By the end of the six-week startup, Bill’s provocative questioning and his willingness to reflect on his own professional practice — tarnish and all — made him a leader in our fledgling community. He’s gone on to serve as a TLN Senior Fellow, co-author of a major TLN TeacherSolutions report, and the internationally respected TLN blogger known as The Tempered Radical, whose lively mix of classroom practice, policy and politics, and digital learning topics attracts a broad audience and recently led to a monthly column, Digitally Speaking, in Educational Leadership magazine.
As it turns out, Bill’s willingness—compulsion, even—to bare his teaching soul makes him one heck of a book author, too. Building a Professional Learning Community at Work: A Guide to the First Year, co-written with principal Parry Graham, grows out of a several-year struggle by Bill and a group of teacher colleagues at his North Carolina middle school to learn to collaborate in powerful ways. In this interview, Bill recounts some of the pain and gain of that trial by fire, and how he and Graham went about translating their own experiences into a practical primer for other educators who might be willing to set forth on a similar journey.
As a bonus, I've asked Bill to speak to fellow teachers who harbor their own desire to write a book from their teaching lives. Bill generously shares his secret to publishing success, but I’ll warn you in advance. It involves a lot of writing. – John Norton, co-founder and moderator, Teacher Leaders Network.
What created the burn to write a book for teachers just beginning to explore PLCs? Give us some history.
Bill Ferriter: I think the burn to write a book for teachers just beginning their work with professional learning communities is a product of my own early struggles and successes with collaboration. About five years ago, I had the opportunity to open a new middle school being built as a PLC from the ground up—and I was paired on a learning team with five of the most intelligent and capable language arts and social studies teachers that I’d ever met.
The problem was that we had no real idea what it was that we were supposed to be doing with each other, and that led to early frustrations. Our initial meetings were rambling, unfocused affairs and we often felt like failures. We fought through personal conflicts and professional disagreements, though, and eventually found a working rhythm and synergy that made all of us better teachers. I wanted to try to make those early struggles transparent to other teachers, hoping that the lessons my team learned might sustain others when the inevitable challenges of collaboration arise.
Collaborative work can make any teacher more productive and professionally satisfied, but only when early efforts at collaboration are structured and meaningful. Parry and I believe that Building a Professional Learning Community at Work can provide some of that structure for learning teams at any stage of their professional work together.
Your book is filled with action-oriented subheads, reproducibles, practical recommendations — there's even an annotated chapter guide divided into seasons of the year. It has the feel of authors who have been there and done that. How much easier might things be for teacher teams who take your advice?
Bill Ferriter: I think the real strength of Building a Professional Learning Community at Work is that Parry and I are both full-time practitioners. I still meet with a learning team every week, trying to identify instructional practices that work and ensure the success of every child. Parry still works as a building principal, trying to create the systems that enable teachers and students to thrive.
That first-hand experience with the real work of learning teams is evident in every chapter, handout and subtitle in our text. Our suggestions, strategies, and materials are suggestions, strategies and materials that we’ve used successfully in our work—and the text is really nothing more than a public reflection of the learning that we’ve done as we’ve tried to make professional learning communities happen in our own schools.
If you had to come up with 4-5 key insights represented in the book, what would they be? Tempt us.
Bill Ferriter: Picking out 4-5 key insights is close to impossible because our readers will all be working on learning teams that have their own unique personalities and challenges. What may look like a key insight or solution for one team may be a strategy, practice or behavior that another team is unprepared for.
Teams new to collaboration are likely to find the strategies for structuring productive meetings to be the most valuable, while highly productive teams might embrace our suggestions for useful data conversations. Administrators—regardless of how long their teachers have been working in learning teams—will love the surveys that we’ve developed to gather information about the overall health of their professional learning teams.
In some ways, that’s the beauty of our book—it is designed to provide customized support for any learning team, regardless of their current circumstances, and is written with all the players in mind.
The "Winter" section of your book is titled "Weathering the Challenges." Is this the stage — 4 or 5 months in — where even the best-intentioned PLCs are most vulnerable to inertia or break-down?
Bill Ferriter: To be honest, I’m not sure that learning teams are ever fully invulnerable. I know that our team has cycled in and out of moments of inertia and breakdown over the past five years.
Sometimes it’s because we try to tackle too many well-intentioned initiatives all at once—simultaneously designing remediation and enrichment programs, collecting and analyzing data, creating a warehouse of best instructional practices. Sometimes it’s because our team composition changes, and sometimes it’s because other priorities take precedence in our personal or professional lives. We’ve found ourselves wandering off the PLC path more than once and for a range of reasons that is almost mind boggling!I think the key to our success has been our faith in one another and the professional satisfaction that we’ve gained from working together. The levels of trust on our team are high because we’ve got an extensive base of shared experiences with one another. When conflict comes, it’s productive, built on the belief that everyone on our team is working towards a shared mission even when we see alternative routes to the same end point. We’ve learned to listen to one another, to approach collaborative work as an experiment, and to embrace struggles as learning experiences.
You've been at this for some years now. Is there another crisis point several years into the work, when it begins to feel "ordinary" and less stimulating? If so, how did you and your team confront that?
Bill Ferriter: The work of my professional learning teams never feels ordinary to me! After all, I’ve been given the opportunity to reflect on my craft with other like-minded peers. Every year, we find new practices that we’d like to explore, new trends in student learning data that leave us confused, and new structures or processes that might just make our own work more efficient. Our student population changes, bringing new challenges that we’ve got to find solutions for, and new teachers are hired, bringing different perspectives to our conversations.
It’s the process that I’m motivated by—we investigate, we implement, we reflect, we explore, and we learn no matter how long we’ve been together as a group, and investigation, implementation, reflection, exploration and learning are always motivating.
Professional learning teams only become ordinary when we stifle teachers—when school and/or district leaders place an inordinate emphasis on products instead of processes. Districts that create system-wide pacing guides, lesson planning templates, meeting requirements and common assessments in an attempt to make things easier for—or to monitor the work of—teachers ruin the most rewarding aspects of the professional learning community process. We’ve got to give learning teams room to create and to innovate in order to keep the work exciting.
You developed a relationship with PLC experts Rick and Becky DuFour several years ago. How did that come about and what did you learn from that association that helped you and your colleagues back in your own school?
Bill Ferriter: My relationship with Rick and Becky DuFour actually started long before we’d ever met in person. Preparing for my new position at a PLC school, I chewed through Professional Learning Communities at Work—the seminal book on PLCs that Rick coauthored with Bob Eaker—in about 12 hours one weekend, and it was a vision for teaching that resonated deeply. I loved thinking that “someone official” believed in the potential of classroom teachers—and was willing to argue that schools couldn’t succeed until groups of teachers worked together to generate a body of knowledge about what worked in their classrooms and with their students. It was one of the first times that I felt empowered as a professional.
Our first personal contact came a little over a year later, after the National Staff Development Council published a reflection that I had written about the impact that my own professional learning team had on my instruction. Rick read my article and dropped me an email praising the piece. It was pretty amazing to me that a guy whose thinking I respected greatly saw value in something that I had written. We crossed paths in person for the first time at a dinner with the State Board of Education here in North Carolina. “Are you the same Bill Ferriter who wrote a piece about PLCs for NSDC?” Becky asked during our introductions. “Rick and I loved that article!”
Since then, Rick and Becky have been cheering for me—impressed enough by my work to recommend that Solution Tree hire me a PLC Associate. They also provided constant feedback as Parry and I worked through the initial drafts of our manuscript and served as a sounding board in a thousand situations. They are two of the most approachable experts that I’ve ever met, willing to give their time and attention to help others to succeed.
In the end, it’s humbling to know that they believe in me. In the eyes of a lot of people, I’m still “just a classroom teacher.” To Rick and Becky, I’m a classroom teacher with practical experiences to share and a level of expertise that should be respected and admired. I’ll be forever grateful for their confidence in who I am—as a teacher, writer and professional development provider.
In their foreword, the DuFours single out the accessible "conversational tone" of the book. How hard was that to achieve? In fact, how did you and Perry Graham meet the challenge of co-authoring a book — and your first book at that?
Bill Ferriter: To tell you the truth, writing Building a Professional Learning Community at Work was an amazing experience. Parry is someone who I’ve always had a synergy with—he’s brilliant, and we both like to read anything that we can get our hands on that’s connected to organizational theory and human nature. We’ve spent thousands of hours mentally wrestling with the challenges of making professional learning communities work. It was only natural for us to try to turn those conversations into a text that others could learn from.
And we both brought a different set of writing skills to the project. Parry is a meticulous writer who is skilled at organizing thoughts. He was almost singlehandedly responsible for the general structure and outline of our book, and he did a great job churning out chapter after chapter. I’m more of a wordsmith, so after we’d brainstormed together and Parry organized our thinking into a first draft, I’d add the spit and polish. What’s beautiful to me is that by the time we were done writing, neither of us could tell who had written what. The book had become truly “ours.”
Many teachers have a secret desire to write a professional book. What guidance would you offer? What did you discover along the way that you might not have anticipated?
Bill Ferriter: I think the most important advice that I can give to any teacher interested in writing professionally is start your own blog and start it now! Blogging regularly about your professional passions can help you to polish your voice and to practice articulating key concepts in writing—a process that can be difficult for accomplished teachers who often act on intuition. What’s more, blogging makes your thoughts transparent—your audience can push back at your core beliefs, pointing you in new directions or forcing you to find the flaws in your logic. While public challenge may not feel comfortable at first, your thinking will become more nuanced and sophisticated over time.
Better yet, publishers are constantly scouting collections of teacher blogs for potential writers. Almost every professional writing opportunity that I’ve had in the past six years—writing for NSDC and ASCD, having articles published in Educational Leadership and the Journal for Staff Development, landing a contract with Solution Tree—started after someone spotted something that I’d posted online. Blogging is the great equalizer, giving everyone the chance to be recognized and to cultivate an audience.
What havoc did writing a book wreak on your teaching and personal life? How much writing time, how much research time, how much time with editors? How long did it all take?
Bill Ferriter: Building a Professional Learning Community at Work was an 18 month project, John. That’s something I don’t think most teachers interested in writing realize. Parry and I signed a contract with Solution Tree after submitting a proposal and having finished one chapter from start to finish. That was enough to convince Solution Tree that our project was worth pursuing.
From that point, the grind began—and at times, it really felt like a grind! We read everything that we could read, searching for research that supported our key points. While we were confident in our core beliefs—we work in learning communities full time, after all—we knew that readers would respect our opinions more if we could back them up with the conclusions drawn by other recognized experts.
Simultaneously, we were drafting and revising chapters, meeting with one another to bounce ideas around, and changing directions. Typically, Parry would produce a first draft of a chapter and then send it to me. My job was to reorganize and/or reinforce his initial attempts to put our thinking into writing. I’d add language, polish bits that I thought needed polishing, add new recommendations based on my experiences as a classroom teacher, push against points that I wasn’t completely sure of, and create handouts and tools that would support the content of our chapter. Then Parry would review what I’d written before we’d begin a new chapter.
Only when we’d finished our entire manuscript did BPLC make it to Solution Tree’s editors. They sent our text out to three independent reviewers—as well as to Rick and Becky DuFour—for initial comment. All of those people sent extensive feedback that Parry and I were asked to try to incorporate into the final product. After about two months of systematic revising, Parry and I handed off our final copy to the editors at Solution Tree, who worked through the piece to make sure that our language was consistent and articulate.
I probably spent somewhere between 10 and 20 hours a week writing BPLC. It was essentially a part time job! That’s why teachers need to find the right time in their professional and personal lives to tackle book projects. If you haven’t got the time to invest in a book, you’re going to end up frustrated and overwhelmed. And frustrated, overwhelmed writers rarely turn out quality work.
If you’ve had a new baby, started in a new position, or have family responsibilities that you just can’t be away from, it might not be the time to write. Wait for the cycles of your life where professional and personal responsibilities leave an open window for extra work.Is there another book in the works? You're well known in the edu-blogsphere and beyond for your work integrating Web 2.0 tools and ideas into your everyday teaching. Is that the next project?
Bill Ferriter: I’m actually in the middle of my second book as we speak—co-authored with Adam Garry, another professional colleague and friend. It’s tentatively titled Plug Us In: Five Digital Projects that can be Tackled Today — it's an attempt to create a series of practical activities that teachers can use to introduce 21st Century skills into their classrooms.
What makes Plug Us In unique is that the focus of our writing is on the kinds of skills that today’s students need to master in order to succeed—persuasion, collaboration, communication, information management. While we introduce extensive sets of tips and tricks for using digital tools—things like blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, Voicethread, social bookmarking and shared annotation applications—in our text, they all serve to strengthen good instructional practices.
I’ve got to tip my hat to long-time TLN member Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach for that orientation! Years ago, she convinced me that technology conversations needed to be focused on good teaching instead of new tools. Tools are simply a vehicle for making good teaching—and efficient learning—possible. Those ideas have driven my own thinking about teaching with technology ever since, and they play a prominent role in Plug Us In.
The manuscript is due in the spring—and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the text will be published in the fall of next year.