George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

How to Create a Vertical Professional Learning Community

An entire department can collaborate across grade levels to share instructional strategies and confirm that their methods are aligned.

January 13, 2022
Teachers in a meeting at school
Allison Shelley / American Education

A vertical professional learning community, or PLC, happens when a team of educators come together to see how standards, curriculum, assessment, and instruction align within the school. It’s most effective for a vertical PLC to be made up of all teachers within the same department or content area and span across grade levels (for example, in a high school, all of the math teachers—regardless of whether they taught Algebra 1 or AP Calculus—would be part of the math PLC).

This is a shift from traditional PLCs, in which all teachers either within the same grade level or teaching the same content area meet (for example, all of the fifth-grade teachers meeting together, or all of the seventh-grade ELA teachers).

The “why” behind vertical PLCs is that they can be the key to unlock shared instructional strategies and collaboration at your school site. But how can your faculty and staff begin—and how can you support them as a school leader? These are the three key things to keep in mind: building buy-in, creating an agenda that works, and assessing the success of the vertical PLC.

Building Buy-In

The number one piece of crafting successful vertical PLCs in your school is buy-in from your faculty and staff. However, it can be challenging for faculty and staff to see the worth of even the best PLCs—with so many things on everyone’s plate, the last thing you want is for people to think that the vertical PLC process is a waste of time. Here are some suggestions for your faculty and staff to get started:

  • Link vertical PLC purpose to the school’s mission and vision. Mission and vision connect the entire school together, so why not do the same with vertical PLCs, where the entire department or content area has the opportunity to connect? For example, if it’s a core component of your school’s mission for your students to be future ready, vertical PLCs can define key indicators of success for each subject. The important thing to consider with vertical PLCs is that, by department or content area, these indicators should look different. For example, in a science vertical PLC, future ready might mean studying and understanding new advances in STEM, whereas in a related arts vertical PLC, future ready might mean connecting with industry professionals to speak about their career pathways.
  • Encourage your faculty and staff to find a shared, consistent time to meet. Shared time is important, but consistent shared time is even more important. If a vertical PLC meets intermittently, there are missed opportunities for growth and collaboration. Aim for a minimum of one meeting per month.
  • Give faculty and staff time to develop shared community agreements. Community agreements give the opportunity for the PLC to identify qualities that are important to them to function as a group. Examples include “Please be on time,” “This is a brave space,” and “Encourage participation.”
  • Determine critical needs—and celebrations—in each department or content area. Determining areas of need or concern is always a great way to help tackle pertinent issues that departments or content areas may be facing. If you couple that with celebrations or “wins” that you have been noticing, it can help you and your team be solution oriented.

I recently worked with a math PLC, and every single teacher—from 6th grade to 12th—identified fact fluency as a major area of concern for their students. They also identified students’ positive attitude toward math games as a major celebration. With these two pieces of information, we found a fact fluency game resource for them to use in their daily instruction.

Creating an Agenda That Works

Once a PLC is formed, I recommend that teams craft an agenda for each meeting. An agenda keeps pertinent topics at the forefront of the conversation and also gives space for key updates and collaboration. When I help craft vertical PLCs for my faculty and staff, I always include the following:

  • Welcome and key updates. Reserving five minutes at the very beginning of the meeting to welcome everyone and give key updates about what’s going on helps start the meeting off positively, as well as providing important information that can help inform practice.
  • Celebrations and “wins of the week.” I’m very big on celebrations and wins, especially if it’s been a tough week or if a challenging topic is being covered. Leading the meeting with exciting or positive news can be helpful in setting the tone for the PLC. Ten minutes is typically the amount of time that I give for this section of the meeting.
  • Areas of support. For around 15 minutes, PLC members talk about key areas of concern and support in the classes they teach. The goal is that, with these needs identified across grade levels, PLC team members can begin to share strategies that they’ve used to tackle these concerns during collaborative time.
  • Collaborative time. Once areas of concern and support are identified, collaborative time is around 20 minutes for the team to problem-solve.
  • Closing/next steps. When the meeting is complete, it’s important to identify next steps (or action items), or what’s on the horizon, for the next meeting.

I help my teams to identify the “PLC lead” (essentially, who runs the meetings), the “timekeeper” (who keeps track of time during the meeting), and the “note taker” (who adds notes to the agenda). I also help my teams send out the agendas one week in advance so that PLC team members can review the agenda, ask questions, or put in additional items that they feel would be beneficial to discuss. At the end of each meeting, PLC leads have the option to turn their agendas in to me and my administrative team or have a meeting to discuss the meeting and the anticipated progress.

Assessing the Success of the Vertical PLC

The key to monitoring PLC success is identifying what I refer to as the “follow-throughs.” A successful PLC means that the participants are not only identifying key indicators of success in their content area but working to be solution oriented to keep improving on these indicators. Here are some ways that leaders can identify—and celebrate—success in PLC teams:

  • Once each month, review PLC agendas or connect with PLC leads to do a pulse check on PLC progress. Reviewing agendas in a timely manner and, if requested, meeting with PLC leads can help you get a snapshot of how the PLC is doing, as well as areas where you can offer support or guidance if needed.
  • With PLC teams, create and send out a survey assessing success and areas for improvement. The surveys that I create for PLCs have three open-ended questions: “How would you describe collaboration in your PLC?” “How would you describe progress in your PLC?” and “Do you feel satisfied at the end of the PLC?” This survey—and the responses—can help identify what is working within a PLC and what may need a bit more attention. It can be sent out once per month for you to obtain information and feedback.
  • Shout out PLC teams at faculty/staff meetings. Sometimes, the best learning is done by seeing what others are doing. With their permission, I regularly give public praise to PLC teams and team members for their work with collaboration. For example, “I really appreciated how the science PLC worked to find a technology platform for research.” If they prefer private praise, I give them a quick note or stop by to let them know how much I appreciated their work, their strategies, or their collaboration.
  • If a PLC is struggling, identify areas for improvement and help create an action plan. One of the best things that you as a school leader can do to support a vertical PLC is to ask the simple question, “What can I do to support you?” By asking this question, you can see what teams need and also see how you can help a PLC in need. Usually with action plans, I recommend a 3-2-1 strategy: three things that we can improve immediately, two things that we can strategize on, and one thing that we can all support each other with. This helps keep the team solution oriented, but balanced.

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