Collaboration and Collective Inquiry in a PLC
The leader of a professional learning community describes how she ensures that team members work together effectively.
Like many aspiring teachers, I thrived in my college education classes yet struggled to find my footing as a new teacher within a team. When I was appointed to lead my own team, my first priority was to cultivate an environment that made everyone feel that their contributions mattered.
As a leader, I began to understand that there are two essential characteristics of an effective professional learning community (PLC) that are difficult to master and not explicitly taught to aspiring teachers: fostering a culture of collaboration and managing the process of collective inquiry. Focusing on these two aspects of my PLC became paramount for me to run a truly effective team.
A Culture of Collaboration and Support
Authentic collaboration is essential for accomplishing common goals within a teaching team, and the first step is getting to know your team members as people.
The first meeting of the year should be a low-stakes, get-to-know-you event. The only objectives at this meeting are to get to know your team members and establish team norms for your PLC meetings. An off-campus location can make the meeting feel less formal and more comfortable. I have teammates fill out a personality test and bring it to the meeting—it’s an easy conversation starter, and understanding each person’s strengths, weaknesses, and work style helps set a tone of collaboration.
After the initial meeting, it’s essential to continue to have low-stakes, nonwork time together as a team, whether it’s lunch or an after-school outing. I tend to schedule these gatherings at the end of each grading cycle so that they have a celebratory feel. Spending nonwork time together builds upon the first meeting and fosters bonds that strengthen the team.
Once your team members feel comfortable with you and the procedures of the PLC, it’s time to start giving them tasks that contribute to the effectiveness of the PLC meetings. I begin this process after the first grading cycle. Establishing shared accountability and support within a team prevents ambitious teachers from developing feelings of insignificance and animosity that can tear a team apart. It’s a good idea to plan out the second unit with them, or demonstrate how to use data analysis to drive units and lessons. Give all team members ownership by enabling them to create lessons they’re interested in.
The goal is not to push people into a task they aren’t ready for but to offer opportunities to contribute and grow. When they take on a new task, it is the leader’s duty to support them outside of the PLC as much as possible so they feel successful when delivering their creation to the team. That will help everyone—especially new teachers—keep growing.
Effective Collective Inquiry
The goal of collective inquiry within a PLC is to build shared knowledge by utilizing new methods of teaching and examining best practices. This allows both new and experienced teachers to contribute to the decision-making process and employ their own teaching style.
Once a collaborative culture has been established, teachers will feel more comfortable sharing ideas and practices with the team. The key is to actually utilize those ideas. Something I really struggled with as a teacher who was new to a team was that when I shared ideas, they were never used—and I was never told why, which added to my feelings of frustration and insignificance.
To realize the goals of collective inquiry, it’s imperative to acknowledge and use team member ideas as much as possible. New teachers coming out of college have a fresh outlook on how to present ideas and teach skills, and they are huge assets to the team and can help build a bank of resources that add to the students’ experience of lessons. Veteran teachers are more experienced with the content skills and best practices, such as questioning strategies or actively monitoring student work. They add management strategies to the activities presented by new teachers.
Playing on the strengths of both new and veteran teachers within a PLC builds the knowledge bank of the team and enables each teacher to have ownership in the lessons and curriculum.
Ultimately, getting to know my teammates as people, building their confidence and knowledge, and intentionally utilizing ideas from each member of the team has allowed me to create an effective PLC—my dream team. My new-to-the-profession teachers have created an exemplary lesson bank that is categorized by content skill, as well as seating charts that organize students by their mastery of specific skills. My more experienced teachers are pulling proven, effective strategies from other curricula and altering them to fit our students and subject.
Creating an effective PLC team is challenging, especially since teachers are generally not explicitly taught how to do it. Focusing on creating an authentic culture of collaboration and intentionally fostering collective inquiry within PLC are vital parts of creating your dream team.