If you have an idea, don’t let it go

You’re back from summer break, energized for the new school year.

You read a great book on writing workshops this summer, and you are excited to implement a new strategy this fall.

You propose it to your Professional Learning Community (PLC), and the response is … silence.

No one else wants to do it. Sounds like too much work, too risky, too different from your colleagues’ tried and true strategies. Shot down, you withdraw your idea and retreat in frustration. So much for innovation and creativity in your classroom.

Sound familiar?  

There’s a lot of research — from many industries — that working in groups is powerful and effective. Individuals working alone can seldom generate as many ideas and solutions to problems as groups of people who communicate well.

There’s also evidence that collaboration in PLCs is improving instruction overall. Less successful teachers, in particular, benefit from brainstorming and sharing ideas with more effective colleagues.

But there is a downside to the PLC model: the barrier to innovation. When I’ve talked to young teachers about trying active-learning strategies in their classrooms, they almost always voice concern about naysayers in their PLCs: “They won’t want to do it.”

If only one in five teachers is using innovative strategies — a finding confirmed by multiple studies including the massive Gates Foundation MET study — those individuals will usually be outnumbered in their PLCs by traditionalists.

Teachers who want to innovate need some PLC strategies, to help them navigate and get reluctant colleagues on board. Here are a few steps to get started:

  1. Start with a focus on the problem. Don’t introduce a new strategy in isolation, but as a solution to a specific weakness in student performance. If students can’t remember characters in a book, try a “speed dating” activity with the characters.
  2. Present your idea with evidence that it will work, either from your own experience or academic research. Ask your school librarian to help you find research, if you don’t have access to a university library.
  3. Expect the best of your colleagues. Many experienced teachers get burned out on following fads. Realize that most want to be effective instructors, but they feel like what they are doing works.
  4. Approach your colleagues one at a time before a meeting, and try to rally at least one person to your cause. People are often more open to ideas when they are approached one-to-one.
  5. Get administrative support. Don’t run to the principal to complain about your PLC, but seek support early in the school year for trying new strategies. If the principal verbally encourages innovation, you’ll feel supported in trying new ideas. If not, you’ll at least know where you stand (and that maybe you should find another job).
  6. Don’t be afraid. If you give up trying your new ideas, you’ll be more susceptible to burnout. The effort is worth it.

I’m not suggesting that teachers should spend a lot of time trying completely untested strategies. There are bad ideas out there, and PLCs do serve to protect students against them.

But good ideas with a basis in research should find their way into our classrooms.