“And I think that maybe people, myself included, might be thinking to themselves, ‘Man, I’m in the middle of the day right now. I have a meeting today. I have eight classes before and after, I have a family at home.’ I can imagine somebody thinking to themselves, ‘Oh my God, I could be doing anything else that would be truly helpful.’” —Anonymous teacher
Over the past three years, I have interviewed numerous teachers expressing this sentiment regarding the value of professional learning communities (PLCs). Although educators cherish moments when they can collaborate with their peers, it has been rare to find teachers who felt that their PLC provided the time and resources needed to make dialogue a meaningful practice to improve their teaching. But we can make them work better.
Challenges and promises of PLCS
PLCs are worthwhile when they are led by teachers, for teachers, and are supported by their administrators.
If schools are not fully committed to ensuring that PLCs receive the required time necessary to meet regularly, they should not embark on this journey of organizational change. Resentment and frustration ensue as a result of promised time being continually revoked. Whether it is for a principal meeting or to cover a colleague’s class, the loss of sacred collaboration time heightens initiative fatigue and leads teachers to believe their work holds little value in their own development as professionals.
However, when PLCS work well, educators have the opportunity to remove themselves from the isolation of their classroom and connect with their peers to take new risks in their own self-directed learning process.
5 Ways to make PLCS work
1. Create clear and meaningful agendas: Many PLCs begin with distributing role responsibilities: note taker, timekeeper, facilitator. Then someone reads a list of norms: be on time, be present, be respectful… and so on. This is not to say meeting roles and norms are not important, but they are not in themselves impactful.
Here are some things that work: Develop specific agendas that have clear objectives you want met by the close of your meeting time, and create digital agendas where team members can attach links to student work, assessments, or lesson plans. This replaces anecdotal experiences with clear evidence of practice.
Research unique protocols that fit your team. The ORID method is a fabulous protocol that I observed teams using to focus more on student data than on anecdotal evidence. Incorporating a protocol-directed dialogue into your agenda can engender conversations that may not have developed on their own.
2. Create a focus on student growth: Many meetings consist of aimless conversations to fill awkward silence. When PLCs integrate common topics as focal points in their collaboration, the richest dialogue focused on teaching and learning ensues.
Here are some things that work: Create a team formative or summative assessment that everyone will implement. PLCs can then participate in a cycle of reflection focused on student outcomes, reteaching strategies, extending learning opportunities, and so on, based on assessment data.
For example, one PLC focused on English language speaking and language acquisition. The team created a “Glow and Grow Chart” to assess individual speaking skills. Teachers shared various methods of feedback strategies they used with students while reviewing their speaking progress. One teacher used his SMART board with various visual scenes to elicit conversation topics with students, while other teachers used personal journal prompts about vacation. The team then had a common end goal of assessing specific language targets yet also had the freedom to teach in a manner that worked for their own students.
Use a shared drive, a Google Doc, or Google Classroom to allocate responsibilities for creating lessons and assessments that the entire team can access. Teaching then becomes a visible process that is a much more specific conversation than “How did your students do on that test?” When we focus more on informal teaching strategies, the conversation becomes asset-based as opposed to deficit based in regard to student ability.
3. Training, compensation, leadership: Few teachers have the time or motivation to lead their PLC. Team leadership can help alleviate some of the responsibilities. In a perfect world, your school has a well-developed PLC initiative with common goals and an overarching school purpose with supportive administrative staff to provide consistent guidelines for PLC facilitation.
Here are some things that work: Offer stipends to teacher-facilitators for all PLCs. Give these facilitators the opportunity to participate in monthly training sessions and utilize one another for support, questions, and concerns. As a result, teacher-facilitators do not have to balance planning agendas for PLCs with grading and other responsibilities. The PLC team as a whole benefits from this type of direction and organization.
Schools might hire a PLC consultant agency to approach a large-scale implementation of PLCs. Time will inevitably become a constraint, and there are professional companies such as WestEd that offer structural support to larger institutions in order to develop PLCs.
Administration should work with teacher facilitators during training sessions to create a shared leadership experience. Conversations should focus on the allocation of time for teams to meet, curriculum needs, and other necessary resources that PLCs might request to support team and student learning.
4. Make, and protect, time: Over the course of my study, almost every PLC team was disrupted at some point for teachers to cover classes or to attend larger, whole-school meetings convened by administration. Most teams simply did not have enough time to see any type of change in their practice.
Here are some things that work: Administration should view PLC time as sacred; disruptions should only be in case of a true emergency. In addition, find ways to collaborate when you are not able to meet to sustain progress. Collaboration might focus on creating student assessments, creative approaches to methods of teaching, issues and concerns that have arisen in individual classrooms, critiquing a shared lesson, observing a recording of a peer teaching, ensuring that curriculum is multivoiced and representative of all students, and so on.
Avoid PLC meetings at the end of the day or after school. Fatigue is at its peak then, and this is not an ideal time for collaboration.
5. How principals can help: Principals have the challenging task of supporting teams to reach their instructional goals while avoiding micromanaging tendencies that might negatively impact teacher buy-in.
Here are some things that work: Principals can offer visiting hours to PLCs in which they listen to staff concerns and needs to help improve their team progress. This might involve scheduling more time for collaboration or purchasing a specific education application, etc.
Provide instructional resources and professional development opportunities to PLCs that fall within the school day, and create and protect regular PLC time within a school day.
The kind of pedagogical discourse that occurs in PLCs has the potential to alter the culture of a school climate. In reframing problems of practice through an asset-based mindset, teachers can begin to take a collective responsibility for student learning that is within their control.