In education, the term professional learning community is very common. This term, however, can mean many things to different educators. It can be used to talk about extending classroom practices to the community, bring outside people into the school to increase learning of students, engaging students, teacher learning, among other definitions. The main definition I want focus on is professional learning communities as a way of getting teachers and administrations together to enhance learning through professional learning and training.
Similarly, professional learning communities as a way of getting teachers together to discuss growth of student through the use of data and students’ work. According to Richard DuFour, Rebbeca DuFour, and Robert Eaker, “Professional learning communities are educators committed to working collaboratively in ongoing process of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve” (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, 2008). In order to understand Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), I want to discuss my personal experience with PLCs.
I also want to touch on two components of PLCs: how have PLCs changed with technology and what roles do principals play in the development and upkeep of PLCs. In order to touch on these components of PLCs, we will first start by understanding PLCs and the benefits they provide to schools. The term Professional Learning Communities came about in the early 1960s. This rose as an alternative concept to battle the isolation researchers and school leaders saw in the teaching profession.
Research of PLCs increased in the Late 1980s and early 1990s, since then, many researchers have written about the importance and benefits of PLCs in the school setting. In 1985, Susan Rosenholtz did a research on what made effective schools. She looked at 78 school and past research. Her study concluded there were various factors which distinguish schools as effective, one of them was professional learning communities or teacher collaboration, “In effective schools, with frequent opportunities to see, hear, or talk with others at work, better-performing colleagues are singled out for consultation” (Rosenholtz, 1985).
We can see the importance of veteran teachers working with younger teachers to improve the performance of teaching. Likewise, veteran teachers can always learn from new teachers. Rosenholtz concluded schools’ success has different factors: collaboration, decision making, problem solving, and experimentation with teaching. This research of teacher collaboration rose in the 1980s, and in the early 1990s we saw more studies look at how PLCs lead to effective schools.
In 1993, Judith Warren Little and Milbrey McLaughlin reported effective schools operated as a strong professional community and showed the following characteristics: shared norms and beliefs, collaborative cultures, reflective practices, ongoing technical inquiry regarding effective practice, professional growth, and mutual support (Solution Tree, 2016). Richard DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Rebecca DuFour, which have written numerous books and are among the most influential people on PLC research have also identified six characteristics of PLCs.
The characteristics they found were the following (1998, 2006): 1) Shared vision, vision, values, and goals – all focused on student learning 2) A collaboration culture with a focus on learning 3) Collective inquiry into best practices and current reality 4) Action orientation: Learning by doing 5) A commitment to continuous improvement 6) Result orientation All these characteristics are very similar to other studies. What we learned is they all have to start with having a school leader who has a vision for student learning through the development and collaboration of teachers.
This is why having principal involvement in the creation of a PLC culture at the school is very vital for the growth of student success. All school leaders agree professional learning communities are powerful ways of staff development and one affective way of school change and improvement. Although PLCs are effective, the hardest part is finding time to schedule PLCs in the school setting. This is where we see the different way PLCs are implemented throughout schools. One way most school implement PLCs is by embedding them in their weekly meetings.
At my school, we have weekly meeting which rotate weekly between the following topics: Principal’s choice, PLCs, collaboration meetings, and subject based meetings. This is a way for the principal to ensure teachers are getting time to talk about data. The issue with this is we only get PLC times once a month. Collaboration meetings could be seen as a PLC, but for a while teachers were not meeting with other teachers. The principal had to step in clarify what consisted of collaboration meetings. Another way PLCs are implemented are through professional development or through data meetings.
I see this in districts where school have shorter days once a week. They use this time to have teachers meet with each other. Another way is by having teachers meet during their prep time. This is a lot harder to schedule, but if done right, teachers who teach the same subject or the same grade, have the same prep time. In the end, most schools agree one barrier to having successful PLCs is the lack of time during the school day. The lack of time during the school day for collaboration has made many teachers turn to online forums, blogs, and platforms to find and create their own PLCs.
In the past century, internet has really changed the way people collaborate with one another, including teachers. According to Jayme Linton and her article in LEARN NC, “An alternative to the conventional PLC model involves taking advantage of web-based tools for teacher collaboration. Online PLCs allow teachers to guide their own learning and collaboration. The flexibility of an online PLC allows teachers to work on their time, in their own space, using a format which meets their instructional needs” (Linton, 2011).
This flexibility not only ensures teachers are collaborating at their own time, but they are choosing what focus better serves their students’ needs. Since teachers are spending their own time outside the classroom collaborating and sharing resources, and it is not forced, teachers are more likely to make this time meaningful and well spent. Online PLCs are one form of collaboration which can help some schools meet the needs of collaboration outside the school. Online PLCs make time outside the school to collaborate and share resources.
Teachers are more likely to make their time of online sharing meaningful to their needs. Lastly, teachers can connect with other educators outside their school. Knowing how online PLCs have come about, we will look at some resources for online PLCs. Some of those resources include: wikispaces, twitter, ning, etherpad, google drive, Edmodo, office 365, among others. At my school all teachers have an Edmodo account. We can upload data, projects, and sometimes we post questions for other teachers. Our instructional coach uploads data and resources for teachers. This year we started using Office 365.
Science teachers started to use OneNote from Office 365 to post pictures, website links, documents, and resources for other science teachers. This is a great way of sharing ideas without having to meet during the school day or every time we have an idea we want to share with other science teachers. Overall, there are many websites and tools teachers can use, including teacher blogs, but in my opinion, the best way to maintain effective PLCs is through the combination of the school staff and online tools. Teachers can benefit from learning from veteran teachers at their school and look for more guidance through online PLCs and forums.
One way of doing this is through the involvement of the principal and other school leaders in the implementation of creating a community of learners among the staff. Principals play a crucial factor in the establishing and maintaining PLCs in the school setting. According to Richard DuFour and Michael Mattoes, “If principals want to improve student achievement in their school, rather than focus on the individual inspection of teaching, they must focus on the collective analysis of evidence of student learning” (DuFour & Mattoes, 2013).
In order for school improvement to happen, the principal needs to set expectations for teaching collaboration from the start of the school year. According to the Education Leadership, there are various approaches principals can do to support learning communities (2009): • Emphasize to teachers they can succeed together. • Set expectations for teachers to keep knowledge of content fresh. • Guide communities towards self-governance. • Make data accessible. • Teach how to analyze data, having discussions, and making decisions. Show teachers why PLCs work. • Take time to build trust. The most important one is building trust, without this, none the other approaches will be affective.
The school needs to have mutual respect between principals and teachers. This is why is important the principals spend a good amount of time building relationships and building the team of the school. The principal should model appropriate conversations, allowing staff to make decisions, and managing conflicts in a timely manner to help strengthen the trust of the school staff.
Overall, PLCs came about from the need of improving student learning. PLCs allow teachers to improve their teaching through the involvement of others and collaboration with others. Teachers are more likely to feel successful in their career if they have support from others. It is a way of providing a support system for teachers and not becoming isolated in their own classrooms. Teachers who participate in PLCs are also more likely to have a different points of views and are willing to try new ideas in their classrooms, they are also more likely to stay in the career longer.
In my personal experience, PLCs haven been very beneficial. My first year of teaching I was part of a math PLC. We met every Friday in a different classroom. We would take turns bringing food for our PLC members, and would also spend time talking about the struggles of teaching. I felt supported and welcomed as a teacher. I remember getting plenty of advice and ideas. One thing, I was open to feedback and always welcomed positive feedback. This year, our PLCs are only once a month and I do not find it enough time.
I feel that at our school, we have become isolated. One way to deal with this lack of PLC is by turning to online forums. I spend a lot of my mornings on Edmodo posting questions and sharing resources. I hope next year our PLCs are improved and we get more time to collaborate. The best way again, is to learn from others and work together to improve the needs of our students. I think our principal and leadership team can play a big role, but it needs to be done from the start of the school year.