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
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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 (39) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

You might consider using some text-based protocols to discuss some articles or blog posts that intrigue you. Having each member take a turn selecting a piece for discussion can help build a stronger community which can, in turn, help open the door for conversations about innovation and teaching and learning. I find that some teachers are tired of the flavor-of-the-week innovation merry go round, which can make them appear to be entrenched in the status quo. Rather than starting from a place of "we need to change," it can help to start from a place of "I want to do this (insert specific thing) better. What do you know that can help me? What do you think about this approach?" Even if you find you disagree, there's no reason not to build on their experiences- they've been around the block and can help you understand your context, the ways that new pedagogical approaches build on previous ones, etc. (I use a lot of the protocols from the School Reform Initiative. They're really helpful. SchoolReformInitiative.org)

Faith Obunde's picture

I have gained great insights from this article. As a school we have always had informal PLC and have gone well so far, maybe because we have them twice a month - for awhile the focus has been on evaluating school programs. I am thinking of weekly PLC meetings that will now give more focus on sharing different teaching strategies that teachers are using in their classes, then discuss ways we can begin evaluating how the strategies are having an impact on the students... so of "what do you think of this" approach. Thanks for sharing about the school reform initiative site. I have found great ideas there as well.

Veronica R's picture

I gained so much from reading your post. I have PLCs at my school, but they were shortened this year and the administrator does a "mini" staff meeting as one of our PLCs each week. I work at a Title I school and we look for ways to use our Title I funding and we also get grants each year and I am going to suggest that we hire someone to consult our PLC groups. My school has many new employees this year, as well as a new principle, so it would be beneficial to have someone from the outside come in to advise our PLC groups.

Crystal Branagan's picture

Seeing the insight from this post has given myself new information. I really appreciated the ideas of getting outside help. I believe this is important within the learning communities as working together collaboratively is of high importance. Thank you for your thoughts.

lynzwright's picture

I am really interested in the idea presented on merging teacher communities and cross-role communities. Any specific ideas on how to implement this in addition to the community service example?

jacrose's picture

I am currently an education student and have worked as Paraeducator in a self contained public special education school for 14 years now. Our building began the push towards Professional Learning Communities last school year in which our School Improvement Team created a series of PLCs for staff members to join. I strongly agree with the importance of trust among staff and believe that all staff in the building should feel comfortable enough to put forth new ideas. I was wondering the author's feelings on support staff member being included on PLCs as they were not mentioned in your article?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Jacrose! I'm not the author, but I think the important thing to remember is that the groups shouldn't include people who have evaluative power over one another. It really comes down to making sure that all members feel safe enough to take risks and be public about failures as well as successes. I think that matters more than the specific roles of the people involved in the groups. My principal was in my PLC (though we called it a CFG then). I felt very safe sharing my foul-ups because he'd done a great job of helping build a culture in which failure was one step on the road to improvement. That's not the situation for everyone, though.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

lynzwright, I think it's important to start those cross-role conversations from a safe space- discussing a text, analyzing successes, etc. The School Reform Initiative (http://schoolreforminitiative.org) has some excellent resources to help with this!

erika handwerk's picture

I found your article very helpful for my future profession. As a future educator I think it is a great idea to get feedback from other educators. I noticed that you stated getting outside help to be a productive way to guide learning communities. Is this an affordable option for schools? Is there grant funding for this?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I think that some schools use Title 2 or 4 funds to pay for this training. The support from the School Reform Initiative (http://www.schoolreforminitiative.org/) is pretty cost effective- they may have ideas about ways to access additional funding as well. I know that we have folks participate in our training at Antioch via their PD funds or with their district's tuition remission. Since it's usually between $700-$1200 a person, it's not usually within the parameters of what schools can afford. (That being said, we've certainly provided training for schools at whatever rate they could afford- and I know my SRI colleagues have done the same)

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