Getting Started with PLCs – A Protocol for Group Collaboration

Our first staff meeting at Edward Johnson was partly about getting to know each other. We have many new staff members (including both administrators), several LTOs (Long Term Occasionals) and a growing FDK (Full Day Kindergarten) team of 14 educators. We are also about to get started choosing areas of interest and people to work with for our professional learning teams — aka — our collaborative teacher inquiry groups. index

Many getting to know you activities include interest inventories, learning style or learning preference surveys that help us get to know ourselves as learners, but we thought it might be important to get to know ourselves as a group, and wonder a bit about our own participation in teams; how do others influence us, and how do we impact the group?  My go-to site for great protocols is the National School Reform Faculty from the Harmony Education Centre, and one that fits really well for this purpose is the Compass Points Activity, its purpose being to understand our preferences in group work.

I’ve used this protocol about 4 times now, very successfully in three f2f sessions and even once trying it online during a Connected Coaching course with PLP Network.  Through the protocol we learn a lot about each other, and we learn a lot about how other people in our groups can strengthen our team and ‘balance’ us out.

The protocol is a four corners activity.  Each teacher identifies him/herself with one of the compass points which describes them best and then joins others in that group for a brief discussion. In general, the four compass points identify some folks who jump right in, some who like to know the big picture, some who like to focus on the details and some who are concerned about interpersonal skills and making sure that all members are heard.

Here are the points that are discussed in each group and then shared out briefly to all:

  • what are the strengths of your style?
  • what are the limitations of your style?
  • what do you want others to know about your style?
  • which of the other styles do you find most difficult to work with and why?

Each group I’ve done this with has had fun and some giggles along the way as we see each group complete the discussion and sharing in a way that suits their style. This time around some teachers noticed that our group was pretty evenly split among the four groups, and that some of their favourite people to work with were actually quite different than them in terms of how they liked to approach group tasks. We learned who liked to jump right in and who liked to see the big picture, who likes to understand the details first and who would want to look after people and make sure that all were heard.  We talked about what our group might find stressful at times as well as the benefits to us of having a diverse team.

My hope is that this activity will build some trust among us as we begin our learning this year, and it has also given us some understanding of our role in group dynamics….both from the point of view of what we need to be effective contributors and what our colleagues need from us!

What ways to you try to build a culture of trust and openness that leads to productive group work in your setting?



  1. Hi Brenda,

    Ok, you knew I’d be commenting on this one, right? 🙂

    You know my skepticism about these kinds of activities and models. Some people take their results quite literally and that can lead people to think that that is actually how they really are–regardless of circumstance, level of expertise, mood, context, etc.

    Having said that, I know you well enough to know that you use these protocols as a ‘jumping off point’–a way of getting teams to be sensitive to others–to pay attention, to listen, to appreciate, to respect and honour others. It is a starting point for you–something to which you will return and to which your staff will refer as they move forward in their community building.

    Could you help me understand what plans you have for revisiting this information or for using it as a building block moving forward?

    Note: You ask, “What ways to you try to build a culture of trust and openness that leads to productive group work in your setting?” Well, like you, having had the PLP experience and the influences of my friend, Jim Milligan, I attempt to use appreciative inquiry, harm reduction and–of course, ‘taking the pause’. Whenever a colleague comes to me and I am busy, I either let them know I am super busy at the moment (if it is something I cannot stop) and that I will get back to them or I pull down my laptop screen, turn the ringer off on my phone, rotate my chair to face them and give them my complete attention. They deserve that.



    • Thanks for pushing my thinking as always, Peter. It definitely was a jumping off point – both for David and me – we are both new admin here and for lots of the new staff. Unfortunately, we weren’t all there for this one, as we had to switch our date, but it seemed to be taken well as a beginning activity. Several folks were talking about it (positively) the next day, so I have to count that as meaningful…for at least some teachers.

      As a jumping off point my hope is that it will help us understand each other a little bit better and therefore know what our comfort levels are and what our stressors are, to some degree. In my view, this is an important part of having meaningful dialogue and being able to share what we don’t know – both things that are critical to productive group work if we are to participate in inquiries that help us become better teachers.

      As an administrator I realize that the ‘styles’ aren’t carved in stone as you point out. It does help me think about what folks shared about their preferences though – who I might check in with because they might not come to me, who likes the details outlined before a new initiative begins, who might like a heads up on something a week or two before and who might be okay with trying something out and giving feedback to others. All of us probably role shift a bit depending on what it is we are talking about…but I still appreciate having the opportunity to reflect on all of the wonderful individuals that make up our team!


  2. Brenda, I really like this strategy that you used. One of my favourite TDSB people, Moses Velasco, (in the Professional Learning and Leadership Department) uses Compass Points often and it is revealing. (If you were wondering, I can be a “role chameleon” but I tend to gravitate “to the south”). Unlike Peter (whom I admire and respect a lot), I am a big supporter of energizers and activities like this. I am a Tribes TLC trained facilitator, and there are many techniques used in the manuals that combine process and product. I also found a great activity from a PLC book Moses lent me (that I can’t remember the title) that led to great things regarding shared leadership in PLCs. Finally, shared (and truly shared, not just “do this and then we’ll do it my way”) decision making and establishing group norms helps a lot too. Our first division meeting allowed the individuals to together come up with regulations about how the meetings would run, what would be covered, and how we would interact. Great blog post – I’m glad Doug linked to it.


    • Thanks Diana! If there is any chance you remember that activity…please do share! I think it will be important to set those ground rules as well – I think knowing expectations might help us all relax and be more focused on our learning together. There are some around this topic on that site I shared but if they name of the book comes to mind I’d love to know it!


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