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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Professional Learning Communities...Help?

Professional Learning Communities...Help?

Related Tags: 6-8 Middle School
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Hi All, This is the first time I have ever posted to a blog site...so please be kind...Over the last few weeks I have been attempting to start a professional learning community within my school to improve reflective teaching. There has been a variety of responses from my colleagues. I have seen everything from enthusiam, to ignoring, to anger. Realizing that all teachers are at their own place when reflection is concerned, I want to make the most out of the positive responses and see it grow. Hopefully this might encourage others to become a part of the process. Any ideas out there for help in starting and growing a Professional Learning Community? Thanks to all... Jennifer Okiyama

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Adrienne's picture
Middle School Social Studies Teacher

Hi Jennifer!
I can completely relate to some of your colleagues' mixed responses to the Professional Learning Communities. A similar situation has happened in my school very recently as well. A few of my colleagues and I realized the hesitation from some of the staff members was coming from lack of time. Most of our staff informed us they did not have time to sit down, discuss lessons, and reflect on much. They want their planning time to be just that...theirs. We could all relate because, as teachers, all of our time is valuable. We ended up setting aside one "team meeting time" per month which was dedicated to discussing how to make our lessons more critical and then we had a follow up session. It was very beneficial and the attitude in the school has shifted towards a willingness to participate. Maybe if you can start your PLC with your enthusiastic colleagues, and pick a convenient time (which I know can be difficult)... more would be willing to participate. If people can see how successful your PLC is...they may be motivated to join in. I do not know the dynamics of your school, but perhaps you can approach your administration to inquire about changing a "routine" meeting to one which focuses on reflection. Just some thoughts...keep us updated on how it goes!

Sarah Kaiser's picture


I'm not a teacher myself, but work on a site called AllThingsPLC.info that has tons of free PLC-related resources for teachers. There's a list of over 100 schools who have successfully become PLCs and showed evidence of that success over 3 years. There are also tons of worksheets, suggestions, ideas, and encouragement. The blog has answers to questions like yours on how to get started.

I know that the beginning of the implementation process for PLCs can be difficult, so I admire your dedication to making it work! Hope this is helpful:)

Brandy Henderson's picture

I work for a small, rural, village school in the Alaskan interior. According to Alaska Community Database Community Information Summaries [CIS] (2010), we have a population of 275. We are 290 air miles from the nearest major town and road system, Fairbanks. We are an Athabascan Indian community and are just south of the Artic Circle.

Our district is very small and spread out over hundreds of miles. Our school, Jimmy Huntington, School is the largest in our district with approximately 80 students, kindergarten through 12th grade. In fact, most of us teach at least two grade levels. The only time we get to collaborate with others who teach what we teach is at our in-services twice a year. The students are dismissed one hour early every Wednesday so that the staff can meet together. Unfortunately, that is more like a staff meeting. The principal runs the agenda and the discussions. We talk about housekeeping issues, have district trainings, or work on school improvement paperwork. We rarely do any collaboration on improving instruction in our classrooms. The district has tried to act on the research that developing professional learning communities improves student instruction. However, they missed some critical components. According to DuFour (2004), professional learning communities need to have 3 major components. The focus needs to be on student leaning, not just covering essential concepts. Collaboration needs to focus on improving classroom instruction. The last and final focus needs to be on results.
Districts that encourage teachers to continue their learning can directly positively impact students' learning (Nieto, 2003).

Luckily, another teacher and I have decided to start a masters program in literacy, one of our biggest areas of need, together. This has given us the opportunity to collaborate with each other on our teaching. However, this needs to be done on a larger scale, involving the entire school, and possibly the entire district in order to get meaningful and sustainable results. Does anyone have ideas or suggestions on how to improve our collaboration when we are so small and isolated?

Community Database Community Information Summaries. (2010). Huslia. Retrieved from http://www.commerce.state.ak.us/dca/commdb/CIS.cfm?Comm_Boro_name=Huslia

DuFour, R. (2004). Schools as learning communities. Educational Leadership, 61(8),6-11. Retrieved from http://pdonline.ascd.org/pd_online/secondary_reading/el200405_dufour.html

Nieto, S. (2003). What keeps teachers going? New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Sarah Kaiser's picture

Hi Brandy!

There have been a few posts about working to collaborate from small schools on AllThingsPLC - you're definitely not alone in your endeavor.

The category called "Small Schools" includes a post by Bill Ferriter about using twitter to find educators in your field and ask questions.

There's also an evidence page where you can search by the size of schools and demographics. For example, there are 5 schools listed that have 0-250 students at the elementary level.

I hope this is helpful!

Carol Keskeny's picture

Hi Jennifer,
Try reading Jim Knight's from University of Kansas, information @ http://www.instructionalcoach.org/. He also has a Radical Learners blog that's great. It sounds like you are experiencing what we have all gone through! Jim will answer any questions you may have. I just kept working with the positive teachers, finally some of the other teachers wanted in on our planning sessions.Keep trying.

Brandy, Have you tried Google docs? It's great for collaboration!

Patrick Faverty's picture

Of all of the concepts we have seen come to schools recently, I think the PLC may be the most misunderstood. My take on a PLC is that it is based on teachers' passion for making a difference for kids, not about a topic to discuss or a book for shared reading. That passion comes from the reason we all became teachers - we want to make a difference for kids! I have been a principal and a superintendent, I now teach leadership in higher ed. To build a true PLC we need to find out what everyone's passion is about in the school. Passion brings energy. Once there is a shared passion for what we are doing, everything becomes possible. I believe it is in the early discussion of recovering our passion when a PLC becomes possible. Every teacher can rekindle this passion and as we ask others about their passion, we soon find our collective passion, beliefs, and PLC energy! Certainly teachers can lead the discussion about passion, but it always helps to have a principal be the back stop!
Why do you think project-based learning works? - because it rekindles the passion in teaching and learning!

Loretta Roe's picture

Hi Brandy,
In her work, What Keeps Teachers Going?, Sonia Nieto (2003)discusses the importance of teachers participating in professional learning communities and the important value of teacher collaboration in supporting teacher growth. Nieto states,"Excellent teachers don't develop full-blown at graduation; nor are they just 'born teachers.' Instead, teachers are always in the process of 'becoming.'"
Professional development learning communities allow teachers the opportunities to collaborate with colleagues to better understand the students they teach. These communities can serve as life-lines that keep us connected to our colleagues, our students, and the profession.
One of the great challenges we face as educators when dealing with the topic of professional learning communities is being able to find the time during our busy schedules to become involved in professional learning communities. Dr. Ann Lieberman (Laureate Education, 2007) discusses the importance of providing enough "good time" for professional development and participation in learning communities. When teachers feel forced to participate in professional learning communities at the end of their long work day, or when teachers do not feel connected to the topics these professional learning communities are discussing because they are mandatory topics imposed by the school's administration rather than topics chosen by the staff, teachers may feel disgruntled and may not invest much time, interest, or enthusiasm into the professional learning community.
In order for these professional learning communities to be effective, they need to address actual or authentic concerns of teachers as they relate to issues within their own classrooms. Unfortunately, many professional learning communities do not address the needs of the teacher in the classroom; rather, an administrator addresses the manufactured needs or issues of the district and a professional learning community is then imposed upon all staff rather than volunteers who have chosen to use their time to gain insight on a topic of their choosing or the needs of their specific student population.
At the present time, our school district has encouraged its language arts staff to adopt the Writers Workshop methodology into our classroom curriculum. As small grade level groups, on a monthly basis, we have observed two classroom lab presentations from a private educational consultant as she models Writers Workshop lessons in our colleagues' classrooms. After the one hour lesson, our grade level group meets for a "debriefing session" where we discuss what we have observed. I had been a high school English teacher for thirteen years prior to my teaching at my present assignment as a Basic Skills Language Arts teacher for middle school. I have worked at my present job for the past seven years.
I teach nine sections of students: three sixth grade, three seventh grade, and three eighth grade levels on alternating A, B, and C day schedules. My class period is forty minutes long. The questions I have deal with the best ways to organize the Writers Workshop model in a classroom such as mine. I am a little confused about maintaining continuity lessons that may stretch over more than a single class period.
I have also learned that we will be expected to introduce Readers Workshop as well in September. Because I am the only Language Arts Basic Skills teacher in my building, it is difficult for me to collaborate with other colleagues on these topics other than the scheduled monthly workshops. What else can I do to improve the collaborative process to make the most of the district's imposed professional development goals? I want to remain open-minded; yet, I have a number of questions about Writers and Readers Workshop, and do not have the luxury to meet with other staff members to discuss this because our schedules conflict.
Any advice from others who may be using Writers or Readers Workshop, or who have had less than ideal situations when trying to find time to collaborate with colleagues would be appreciated.

Thank you,


Nieto, S. (2003)What keeps teachers going? New York, NY: Teachers
College Press

Laureate Education, Inc. ( Producer). (2007) The teaching professional
[DVD]. Introduction to professional learning communities.
Baltimore, MD: West, Lucy, Ed.D.

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