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

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.

LeAnn's picture

I enjoyed this article. The school that I am employed at is trying to implement PLC's. We are having a hard time finding the time to meet. This article gave a few ideas that might help us. I also enjoyed the idea of bringing outside community members in. I have not thought about inviting parents or other community members to these learning environments. It could be a great way to involve the community and let them see the good things that are occurring in our schools.

Chelsea's picture

I agree that PLCs require shared trust and time to be beneficial. Not only time, but "good" time. In the video Teacher as Professional: Characteristics of Effective Professional Development, Ann Leiberman described the importance of having quality time to participate and collaborate in a learning community. My school allots 40 minutes a week on Wednesday mornings. Though I enjoy that time, the bell seems to ring before we finish discussing what we are really interested in talking about (not what we are pressured to discuss). A solid two hours a week is a great amount of time to not only discuss challenges, but also share and practice new teaching strategies to benefit student learning and achievement in our classrooms. I like Jacqueline's reference to the DRIP syndrome. My school seems to be heavily focused on Data Rich/Information Poor results. Common assessments and observations tend to be a much better predictor of student gains and areas needed for improvement. If only my school had a solid two hour block of time in our week to collaborate... think of all the things we could accomplish in that amount of time.

Miranda's picture

I also agree that PLC's are very important for the success of any school as well as for student achievement. I wish that my school allotted time through the week for me to work collaboratively with my co-workers across the grade levels for a true PLC feel. We get 50 minutes a week to work with our grade level. I think it is not the same though. We do have a PLC meetings across the grade levels once a month but they are after school and most teachers are not interested because they are so focused on leaving. I feel that if my school did have more time fore PLC's, then our teachers would get more accomplished throughout the year.

Steph O's picture

I agree that teaching teachers how to collaborate is extremely important, so that teachers understand the process of how to effectively address the topic at hand. Another thing that I agree on is allowing the time so that conversation can happen that will promote student learning. My administrator occasionally brings up the idea at a staff meeting that as professionals we should be collaborating by grade levels and subject matter. I agree. I am at a k-8 school in which we do not have an active PLC at our school. We do collaborate on district directed issues, but have not been allowed to meet for school-based issues. The other issue to collaborate is that there is no time built in for collaboration. Our administrator suggest that we get creative. I inquired about a shortened day with maybe minutes added to the other 4 days, and I was told that it had been done, but teachers finally opted out because the collaboration did not remain school-based. Instead, the district insisted it be spent on district issues. There are two staff development days a month for district led itinerary. This is one of the obstacles in creating a successful PLC at our school site.

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!

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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