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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to Create a Professional Learning Community

It takes careful planning to form a useful and functional PLC, but once the foundation is built, the benefits will soon be evident.
By Ellen Ullman
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This how-to article accompanies the feature "Teachers and Community Members Practice TLC with PLCs."

Here are a few tips to consider when planning a professional learning community:

Teach Participants How to Collaborate

The success of PLCs hinges on collaboration, but don't assume it'll come naturally. Help the teams develop their own protocols and norms. Anne Smith, assistant superintendent of Long Island's Mattituck-Cutchogue School District, began by facilitating everything herself. She wanted her teachers to know that they were not being judged. "You need to teach them how to ask questions that don't put people on the defensive," Smith says. She circulated articles and books and encouraged them to form study groups.

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As a PLC facilitator, Nancy Krakowka, a sixth-grade language arts teacher at the district's Cutchogue East Elementary School, knows that collaboration doesn't happen overnight. "I spent a lot of time figuring out how to make it work," she says. "Instead of saying, 'This is how we'll run our PLC,' I asked everyone for input."

Krakowka's group worked to find a common goal -- creating student portfolios. Once they let down their guard and started sharing their own methods, they began to learn together. Five of them worked with a sixth teacher to move past her fear of using portfolios. Having their support made her willing to take the risk.

Create an Atmosphere of Trust

To the educator accustomed to closing the door, sharing information about techniques can be discomforting. To overcome those barriers, encourage teachers to form a book club or a discussion group about a teaching topic, suggests Joseph Aguerrebere, president and CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Once they share opinions in a trusting setting, they'll be open to discussing more.

It's up to the school leader to establish trust. "The formal and informal leaders have to be clear that the goal is collaboration and not competition," says the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District's Anne Smith. "You can't clobber people about test scores and then say, 'Let's collaborate.' What are you doing to support the teacher?"

Aguerrebere suggests asking teachers to pair up and observe each other's classes. "There should be no judgment in these visits," he says. "The goal is building comfort."

Allow Enough Time

It's important to carve out enough time for learning teams to meet and work through their issues regularly. Nancy Krakowka's grade-level PLCs began by meeting once a month for regular meetings. They also had three daylong gatherings each year, as well as common prep periods.

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After a few months, teachers began leaving their doors open and meeting informally throughout the day. Anne Smith finds additional meeting time by hiring substitutes to come in to cover entire grades. And next year, she's guaranteeing designated time: Her contract will include an additional three hours a week dedicated to PLCs.

Smith's staff comes up with ways to help PLCs meet despite time constraints. The librarian and the music teacher at Krakowka's school have started a storytelling unit that can take up to three classes at a time, allowing those teachers to meet.

Be Broad and Inclusive

Although many PLCs consist only of teachers, a broader population can be brought in, such as administrators, parents, and community members who support their school. The objective is to align everyone's interests and expertise with the school's vision and goals.

In some cases, "teacher communities are not as robust as cross-role communities," says Giselle Martin-Kniep, founder of Communities for Learning: Leading Lasting Change. For example, if a group is considering replacing suspension with community service, the community can provide ideas. In cases involving big groups, it makes sense to form smaller satellites that gather feedback to deliver to the larger group.

Get Outside Help

Hiring a consultant with a broader perspective may help with complex situations that can be difficult to untangle from within. With Smith's group of teachers, the early days of the learning community were more like interest-based study groups that didn't result in much change.

As the focus intensified and the groups began having tougher conversations about standards and curriculum mapping, she hired a consultant. The consultant trained one teacher per grade level to facilitate the PLCs, and now the funding for the consultant goes to a teacher who works half time with facilitators.

Remember the L in PLC

As the groups work on improving their professional practice, teacher development happens naturally. "Before PLCs, no one offered any kind of support," says Nancy Krakowka. "Now, my colleagues and I are always going to each other for advice."

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When they discuss a topic as potentially controversial as assessments, the team learns from each other. "We're not always on the same page and can have healthy disagreements," she says. "Rather than be defensive, we sit down and discuss."

Krakowka loves hearing about her colleagues' different approaches. Through her work with the PLC, she realized that although she did a great job teaching ancient civilization, she wasn't relating the subject to modern times. "By comparing content, someone pointed out my gap," she says. "We exchanged ideas on how I could make those connections."

Ellen Ullman is a freelance writer and editor in Fairfield, Connecticut, who specializes in education and technology.

Comments (31)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

bcling5's picture

I feel my grade level as a whole, has a very informal PLC. We are constantly working together to collaborate on students and content. I would like to see more time allotted for us to possibly collaborate across grade levels in our district. I also love the idea of having the PLCs run as a input based meeting, rather than having one facilitator run the meetings. It seems like the key to successful PLCs is having enough time to feel as though the meeting has accomplished something.

MissWhitcher's picture

My school unfortunately does little to participate in PLCs. This step-by-step guide would be perfect for us in setting up a more structured routine. I agree on is allowing the time so that conversation can happen that will promote student learning. I enjoyed the idea of bringing outside community members in. At one of the last PDs my school did have, we talked about our lack of parent and community involvement. PLCs would be a great way to get them involved and informed. Thanks for the post!

Kristin Ullmark's picture

I agree that PLCs require time and trust. Sometimes it can be difficult to share and receive criticism, but if you have an established community of teachers it can be easier to communicate difficult topics. I also found it important to have a set schedule and goal for a meeting. With teachers having many different topics and problems to solve, a goal needs to be set in order to keep the conversation on point. I am fortunate enough to work in a smaller school district where the administration is active in attending PLC meetings and keeping in touch with the teachers. This brings a different perspective that is influential in making important decisions. Thank you for the information and ideas!

Queeta Small's picture

As a beginning teacher working in public education I have not had very much experience with professional learning communities. In my first year of teaching, I was to attend weekly PLCs with my grade level. However, someone (Administration, a teacher, a mentor, a speaker) didn't show up. The veteran teachers complained about having to give up their planning period and often spent the majority of the 50 minutes (one class period) arguing with administration about student behavior and they way things used to be when they first started teaching in the 70s and 80s. I am looking share ideas with my Beginning teacher cohort regarding implementing PLCs within their individual schools and communities. Twice a month as part of the beginning teacher program, I meet with teachers from across the district (after school) to discuss challenges, successes, thoughts, ideas, frustrations, excitement, ect. Sometimes we talk about classroom management and behavior but the focus is never on one thing and though we have the opportunity to share our frustrations, there isn't nearly enough time to begin tackling these challenges. Professional learning communities will allow teachers, both new and veteran, an opportunity to explore challenges as a team and create working solutions that benefit both teachers and students. Teacher shouldn't be afraid to work together. It shouldn't be a competition where they are fighting for recognition of student achievement. In order for PLCs to be effective teachers must have effective time to focus on the PLC. They should have a supportive environment and ample time to share their ideas. Schools that lack support for PLCs often lack participation and commitment. Teachers should feel that PLCs are beneficial to their teaching practice. They should be aware that there is no guideline for the perfect PLC and that participation in PLCs requires action-research. Participants of the PLC much work together to address concerns and create solutions to challenges. They must provide support and receive support. There should be time during the school day for reflection and PLCs and teachers should feel that their ideas, issues, ect are being heard. It seems as if starting an effective PLC is a lot of work but the end result if one of collaboration, support, creativity, growth and development.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program

Hi Queeta! I think you've really nailed the essence of where PLCs can go sideways. (Kristin referred to it as well, actually) PLCs- effective, powerful ones- build from a place of respect and trust and mutual support of risk. If those aren't intentionally built, they can collapse under the weight of the expectations. I particularly like the way the School Reform Initiative (schoolreforminitiative.org) approaches the work because it starts with an assumption that community has to be built before any really risk can be taken.

TheresaS's picture

I am really interested in the idea presented on merging teacher communities and cross-role communities. Any specific ideas on how to implement this in addition to the community service example?

Jahanson06's picture

I really enjoyed reading this article. We are given weekly PLC time with our school grade level teams, as well as monthly PLC time with our district grade level teams. While the school meeting is always great, the district one seems like it needs some work. The collaboration isn't great, as most groups just stay with their school teams (there are only 5 schools so its pretty small). They also gave us the topic of "scales" to focus on all year instead of letting us choose topics and no one was interested, nor took the time to be at the first grade level. I am really hoping that next year they allow it to expand more outside of scales because it could be a great group to learn with!

Mdrotts's picture

This was a very good article I enjoyed it very much. We are given a weekly PLC time for 1 hour. During this time not much is accomplished. We have 2 young teachers(I am one of them) and 2 older teachers, whom don't want to really change anything. They like the status quo and want it to stay that way. Any ideas on how to overcome this obstacle?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program

You might consider using some text-based protocols to discuss some articles or blog posts that intrigue you. Having each member take a turn selecting a piece for discussion can help build a stronger community which can, in turn, help open the door for conversations about innovation and teaching and learning. I find that some teachers are tired of the flavor-of-the-week innovation merry go round, which can make them appear to be entrenched in the status quo. Rather than starting from a place of "we need to change," it can help to start from a place of "I want to do this (insert specific thing) better. What do you know that can help me? What do you think about this approach?" Even if you find you disagree, there's no reason not to build on their experiences- they've been around the block and can help you understand your context, the ways that new pedagogical approaches build on previous ones, etc. (I use a lot of the protocols from the School Reform Initiative. They're really helpful. SchoolReformInitiative.org)

Faith Obunde's picture

I have gained great insights from this article. As a school we have always had informal PLC and have gone well so far, maybe because we have them twice a month - for awhile the focus has been on evaluating school programs. I am thinking of weekly PLC meetings that will now give more focus on sharing different teaching strategies that teachers are using in their classes, then discuss ways we can begin evaluating how the strategies are having an impact on the students... so of "what do you think of this" approach. Thanks for sharing about the school reform initiative site. I have found great ideas there as well.

jacqueline szczerba's picture

Our school is new to PLC's this year. A lot of our teachers really aren't on board yet. They don't want to give up any of their time. We meet once a week during our planning period, but are given one duty free recess a week to make up for it. Our topics are chosen for us and we are usually going over data. I don't mind going to these meetings because I like the information I receive, but I would like to have time to discuss teaching strategies and ideas to help improve my teaching. Isn't that what PLC's are all about? I read an article by Richard DuFour, he mentions that some schools suffer from the DRIP syndrome. The DRIP syndrome is Data Rich/ Information Poor. I really think our PLC's would be more successful if we had time to discuss teaching strategies and not just go over data.

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