Coaching Conundrums: Pre-empting Pear-shaped PLCs

What’s the challenge?

Billy’s reaction to setbacks mirrors many of our first responses as coaches: resignation, surrender, acceptance (“I’m out. I’ll just sit here and color or something…” I.e., “What a dream to just go back to the past when I wasn’t responsible for anybody but myself, sigh.”). While his second response mirrors our fantasy ‘equal or greater reaction’: beating the brats that stymie our attempts to professionally develop our peers. Sometimes they are metaphorical brats in the form of tech failures, rescheduling and other unforeseen circumstances, and sometimes they are quasi-literal brats in the shape of the wonderful and exciting people we work with every day, who sometimes go feral on us and tear our plans to shreds in a rabid frenzy. (“Now you’re all in big, big trouble.”)

F&D: Fragmentation & Disintegration

To wit: even meticulously planned PD/PLC sessions go awry, usually due to the twin forces of “fragmentation” and “disintegration.” In the fragmentation of the school day, we perpetually see all kinds of previously unforeseen challenges arise, divide our prep time into damage control blocs and conquer our best-laid plans. Seriously: when was the last time you remember a school day going exactly as planned with no need for improvisation and adaptation? Coaches, just as much as principals, are on call at all times and answerable to a wide array of constituents and their needs.

Disintegration: look at that word again and appreciate exactly what it spells out for you. Disintegration: the coming apart and unfolding of, sometimes, your plans, but sometimes even worse: your peer group. You cannot predict what seeds fate will cast among the usually wonderful and cooperative people you work with on a daily basis, turning them from a Professional Learning Community into a “dis-integrated,” disgruntled and surly mob. Even worse, sometimes it’s you who gets slammed by destiny, and a deep belief that “the show must go on” is the only thing that keeps the session, and your head, from imploding.

Examples of F&D:

  • The headphones that the tech team was supposed to deliver during 2nd period don’t arrive until five minutes before the session, and then for 12 people there are only four sets, two without microphones and three don’t work.
  • The school board decided that the local holiday next Wednesday will in fact not be celebrated by the school and everyone will be coming in to work to write curriculum maps instead. The email went out during lunch and your PLC is after school. Everyone’s thrilled and ready to focus and burnin’ to collaborate!
  • The superintendent and school principals have extolled the virtues of the paperless classroom and send around “Go Green” memos (often on paper) ad nauseam in preparation for “Green Week.” Then, during “Green Week,” none of the scanners at your school work, the wireless goes down 5 times a day and, serendipitously, your training session on “The Paperless iPad Classroom” falls in the middle of this week. I.e., you are an imp of satan and your PLC has turned into an angry mob–you clearly see buckets of tar and feathers in the corner as you enter the room that afternoon…
  • You have children. (I have been told this is self-explanatory.)

Solutions from the Experts

You can’t prevent the zombie apocalypse, but you can certainly prepare a list of survival rules and for PD-leading coaches Art Costa’s 16 Habits of Mind is a great place to start.

Habits of Mind is knowing how to behave intelligently when you DON’T know the answer. It means having a disposition toward behaving intelligently when confronted with problems, the answers to which are not immediately known: dichotomies, dilemmas, enigmas and uncertainties.

Our focus is on performance under challenging conditions that demand strategic reasoning, insightfulness, perseverance, creativity, and craftsmanship. Employing Habits of Mind requires drawing forth certain patterns of intellectual behavior that produce powerful results. They are a composite of many skills, attitudes and proclivities.

As many times as I have tried to read my own meaning between the lines, I have yet to find “catastrophic disproportionate retaliation” hidden among these gems (trust me, I’ve looked) which include:

  • Persisting
  • Managing impulsivity
  • Listening with understanding and empathy
  • Creating, imagining, innovating
  • Thinking flexibly
  • Responding with wonderment and awe
  • Finding humor
  • Applying past knowledge to new situations
  • Remaining open to continuous learning

On the contrary, I have gleaned some wisdom from Costa’s suggestions and turned away from thoughts of striking my colleagues down with great vengeance and furious anger, developing instead mindsets, choreography and procedures through which to limit the damage caused by F&D and maximize the potential for success no matter the challenges they pose.

Environmental Choreography: Practical Procedures

What can you do to mold your environment to ensure success? What steps can you take to frame the dance, while still leaving room for improvisation and interpretation? The phrase “environmental choreography” refers to all such measures, mindsets, habits and routines.

  1. Use the buddy-system
    • As Learning and Innovation Coach at my school, I am incredibly lucky to have an Instructional Technology Coordinator with whom I click. We work congenially and collegially, we like each other and we push each other to work, publish and produce. With that kind of professional relationship, why not work together whenever possible? The professional and psychological benefits of doubling-up cannot be understated. Just last week when one of our sessions went pear-shaped (due to the “hypothetical” headphones scenario and the failure to install software necessary for our session) we improvised and quickly redesigned the session so that she took over the demonstration element with an application she was more familiar with. The session went forward with no one the wiser, but everyone the smarter having been trained up regardless of the SNAFU. (We refer to this philosophy as “fake it, don’t break it”). –Find someone you click with and watch the success of your sessions skyrocket while the stress disappears.
  2. “Sound off for equipment check!”
    • When I was in airborne school I was carefully trained, just like all the other potential paratroopers, to do an equipment check just prior to jumping (wise, no?). A properly conducted equipment check involves you physically coming into contact with and testing every piece of equipment necessary to your survival once you are out the door–at which time it is too late to check. Only then are you supposed to roar “‘Your number, OK!'” when ordered to “sound off for equipment check” by the jumpmaster. In other words, don’t assume the headphones are coming to you, go get the headphones, test each and every one of them and lock them in your room until after your session is over.
  3. Technology Hygiene
    • Make sure your devices are always charged.
    • Make sure all the wires, connectors, remotes and various doodads are clean and functioning.
    • Make sure you stay clear of the storage limits for your device. A full device is a slow device. (Use the cloud! And encourage your peers to use it as well.)
    • Related: Remove non-essential files from your device regularly.
    • Frequently scan your devices for viruses.
    • Make sure you are always up to date on updates.
    • Keep your screens clean and clear. Few things set a worse techwarrior example than a spotted or greasy screen.
  4. Employ and model Parallel & Paced Workflow
    • Have you ever seen a juggler spin plates? Model your presentation workflow after this feat, and convince your peers to do so as well. Have several processes going at once and be ready to move people from one to the other. You also need to be ready to move between people yourself to keep the work flowing. You will resemble the metaphorical duck in the pond, seemingly gliding effortlessly across the face of the water, while your legs furiously paddle underneath the surface. No one in your PLC will notice the difference (which is kind of shame–you’re working here!!) and the sessions will glide as smoothly as that duck, with luck. What does this look like in practice?
      • You have 12 people coming to a PD session on screencasting. Reserve 15 computers in the lab. Have all on, with all the required apps installed, but two reserved for your back-up apps so that if the original app fails on anyone’s computer or someone already knows how to use that app, or ….(insert problem here), you can move that person to one of the spare computers immediately.
      • Have your peers log into their accounts as soon as they walk in, then while waiting for the log-in process to complete, give the brief intro to the session. This way no time is lost.
      • When the inevitable late entries walks in, have them log in and then watch your 5-minute screencast intro to the session that you wisely prepared the day before. Isn’t it cool how the screencast itself provides a model of the day’s subject?
      • At this point, 5-10 minutes into the session, you may have 6/12 of your team working through the initial process of screncasting with Jing; 2/12 on Snaggit because they have more experience; 2/12 watching the screencast while your partner answers their initial questions and you are free to answer the questions of the other 2/12 who are already underway clicking and dragging through their first screencast. Asynchronous spinning success!


What’s the compelling argument?

Preparation is the coach’s key to both not becoming a homicidal berserker and not succumbing to the zombie apocalypse. Expect the unexpected (especially in the form of Murphy’s Law) and plan accordingly. However, do not waste your time concocting reactions to all possible contingencies–that would be impossible. Rather, design proactive strategies that will keep you in control of the situation no matter what unforeseen challenges arise.

And in the end, if things do go pear-shaped (and we have all been there) remember two things:

  1. It’s not about you.
  2. It’s a first world problem.

So relax.

Author: williamjtolley

IB Coordinator, IBEN Workshop Leader, Examiner, and DP/MYP Teacher | Inquiry, Mastery & Culturally Responsive-Learning Advocate

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