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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 (27)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Robin's picture

I came to the small district this year as the curriculum and instructional director. My district has NOT looked as assessment scores, not commonly assessed, collaborated, or looked at data. Over the course of the year I have established common planning time meetings in the elementary with the intent of looking at formative and summative assessment data and sharing the practices that worked. It has taken a lot for the teachers to trust each other. The high school and middle school do not have common plan times. I have asked that this be implemented next year and the answer from the counselors - impossible - no!

Our district is being reviewed. We are going to be forced to do PLC's as practiced by our local regional professional development center - which I used to be employed. The first year of their PLC model is to establish teams from each school, 1 per grade level, and that's it. These teams are sent to team meetings off school grounds for an entire year. Often the meetings are four or five days long. No communication with their school is allowed at that time, no individual time is allowed either, including meals. The entire time is team building, not data reflection.

Teachers from other districts that I know very well participating in this type of PLC hate it. They are perceived as "golden" by the staff that isn't selected, their group a clique that is treated to five day vacations. The teachers hate it because they don't like the forced team mentality, some have told me they simply pretend to engage - for days.

What can I do?

Greg's picture
Greg
Middle School Principal

Nice article!

PLCs may not be new but the emergence of Web 2.0 technologies combined with the PLC concept is new and exciting. I am finishing up a year long study on the impact of an online learning community has on new in-service teachers. The preliminary results are quite promising with one of the biggest benefits being the ability to counter "teacher isolation" which many new teachers face in the beginning years.

I, too, recommend the Graham and Ferriter book. Bill Ferriter also has a nice article in Educational Leadership (2009) on PLCs. Anything from Linda Darling-Hammond on PLCs is a must read to build help build a background on PLCs.

Hope to share more once I have my results completed as it relates to online learning communities and new in-service teachers.

Harvey Hoyo's picture
Harvey Hoyo
Professor- National University- California

For those moving forward with the PLC concept, I suggest to the powers that be to consider including the school counselor(s)in the initial planning sessions. They are trained in facilitation and focus on student achievement - they will make a strong ally in this movement. They, by training, understand how to engage people in this important process.
I also agree that Linda Darling-Hammond is a must read in this process of reform.

Victoria Duff's picture

Both Bill Ferriter and Anne Jolly's books are high on the list of the essential library needs for schools in New Jersey. We also recommend Leading Professional Learning Communities by Shirley Hord and William Sommers (a must read for district, school and teacher leaders) and Accelerating Student and Staff Learning by Kay Psencik (a practical resource that helps teacher teams focus on curriculum, assessment, and instruction).

Bill Bronson's picture
Bill Bronson
assitant teacher/ 4th grade/ Packer Collegiate Institute/ Brooklyn/ NY

Great Comments/ Great Topic

I'm currently creating a wikispace for my colleagues and myself to share ideas and knowledge about integrating technology in the lower school classroom. It has occurred to me during this process that the Wiki format is tailor-made for the creation of online PLCs. First and foremost is the idea that a wiki can be like a faculty meeting where the thoughts and ideas of the users are user directed and always available (at any hour!) Anyone have any links to resources re:?

Sara Yavorsky's picture

I am new to the world of PLC's. This blog points out how to successful start and operate a PLC at your school. I liked how it explained at the beginning teachers will not feel completely comfortable sharing their ideas with the group. The leader of the PLC needs to develop trust and assure that no one is being judged, and once that is done teachers will begin to share their ideas. Ellen shared a great idea of having elective teachers having some type of presentation that the students can attend while the teachers are meeting in PLC's. The principle will love that idea because by having the elective teachers watch the students they do not have to get and pay for substitute teachers of all members of the PLC's. I like the idea of having parents and community members participate in the PLC. This way all parties voices are heard and help improve things for the students. Overall I think PLC's are an excellent way to improve schools, encourage teacher collaboration, and improve student achievement.

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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Yolande Elliott's picture
Yolande Elliott
teacher in the resource centre

Can I just comment on an epidemic sweeping the world? I have this useless hope I can change things! Plurals do not require an apostrophe. Therefore 'PLCs' should not be 'apostrophied'. (Is that even a word?! I think not.) Nor should CDs, DVDs, BBQs, year 7s and so on. If I can't tell educators this, where else should I start?

Libby's picture

I love the sound of a PLC being run effectively. My school has a much different idea of what a PLC is and how it should be run. At the beginning of the year we were split up into learning communities. Some examples of the communities are: communications, math, literacy, etc. These communities plan different events throughout the school year. I am on the communications community and we plan assemblies for the school year. We don't share ideas, or talk about classroom problems and how to solve them. I feel as if my school is missing out on the benefits that a properly run PLC could offer.

lavenystoddard's picture

I laugh at this because what seems to be the most obvious is simply not. As we know, education is always changing; yet, more and more educators find change as a daunting, unnecessary task. My school is currently in the discussion of change as next year will be dramatically changed as the structure and culture of our school will be focused around collaboration not only within grade level teams, but also with vertical grades as well. As a new teacher, this is something that has been roaring inside me; the hunger to discuss and learn strategies among team members. Unfortunately, that is not available because why would change have to happen if perfection is already mastered? (I'm only joking of course) The article explained the core ideas well; The idea of trust. Trust not only allows the grade level team to collaborate and to be accepting of each other, but also that an entire school will be working together to raise the children we teach. This excites me...even when negativity surrounding me avoids it. Only time will tell and I can't wait! Now, has anyone recently undergone something drastic like this? I want to know how principals go around building these teams? How long does it take for a whole school to be collectively on the same page? How do discussion topics get determined to focus conversation among teams? Are schools with PLCs stronger and producing more, or is that determined simply on the make-up of the staff, teams, and population? I hope our school will be successful at this, because change in education needs to trigger the need and want for change within our own thinking and ideas.

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