by Tim Grivois-Shah, Ed.D., Director of Professional Learning and Community Engagement
One of the professional learning experiences that I facilitate is to help teams to build Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports in their schools. The key premise of PBIS is that we can and should teach social skills alongside academic skills, and that with the right systems, data, and practices, we can support students’ social, emotional, and academic achievement school-wide.
When challenging behaviors occur at school, separating our feelings from the facts of the situation can be challenging. What is often more challenging is when teachers on the same collaborative team manage behavior differently. This happened to one of the teachers in our team, who noticed that the toughest students in her grade tend to learn with a smile in her classroom, yet struggle to be their best selves when they go to her colleagues’ classrooms.
This teacher understood that her entire team was responsible for the success of every student in that grade, yet she noticed a gap between how students were learning in her classroom and what was happening in her teammates’ environments. And, some of the colleagues involved were in the room with us for the same training in Positive Behavior Intervention and Support.
Traditional Professional Learning Community (PLC) meetings tend to be about the latest data set. By focusing on data, teachers can supposedly de-personalize the content of the conversation and address the facts of the situation. However, without a time, place, and structure to talk about why gaps of practice exist and how these gaps affect student achievement, collaborating using traditional PLC models is likely to lead to the same outcomes week after week. What this team needed was a protocol for a better PLC.
A protocol is a structure that creates space to have difficult conversations about root causes of problems. Everyone involved in teaching and learning is part of a complex relationship between variables we can control and circumstances beyond our influence. By talking about issues in ways that uncover root causes, name and validate feelings, and ensure that all involved completely understand the problem the team is facing, Professional Learning Communities can develop solutions that benefit their students.
Effective protocols have a structure guided by a skilled facilitator. Most protocols involve someone presenting an issue while their team listens. Then, the team asks questions to make sure they understand the issue and what kind of help their colleague is seeking. Next, the team thinks about the issue and provide helpful feedback. Finally, the team debriefs the process to ensure that it was helpful for everyone.
To help the teacher who wished her students could be as successful in all classrooms as they were with her, we used a protocol that involved disciplined times of speaking, listening, and providing feedback. The teacher shared her issue while her team (including team members who were involved in the problem) listened carefully. Her team asked her clarifying questions to make sure they understood the situation, and she restated anything that she felt we misunderstood. Then, and only then, were we ready to ask probing questions to help her expand her thinking about the issue and to provide solutions to the problem she presented. Finally, the teacher responded to her team, sharing how she was feeling and what she felt were her next steps. “You know, I’m a darn good teacher, and I shouldn’t have to hide that from my colleagues. It’s time for my team to have a conversation about this, and work together to support everyone.”
At first, using a protocol to have a conversation among colleagues who’ve known each other for years may seem too structured. However, without the structure of the protocol, having a frank conversation about a problem that clearly affected the professional relationships on this team could easily have increased tensions and made finding a solution more challenging. And, looking at a data set from the last common formative assessment would have made this important issue of practice completely invisible.
Protocols are powerful. When guided by a skilled facilitator, protocols can enhance collaboration and elevate our practice. As groups become more skilled with using protocols in their work, they discover that the technical aspect of using protocols to solve problems of practice is really just the beginning. By structuring how teams listen, think, speak, and support each other, we establish powerful norms of equity by ensuring that everyone on the team-no exceptions-has a voice in enhancing the quality of teaching for every learner-no exceptions.
If you enjoyed this article, sign up for our professional learning newsletter!