Professional learning communities are all the rage and they can do a tremendous amount of good to help spread best practices. But what happens when it isn't best practices that are spreading?
I have never known educational life without a PLC – a professional learning community for those of you who aren’t familiar with that acronym. Since my first year teaching, I’ve had a PLC, or now at my role at central office, worked with teachers in PLCs. Their basic premise is one of collaboration, best practice, data analysis, instructional planning all leading to better student outcomes. And they can definitely lead to better student, and teacher for that matter, outcomes. But they can also be dysfunctional places where ineffective practices are reinforced.
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Working Smarter Not Harder
You all teach the same level, have the same standards, and the same curriculum. Why not share ideas and the workload? Why write five separate assignments, essay prompts, or assessments? It’s clear this makes sense. Collaborate to create quality instruction that you would otherwise not have the time or energy to create yourself. Maybe writing assessment questions isn’t your strong suit, but your planning partner can write them in her sleep? Coming together to put together fantastic lessons for students is a no brainer. You can get more done with more hands and more brains. With so much to do and so little time, this is the largest benefit of PLCs. In the end, it affects student outcomes and achievement.
Teacher Capacity Building
I can tell you from personal experience that being part of a PLC accelerates your development as a teacher. I am not sure I would have become the quality teacher I become so quickly if it weren’t for my PLC. I was brand new to teaching and got the benefit of being able to collaborate, and let’s be honest, learn from more experienced and successful teachers. It was a great support that I eventually got to see the other side of when I was the more experienced teacher. Teachers become better teachers from being in PLC.
PLC helps to reinforce a shared mission and vision. You are all in it together. They’re not my students, they’re our students. You have a goal as a group. You build each other up. You strategize. You succeed. You don’t feel so alone with such a huge task.
Time for ongoing professional development
From the point of view of the district content area specialist, PLC also provides a time when I can meet with all teachers, either of a subject or of a specific grade level, to provide professional development and coaching. Rather than meeting each teacher individually, I can meet with them as a group, facilitate learning or planning, or support them. This allows me to give ongoing professional development without having to continuously pull teachers out of their classrooms. This is a huge benefit for teacher development and support.
PLC can start to go wrong when teachers feel they all have to do the same thing all the time. Same lesson, same pacing. Uniform. This may make things easy and neat, but it goes against what good instruction looks like. Instruction should be responsive to the needs of the student. Teachers need to differentiate based on formative assessment and evidence they collect during their classes. Different teachers have different students in each class, which means no two classes should look exactly alike. Pacing may be different. Student interest may be different necessitating different reading resources or prompts. Some classes may need a re-teach for the entire class, while another class just needs small group instruction. Bottom line: classes shouldn’t be uniform.
Another problem can be where there’s one dominant voice that drowns out the rest. It’s one thing if this is a quality teacher with solid best practices (it still kills the necessary collaboration), it’s another thing if the loudest voice supports ineffective practices or the “this is the way we’ve always done it” philosophy. Novice teachers may pick up bad habits instead of best practices in this environment. Not all shared practice is best practice.
Lack of Collaboration
Now you don’t have to have every class be uniform, but you also don’t want everyone so doing their own thing that there’s no point in having a PLC. I have walked into a PLC many times and found five teachers in five different parts of the room on five different computers. This is not PLC. This is not a professional learning community.
Not everyone does their part
Teachers in a PLC should be equal participants, meaning they are all sharing the work. You can’t have one teacher do all the work and all the planning. Too often I see teachers check out and just take what is completed by others. The problem with that is they don’t really understand the outcome of the lesson. They just go through the motions without seeing the bigger picture. Additionally, those that do the bulk of the work can become resentful and pull away, hindering collaboration and collegiality even more.
Avoiding the bad
There’s no perfect PLC, but setting norms at the beginning of each year can go a long way in ensuring that everyone is on the same page. The hard part of this is the accountability. PLC members must hold each other accountable. This may be easier to do if the PLC has a clear, shared mission and realizes that the better they work together, the better their student outcomes will be.
PLC is about dialogue. Teachers talk with each other, problem solve, share ideas, and support each other. PLCs aren’t meetings where one person leads and just covers an agenda. Teachers should be wrestling with issues they face to come up with solutions. This takes dialogue between all parties.
Of course, it’s best if the PLC members hold each other accountable, but it can’t hurt to have some administrative supervision. I am not suggesting administrators take over the PLC. I am however suggesting that campus administrators model and reinforce what makes a quality PLC. This can be done using reflective questioning, checking in about norms and accountability, or making sure you, on occasion, participate in the PLC – not leading it, just being an equal participant.
PLCs can be a powerful tool to drive student success, but it is not enough just to put them on the schedule. PLCs need to be places of collaboration, dialogue, sharing of best practices, problem solving, and support in order to serve their purpose. That’s very possible, but it might not be very easy. For me, PLCs are worth the struggle to make them work. Your students and teachers deserve it.