Medium 9781942496021

How to Develop PLCs for Singletons and Small Schools

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Part of the Solutions for Professional Learning Communities series.

Ensure singleton teachers feel integrally involved in the PLC process with this concise, user-friendly guide. You'll quickly discover how small schools, full of singleton teachers who are the only ones in their schools teaching their subject areas, can build successful PLCs and avoid teacher isolation. Explore five methods for structuring PLC teams for better teacher support and collaboration. Better involve singletons, and read short examples that highlight how real schools have made collaboration among teachers possible.

Quickly learn how to create your own singleton teacher support network using the PLC process:

  • Understand what it means to practice collaboration lite and evaluate teacher collaboration in your school or district.
  • Examine scenarios, opportunities, challenges, recommendations, and PLC ideas for electives teachers or other singletons.
  • Review specific ways that teams can connect teachers and help small teams be active participants in the PLC process.
  • Learn the essential steps for creating vertical, virtual, and interdisciplinary teams.
  • Read sample dialogues and quick tips for how to state intentions related to building PLC teams and including singletons in the process.

Contents:
Introduction
Chapter 1: Vertical Teams
Chapter 2: Interdisciplinary Teams
Chapter 3: Singletons Who Support
Chapter 4: Virtual Teams
Chapter 5: Changing Structures
Epilogue

Books in the Solutions for Professional Learning Communities Series:

  • How to Use Digital Tools to Support Teachers in a PLC
  • How to Launch PLCs in Your District
  • How to Leverage PLCs for School Improvement
  • How to Cultivate Collaboration in a PLC
  • How to Coach Leadership in a PLC
  • How to Develop PLCs for Singletons and Small Schools

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Chapter 1: Vertical Teams

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Think “common denominator.” A vertical team is a team of teachers who all teach the same subject but at different grade levels. They form a team and focus on the common skills that they are teaching.

One of the most inspirational school turnaround stories I know is that of Bluff Elementary School in Utah. Situated in the breathtaking Southwestern Red Rock County of the Four Corners area, Bluff Elementary serves about one hundred K–5 students. Most of these students live on the Navajo Nation Reservation and are not native English speakers. Eighty-seven percent of the students receive free or reduced lunch. Many ride a bus seventy miles, thirty-five of them on dirt roads, just to get to school. More than 50 percent of the students are considered homeless by national standards. The challenges are immense.

The school had been designated a turnaround school by the state of Utah due to poor student achievement. Newly appointed principal Barbara Silversmith, along with a few of her staff, attended a PLC at Work Institute. They quickly agreed that the means by which they would turn around their school was through the PLC model. Mrs. Silversmith and her team had barely begun when they faced the singleton challenge. Because the school was so small, there was only one teacher per grade level. They asked, “This whole PLC thing is about collaborating with others who teach the same subject or grade level that we do. Who do we collaborate with? The nearest neighboring school is more than fifty miles away!”

 

Chapter 2: Interdisciplinary Teams

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Interdisciplinary teams are groups of teachers who all teach different content but work together to develop common assessments around universal essential skills. By focusing on the skills that they are teaching, teachers can build common assessments despite the vast differences in their content disciplines. Upon closer examination, it is likely that they have more in common than they think. Again, think “common denominator.”

Interdisciplinary teams come in all shapes and sizes. This flexible model can and does work for a variety of teacher teams, such as foreign language teachers, music teachers, art teachers, social studies teachers, school-to-career teachers, and more.

The North Orange County Regional Occupational Program (NOCROP) is an excellent example of effective interdisciplinary collaborative teams. NOCROP is a cooperative among five districts to provide quality instructors in the school-to-career arena. In short, the organization (not unlike other similar organizations in California) is contracted by more than twenty high schools to recruit, hire, and supervise teachers from various industries, such as culinary, welding, firefighting science, auto mechanics, computer-aided drafting, graphic design, hospitality, floral design, stage craft technology, film, banking, photography, American Sign Language (ASL), professional dance, and so on. The organization not only recruits professionals from various fields to become teachers through a state alternative certification program but also provides professional development to these nontraditional teachers. When asked, Terri Giamarino, assistant superintendent of NOCROP, explained, “The best thing we can do for our teachers, particularly our new teachers, is to help them develop true collaborative relationships with colleagues and be part of a team” (T. Giamarino, personal communication, December 1, 2014).

 

Chapter 3: Singletons Who Support

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Sometimes being part of a team means having to put the needs of others ahead of your own. When singletons support, they join a traditional team and support team goals, even when those goals have nothing to do with singleton content. Singletons who support can be very powerful! For this model to work, however, singletons who support must understand their role and be willing to support the goals the team sets, even when those goals don’t have a direct connection to their content.

“Momma T.”—that’s what everyone calls her. She is the drama teacher at the small high school where I began my teaching career more years ago than I like to admit to myself. Mrs. Tucker (aka “Momma T.”) stands five feet, one inch tall, but her vivacious personality is through the roof! Her drama classes and club put on some truly world-class performances in the small high school gymacafetorium (room that serves as a gymnasium, cafeteria, and auditorium in many small schools across the United States). Her hilarious stories usually have people in stitches, crying, or both within minutes of meeting her. One of her many talents is her ability to connect with students and build positive relationships. When students are struggling with life in general, a teacher, a counselor, or an administrator can bring them to Momma T. She will figuratively (and sometimes literally) wrap an arm around them, find a role or job for them to do, and help them feel like they have a place in the world. (She should have her own spot on the school’s pyramid of interventions that just says, “Momma T.”) She is one of those truly special people in the world that makes others around her feel special.

 

Chapter 4: Virtual Teams

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Welcome to the 21st century! Virtual teams provide a way for singleton teachers to no longer be singletons. By using technology readily accessible to almost anyone, singleton teachers can find others who do exactly what they do and meet virtually to do the work of a collaborative team, regardless of where they live. It just takes a little tech savviness, a strong commitment, and other people who are just as committed. Districts can help teachers who teach the same content at different schools to form virtual teams. However, prospective virtualists, beware—it isn’t as easy as you think.

Casey Rutherford was the only physics teacher in his Minnesota high school for seven years. When the district developed the expectation that every teacher would participate in a collaborative team, Casey was excited about the prospect of working with peers but quickly realized he was a singleton. However, Casey had an advantage. He was an avid Twitter user who had amassed a large PLN, including close to two hundred physics teachers! Casey decided to find out if there were others in his PLN, like him, who wanted to become more structured in learning together. He pitched his idea to his supervisor to make sure he would be meeting the district’s expectations. Then he sent out a tweet: “Anyone interested in using student work to collaborate about physics instruction? If so, click here.” The link led to the following short invitation on a Google Doc (Rutherford, 2013):

 

Chapter 5: Structural Change

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Structures, or the ways schools are set up, create a context that promotes certain behaviors. Sometimes, schools might have traditional structures that promote isolation. If we examine some of those traditional structures, we often can change the context to encourage the human behaviors we desire, like collaboration.

Allow me to illustrate this concept with an overly simplistic analogy. Imagine you are in a crowded room in Denver, Colorado. You ask the group, “How many people here are proficient downhill skiers?” A number of hands would surely go up. Then, you ask how many people are proficient surfers. The number of hands would surely be fewer. Now, imagine you are transported to San Diego, California. You ask the same two questions about skiing and surfing. It’s likely that the number of hands raised in response to those questions would be the opposite. The reason for this would be different contexts. The context, or environment, encourages different behaviors and hobbies.

 

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