be laced with the fear of change and a fear of overstepping boundaries. Whether you are a veteran coach or not, this would be a challenging situation. You have two things going on here: 1. You are looking for resolution and compromise within your English department so that they can become a high-functioning professional learning community and 2. Your principal is in “turf protection mode” and wants things to stay status quo.
There is an option that just may solve both areas of conflict with the same solution. It sounds like this new teacher group has come together to work as a professional learning community, but the result is a fragmented meeting. Since there is a district and school-wide expectation to meet as a professional learning community, maybe this is the perfect opportunity to reset the norms of collaboration.
By anchoring back to the criteria and protocols of a high-quality PLC, this would hold everyone accountable without stepping on their individual practices. Since you are a new instructional coach, you may want to sharpen your own skill set first by visiting (or revisiting) the Thinking Collaborative website and their Norms of Collaboration Toolkit. You may also want to consider reading (or referencing back) to two books, Adaptive Schools and Cognitive Coaching or even attend trainings or conferences to learn more.
Once you have explored this idea of collaborating effectively through the lens of coaching conflict, then it may be time to approach your principal. You may want to approach your principal by sharing that you noticed that there is conflict and that the team has strayed from creating effective PLCs. Share that you have sought out high-quality resources as a proactive measure and now have a better understanding of how to adapt to meet the needs of the teachers as you discuss this with your principal.
Then, ask for support in order to move forward with refocusing the group. Invite the principal to join you in attending the PLC with the purpose of observing the specific norms of the PLC that you would like support with. This will position your principal as a leader of best practices and may bring about a greater unity among your group. After observing, be willing to fully listen to your principal as he/she shares observations with you.
This will be all-telling in so many ways and prepare you to know how to move forward. If there is a cognitive shift and your principal steps up, then you have a double win on your hands. Either way, stay focused on the process and norms of collaboration rather than on the people. Facilitating groups, developing groups, and becoming a more skillful group member require knowledge, practice, time, and intentionality. The fact that you are reflective and seeking out what is best for students is what matters most. We know you got this one!
We hope that this helps support your solution-minded-thinking. Please stay in touch in order to update us on your progress (or if this plan falls on deaf ears). We would be glad to help you come up with a new course of action!
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