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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

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.

Credit: Edutopia

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.

Credit: Edutopia

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."

Credit: Edutopia

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

cgibson's picture
cgibson
library media specialist

PLNs are nothing new. We've always had them! Our PLNs were much smaller back in the old days, before social networking. Twenty yrs ago when I first started teaching, my PLN was a mentor and two veteran teachers down the hall. It's much today, of course, thanks to twitter, blogs, etc.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer
Staff

Hi all-

Just wanted to let everyone know that there's a great Professional Development/Personal Learning Network group on Edutopia.org that has some very useful information on PLNs.

Looking to exapnd your PLN to Twitter? There's a discussion for that: Twitter for Teachers. Check it out.

John Norton's picture
John Norton
Education writer, Founder & co-editor of MiddleWeb.com

Here are two practical books that can help teachers launch successful PLCs. Both are written with the thought in mind that PLCs will not succeed unless teachers fully buy in to them and see their value through results in their classrooms and schools. The first book is co-authored by Parry Graham and Bill Ferriter, with an introduction by Rick and Becky Dufour. It's titled "Building a Professional Learning Community at Work: A Guide to the First Year." The second book, published by NSDC and now in its third edition, is "Team to Teach" by Anne Jolly. Ferriter and Jolly are members of the Teacher Leaders Network where you can read interviews about the books: http://snipr.com/tln-auth-intrvws

Bill Ferriter's picture

Hey John,

Thanks for pointing out my book---Building a PLC at Work. I really am proud of it simply because it shares what I've learned as a full-time classroom teacher and member of a professional learning community. I hope that the materials and ideas we share can help learning teams to overcome the barriers that held us back at first!

Readers can explore all kinds of handouts---team surveys, school surveys, meeting templates, conflict resolution templates---from the book online here:

http://go.solution-tree.com/PLCbooks/Reproducibles_BPLC.html

And no joke: Anne's book--Team to Teach---is amazing. It's a tool that I'm thankful to have picked up early in our work as a professional learning community because it is full of practical resources instead of philosophy!

Be well,
Bill Ferriter

Anne Jolly's picture
Anne Jolly
STEM curriculum writer, PLC author, consultant and trainer

Ellen, your thoughts are really insightful . . .you nailed a couple of real needs for PLCs. School support is vital in the form of providing time for collaboration and a risk-free environment. You also pointed out the need for teachers to learn about collaboration. That's amazingly hard for teachers who have spent a large part of their careers working independently with classroom doors closed. It's no wonder that establishing trust is sometimes difficult. One interesting thing to note is that you can not teach trust . . . but you can teach trusting behaviors. If teachers practice those behaviors then trust will come.

We need more educators like you out there beating the drum for teacher collaboration. The positive benefits for teachers, students, and schools are well researched. I look forward to reading more good things from you!

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).

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