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Meghan Everette’s professional learning community helped her dramatically improve her students’ writing abilities. When her Alabama elementary school embarked on a yearlong effort to advance writing instruction, Everette and the other third-grade teachers worked together in a PLC to analyze samples of student writing. “We would actually sit and grade them together, based on a rubric we created,” Everette says.
At some of the PLC meetings, the school’s writing coach demonstrated various writing lessons. At other gatherings, administrators and special education teachers shared best practices. Throughout the year, Everette took what she had learned from others and applied it in her classroom—and then watched her students soar.
“At the beginning of the year, only 24 percent of my kids were considered proficient in writing,” says Everette, who now works as a K–6 math coach in Salt Lake City. “By the end of the year, I had all my kids at that level.”
According to a 2016 report by Learning Sciences International, high-functioning PLCs can improve teacher morale and student achievement. Of course, not all PLCs are high functioning, and simply gathering with other teachers on a regular basis won’t necessarily improve your teaching. What sets a professional learning community apart from, say, routine grade-level meetings, is an emphasis on continual professional development and learning.
“The term PLC has become ubiquitous in education, but with ubiquity comes dilution,” says Daniel Venables, executive director of the Center for Authentic PLCs and author of Facilitating Teacher Teams and Authentic PLCs: The Human Side of Leading People, Protocols, and Practices. “In many places, it means nothing more than a group of teachers with a common planning period.”
In contrast, a “highly functioning” or “authentic” PLC is grounded in data and includes careful analysis of both student and teacher work. Together, members develop and practice strategies to more effectively reach students.
With some careful planning, you can create a truly transformative PLC. Read on for steps to take.
Set Up Your PLC
Invite a Mix of Colleagues
A “solid team” is the foundation of an effective PLC, says Venables. Depending on your needs, you might want to set up a grade-level PLC, or you may find that a subject-focused PLC could be a better way to go.
Include a mix of experience and expertise. Rachel Wright, a fourth-grade teacher at Odyssey Elementary School in Woods Cross, Utah, loves the combination of personalities and interests in her current PLC. The four-person team includes two teachers with 20-plus years of experience and two with five years or less; two of the teachers work in the school’s French immersion program and two serve in traditional classrooms.
Carve Out Time
Ideally, you will want to meet weekly, but meeting even every other week or once a month can energize your teaching. If you don’t have professional learning time built into your schedule, brainstorm some options and present them to your administration.
“If you can figure out a solution ahead of time, your administration will be a lot more receptive than if you go in and say, ‘You need to find us some time,’” Everette says.
Generally, PLC meetings take about one hour.
Don’t plan on sharing student work at your very first PLC meeting. “That’s a train wreck waiting to happen,” says Venables. Instead, it’s better to spend your first few meetings creating a strong culture of collaboration.
Skip the cutesy, getting-to-know-you activities; they might be fun, but they don’t encourage authentic sharing and feedback. Instead, to build trust within a PLC, engage in small, teaching-related challenges. Michael McClenaghan, a seventh-grade teacher in Whitby, Ontario, fondly recalls a math-focused PLC that included both teachers and administrators.
“We all sat down at the table as equals, and we took turns teaching and observing,” McClenaghan reports. “That really leveled the playing field.”
Start with Best Practices
Wright and her fellow fourth-grade teachers didn’t think their PLC needed formal rules; after all, they are friends who already shared a great working relationship. But after a few meetings lasted close to three hours, members realized they needed some guidelines to help them stay on track.
“We took one meeting to establish and write down our norms—things like No cell phone use during meetings and Make sure everything you contribute to the conversation is constructive,” Wright says.
Document your rules and consider reading them aloud at the start of every PLC meeting, at least in the beginning, both to reinforce agreed-upon guidelines and as new people join.
Find Your Focus (Student Data Helps!)
If you don’t establish a focus for your PLC, “whatever is most urgent will take over,” says Becky Dingsor-Forero, a fourth-grade teacher in Ridgewood, Queens, New York. That’s a recipe for distraction, because you’ll find yourself ping-ponging from behavior problems one week to standardized test results another.
Jeremy Michelbrook, a first-grade teacher at El Capitan Elementary School in Roswell, New Mexico, says his PLC uses student data to stay focused. “Every two weeks, our students either have a math or an ELA test, so we’ll look at the data and see where they are. If the whole class is having an issue with something, we’ll talk about strategies to reteach the concept. If there’s a smaller group that’s having trouble with a topic, we’ll figure out how to create small groups and targeted interventions.”
Create an Agenda
It’s way too easy to get sidetracked by small talk. Anita Perry, a school librarian at Lura A. White School in Shirley, Massachusetts, says that creating an agenda in advance of PLC meetings helps members stay focused. “We sent one out ahead of time, in a Google doc, and asked people to add what they wanted to talk about,” says Perry. Also, she says, “I discovered it’s important to save five minutes at the end for anything else that comes up.”
Give your members a few minutes at the beginning of each PLC to chit-chat, but then dive into your agenda. When something off-topic comes up, say, “Let’s come back to this,” and table it for the last five minutes of your meeting.
Stay on Track
Always Keep Students in Mind
If differing opinions threaten to derail the conversation, try defusing the situation by redirecting attention back to your students. “Flying off based on our emotions isn’t productive; we don’t get the whole picture,” McClenaghan says.
When frustration regarding students’ perceived inability to spell led most members of his PLC to conclude that an emphasis on phonics was necessary, McClenaghan urged the group to slow down. “I kept saying, ‘Stop. That’s not what I’m seeing in my classroom. What are you seeing?’” he says. By talking it out more extensively, the group realized that spelling problems were not as pervasive as some had assumed and did not warrant additional phonics instruction.
Give All Ideas an Airing
“Always value what your colleagues bring to the table,” says Steven Peck, a middle-school special education teacher at Natick Public Schools in Massachusetts. “Don’t ever shoot anything down.” Often, you can find merit in an idea you considered unrealistic, and further discussion will help you figure out how to incorporate that not-so-crazy-after-all strategy into your teaching.
If a suggested lesson plan or teaching technique isn’t a good fit for you or your class, simply say, “‘Thanks for sharing that’ and move on,” says Michelbrook, the first-grade teacher in New Mexico. Ultimately, you get to decide which teaching interventions to implement in your classroom.
Reach Out for Resources
Depending on the topic you’re tackling, you may need some outside help. The Center for Authentic PLCs offers Grapple Institutes that teach educators how to facilitate PLCs, handle conflicts, and use data to drive change. Subject-matter experts can also be helpful, especially when you’re at an impasse.
“Our Title 1 teacher or our principal or someone from our special education department might sit in on a meeting,” Michelbrook says. These experts share ideas with PLC members, increasing everyone’s knowledge base. Such targeted input can accelerate your professional growth, and help your PLC move toward better solutions!
Image: Adam Chinitz (blocks); iStockPhoto/Getty Images (table)
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