In my work as a district effectiveness specialist, I commonly see educators struggling with the structure and the process of the professional learning community (PLC). According to The Glossary of Education Reform, PLCs are groups of educators that meet on a regular basis to share expertise and work collaboratively to improve teaching skills and the academic performance of students.
However, it’s no secret that as PLCs have become prevalent in schools, the definition of a PLC has broadened to the point where educators might not be sure if their PLC is really focused on teacher learning–and by extension, student learning.
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Prior to my work at the Georgia Department of Education, I worked with schools across the country to strengthen their approaches to learning and teaching. One school I worked with, Barringer Academic Center, found itself in the “broad PLC definition” category. A public K-5 elementary school located in Charlotte, NC, Barringer’s third-grade teachers were looking for a revitalized structure and process around their twice-weekly PLC meetings. They wanted better engagement around their learning as well as the ability to better harness how that learning was impacting student learning.
I learned about a new approach to and framework for PLCs, called PLC+, which is focused on consistent learning through inquiry and helping teachers collectively harness their expertise and self-efficacy to “be” a PLC instead of “doing” a PLC.
I felt the third-grade team at Barringer would benefit from using the framework to identify a few key steps that would take their PLC to the next level:
1. Have a collective understanding of a PLC’s definition and purpose
While Barringer teachers did have an informal PLC framework they were using prior to the PLC+ framework, they didn’t have any formal training–and they also didn’t have a common purpose or goal for the work. The PLC meetings were led by the grade-level chair, and the structure of the meetings weren’t right for the amount of time they were devoting to the meetings on a regular basis.
Through the PLC+ framework, the teachers started to realize that the purpose of their PLC meetings were to approach curriculum and instruction in a collaborative way – to plan, execute, and assess how the curriculum was working for their students. Once they were clear around their collective goal, the structure of their PLCs fell into place.
2. Be clear about what’s valuable to your team
For the team at Barringer, there were four cross-cutting values that represented the foundation of their PLC work: a strong focus on equity of access and opportunity, high expectations for all students, a commitment to building individual self-efficacy as well as the efficacy of the PLC, and effective team activation and facilitation. Once those values were determined, it made the goal and priorities of the PLC clear, and the team focused on making sure everything it did aligned with those values.
3. Take the time to get organized
The teachers realized lack of organization was the biggest issue with their current PLC structure. Because of this, they made some changes and stuck with them. First, they nominated a facilitator assigned to lead the work before and during the meeting. The facilitator shares an agenda prior to the meeting and assigns roles, including a timekeeper and a note-taker. After the twice-weekly meetings, the facilitator posts these notes immediately.
4. Ask simple, focused questions –and keep asking them
The team’s PLC agenda consisted of five guiding questions. These questions were repeated in order to strengthen the focus and outcomes of their meetings:
- Where are we going? This question was critical, as it gave the team clear learning intentions and expectations.
- Where are we now? A grounding question, especially as the team was doing things like considering equity, reviewing data together, and gaining consensus on their misconceptions on what their students needed to know and needed to be able to do.
- How do we move learning forward? In asking this question, the Barringer team realized that it had always felt the need to reinvent the wheel and think of completely different approaches students failed to move forward in their learning. After implementing this question, educators now take a look at the resources they already have, have discussions on what works and what doesn’t, and have a better understanding when they might need additional training to strengthen their teaching skills.
- What did we learn today? Self-reflection, group reflection, and checking for understanding became important to this team. Ensuring everyone was on the same page–and leaving the meeting with the same messaging–was critical for moving forward.
- Who benefited and who did not? A crucial question, as the teachers learned through inquiry how to identify clear actions and next steps in order to move learning forward for everyone.
These four steps, done consistently over a period of several months, started to show some results. “We feel more like a community of learners than a grade level-team,” one teacher said.
Others went on to say they can see growth in their thinking around the “work” and what needs to be done to improve student–and teacher–learning. They’re not afraid to ask for help during their collaborative meetings, because the barriers to their own learning has been identified and removed.