The first and most brutal fact that must be confronted in creating professional learning communities is that the task is not merely challenging: it is daunting. It is disingenuous to suggest that transformation will be easy or to present it with a rosy optimism that obscures the inevitable turmoil ahead.
Betty had just finished explaining to her team that the student's problem-solving task was not proficient, even though her colleagues scored it as a '3.'
The other team members looked uncomfortable. Betty was the most outspoken in the group, a leader, and so they were quiet. "What are you using as evidence when you say it's not proficient?" I asked Betty.
"Well, for starters, the answer is wrong and he's only used a sentence to explain."
I looked at the rubric. At level 3, or proficient, it states:
Student reads problem, pulls out numbers and reasonable operation.
Computes with accuracy, though some errors may occur.
Explains with math appropriate language, but may not be concise.
Satisfies requirements of the problem.
Answers may be correct or reasonable.
"Where in the rubric do you see that a wrong answer is not proficient, or writing has to be longer than a sentence?" I inquired.
"Well, it's not written like that, according to the rubric. But I can't allow a wrong answer to be proficient – I have high standards," said Betty.
It's not that Betty doesn't comprehend the rubric or appreciate her team, she just believes her standards trump the agreed-upon grade level rubric. The way she stays in her comfort zone is to say, "I have high standards." No one can or will argue that point. For teachers that have been isolated for most of our careers during the teaching day, this is an understandable response.
Getting Beyond Contentious Meetings
Our analysis reveals the complex and often-contradictory work of teacher teams. Hierarchies can emerge, individualistic tendencies can persist, genuine consensus can be elusive, and members can be silenced. — John Gunn and Bruce King
Gunn and King note "individual tendencies" and the complex work of teacher teams that goes under the microscope when collaboratively studying and scoring student work. No longer does "you do what you do and I do what I do" work because we have to agree on a common measure, how to calibrate ourselves for scoring, and collaborative approaches in what comes next for instruction. This means that we need to have common language and values in alignment. Needless to say, it can make for some contentious meetings.
If you got your teaching degree 30 years ago, you may have been expected to emphasize product, not process. Answers mattered most. Students sat in rows. You ran "dittos" and knew the ins and outs of teaching manuals. Or not. If you got your teaching degree 15 years ago, you may have been expected to emphasize process and de-emphasize product. Answers didn't matter as much as the thinking. Students sat in groups. You may have been expected to create thematic units and used constructivist teaching principles. Or not. Our training, our student teaching supervisor, and the predominant "school of thought" was foundational for our beliefs and values about education.
Today we know that mathematicians need to be able to problem-solve in unique situations, and this is valued over plugging numbers into formulas without understanding. It matters less what writing looks like on the page, and more what the content expresses. Readers need to be thinking about what they read, instead of being able to simply word call during popcorn reading. Does that mean basic facts, conventions and decoding are not important? Absolutely not. They just have a place in a bigger picture of what it means to be a mathematician, a writer and a reader. And that picture has changed over the years.
As a participant in Betty's meeting, I was processing a lot of information. I knew that her less-experienced teammates were frustrated with the way she overrode their collaborative decisions. You could see it in their body language. You could hear it in their silence. It was also crucial that Betty had control. If she felt challenged or defensive, things could really unravel.
"Coming to agreement can be difficult with any team of four professionals," I began. "If we scored according the rubric, can you see how this task could score a '3'?"
She nodded slightly, "Yes, because the rubric says the answer doesn't have to be correct, it just has to be reasonable."
"So the rubric represents a value of reasonableness with minor errors. Do you think if you handed this back to the student that he could fix it and get a correct answer?" I asked.
"Probably," she agreed. "He's a smart kid, he just made a mistake. But he needs to look more closely and check his work."
Ah-ha, I thought.
"Rechecking is such an important skill. Would it be possible to score this task a '3' and add a note to the student to recheck the answer and report back to you?" I suggested.
"I suppose," she said and wrote a '3' on the post-it. The group took a collective breath.
No Small Thing
Watching teacher teams in my district for the past five years makes me appreciate the complexity and dynamics that go into effective collaboration. In the beginning of professional learning communities or grade-level team work there seemed to be an equation like this:
Put teachers in a group + have them bring student work = increased collaboration and Improved student learning.
But the truth is that equation worked in about 15% of the teams I saw. What I found was that those teams with trust, respect for each other's teaching, a dedication to problem-solving, similar values, natural curiosity, and strong communication skills worked well together. The other 85% were stuck having conversations like Betty's team, and wishing they could just go back to doing their own thing.
In some situations an outside facilitator (like a coach) can use a five-step approach to help teams work through disagreements. These are the steps that I have used to help teacher teams that are struggling:
Step 1: Confirm that teaming is hard. Because it is. This is no small thing. Encourage groups to establish and write down norms of collaboration and ask, "What will you agree to do if these are/aren't followed?"
Step 2: Establish what teachers are using as evidence to build common language and understanding within the group. When one or more group members are using different evidence or ignoring the agreed-upon measure — address it gently and clearly.
Step 3: Listen, listen, listen.
Step 4: Paraphrase and take an inquiry stance.
"If we/then could?"
"Would it be possible?"
Step 5: Encourage teams to celebrate success. Teams that play together, stay together.
Consider these questions:
- When you read the opening quote, what came up for you?
- What "individual tendencies" like Betty's get in the way of successful collaboration?
- How can your language as a coach make or break an experience collaborating with a team?
- What steps would you add that work well for you when you meet with struggling teacher teams?