Welcome to the third installment in my blog series, Smart Supports for Professional Learning Communities. This time I focus on the essential elements of authentic facilitation. As I researched and developed PLCs over the past four years, the primary obstacle I see to effective PLCs is the lack of structure. Structure serves as the pillars of a strong PLC as they outline the process, reduce risk, provide a common language, and assure that everyone will move forward together as a team.
The most valuable resource I have found to guide authentic facilitation in PLCs comes from the book Facilitating Teacher Teams and Authentic PLCs by Daniel R. Venables. I’ve included some of his suggestions below.
To have high functioning PLCs, trust is the first and most important element of focus. For participants to connect with each other, there must be a sense of security and trust. This is especially true when the community members reveal weaknesses in their teaching or lack of knowledge of the teaching-learning process. Without trust, teachers won’t have the courage to share their experiences, take risks, or try something new. PLCs must be spaces where trusting relationships are valued in order to create time to learn, collaborate with others, process our thoughts and feelings, understand our identity markers, develop skills, unpack our beliefs, cultivate new ways of being, and heal from pain and suffering.
According to The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Patrick Lencioni, 2007), a lack of trust “occurs when team members are reluctant to be vulnerable with one another and are unwilling to admit their mistakes, weaknesses, or needs for help. Without a certain comfort level among team members, a foundation of trust is impossible.”
As a facilitator, the following principles guided my practice and helped me build trust in my PLC:
- Safety First: ensure safety for all teachers at all times without compromise.
- Facilitative Transparency: offer full transparency to demonstrate respect for all PLC members and model a degree of vulnerability we want to establish in the team’s culture.
- Responsive Facilitation: demonstrate self-reflection on your work.
- Voice and Choice: give up control by providing more voice and choice to members. This often leads to surprisingly good decisions and an increase in members ownership of and commitment to the work of the PLC.
- Following up: do what you say you are going to do.
- Differentiated Facilitation: put forethought into which kinds of questions are appropriate to ask different members, and temper your opinions, feedback, and challenges according to the recipients.
The next key aspect of authentic facilitation is to create a culture of asking rather than telling. This questioning culture will allow you to receive teachers' opinions, push the conversation to a deeper level, challenge conventional thinking, explore dissenting opinions, draw minority or silent voices into the conversation, and give voice to the naysayers while holding them accountable. These are big steps that will increase the PLC’s effectiveness and slowly transform the school's culture.
Good questions also enable high-quality discussions. Three power tools for facilitating discussion during PLC meetings are:
- Protocols: choosing and following protocols is very important because they keep the PLC focused, maintain honesty and teacher safety, level the playing field, ensure efficient use of time, get results, and make the facilitator`s job easier. Here you can find a variety of protocols, depending on the purpose of the PLC meeting.
- Frontloading: making introductory comments just before engaging his or her PLC in a particular task is very useful for the facilitator.
- Debriefing: holding a short discussion that encourages reflection at the end of the session, focused on the process (not the content) of the team's experience is very helpful. It may include what worked, what could be done better next time, how members felt during the experience and possible modifications to the process.
I’ve included some examples of the types of questions the facilitator may ask during the frontloading and debriefing.
Candor with Care
Another key element of authentic PLC facilitation is candor with care, or the importance of facilitating peer feedback. The quality and depth of peer feedback matter greatly. Superficial feedback hurts, while substantial and honest feedback helps community members grow individually and collectively.
The facilitator’s ability to manage intellectual conflict and other growth spurts are essential to an effective PLC. Following these rules may be helpful:
- The conflict stays at an intellectual level, it doesn't get personal
- All involved have an equal voice
- All involved show respect to those with whom they disagree
- All positions emanate from a belief in what is best for students
Balancing Being in Control and Giving Control
And last but not least, it is crucial to balance being in control and giving control. Let team members actively participate in key decisions and gain ownership of the work of the PLC.
As PLC facilitators, our practice will be further strengthened when we constantly self-assess and reflect upon our performance. By identifying what is working and what is not, we can make adjustments, set goals to improve and grow in our role. I find this example of a self-reflection tool for facilitators quite useful. Asking for feedback from the community members will also contribute to our progress.
By combining these five strategies of authentic facilitation, you will create a more powerful and effective PLC. I’d love to hear from you if you have other suggestions for facilitation strategies with PLCs. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @slnoguera. If you would like to dig deeper into PLCs, I invite you to engage in the Supporting Professional Learning Communities Cycle on LINCspring!
I hope you enjoyed Part 3 of the series. Click here to read the final installment.