Guest post by Allison Staffin

A professional learning community (PLC) is more than just a time to prepare lessons, grade papers, and create learning materials—it is an opportunity to impact student learning. Based on the DuFour model for PLCs, it is essential to consider the differences between teaching and learning. PLCs lose credibility unless the educators who are part of them keep the fundamental concepts of Professional Learning Communities at the forefront of their thinking when it comes to educational reform.

PLCs have to participate in the hard conversations. This includes discussions on what learning looks like in your classroom, how to evaluate data to inform instruction, and determining the critical questions that guide PLC work, including those related directly to learning. These are the beacons that guide professional learning communities.PLCs

The Essentials
To make the most of PLCs, these five components are essential:

  • Shared beliefs, value, and vision—where all members of the learning community are focused on their own continued growth and that of their students.
  • Shared and supportive leadership where the principal is seen as the gatekeeper. The principal must support the work of the PLCs and provide ample opportunities for teachers to share their practice through talk and observation.
  • Collective learning and its application, allowing participants to work together to share what is learned about student learning and teaching.
  • Supportive conditions where members of the school community must support a culture of collaboration. There must be a mutual trust and respect between the participants in order to create a caring culture where personal connections are needed to overcome relational obstacles.
  • Opportunities for participants to share personal practice: examining each other’s pedagogical practice, assessment, and classroom management are regular aspects of PLC work. These components are not meant to be evaluative, but essential components to enable staff to grow professionally.

At High School West, our staff has found PLCs to be very powerful. We began small with eight cross-content groups and have grown to 30 content-driven PLCs that run weekly as a duty period. Staff members use this time to share data and identify what their students are doing well and where they need more support. These opportunities have enabled staff to examine their own practices as well as share their best strategies.

In our cross-content PLCs, for instance, we identified what we all do in common, developed a set of common expectations for all students, and made a commitment to institute these expectations from course to course. Our PLCs have also provided insight into our honors and AP programs. By working together in vertical teams that represent grades 9–12, staff members utilized backward design to anticipate what their students will need to be able to do in order to maintain honors and AP status.

Roadblocks and Solutions

In a comprehensive high school setting that is not set up based on student learning communities or houses, it is sometimes difficult to sustain professional learning communities. Often teachers find themselves in need of additional planning time, work, and grading sessions, where they often lose sight of the real strength of meeting in a PLC. Time to really collaborate, focus, and learn from one another continues our own professional growth, as well as the growth of our students.

The one thing that teachers ask for most is time. Time to collaborate, time to create, time to focus, and time to simply get things done. As we continue to carve out time, it is essential that we remember the purpose and strength of strong professional learning communities: student learning and teacher pedagogy. The beauty of education is the opportunity to reflect on our craft. And as we work to give the best that we can to ourselves and our students, it is essential that we consider the foundational elements of the work that we do.

Continual reflection of what is working well and what is not working is the basis for this reflection, and ultimately PLC conversations. Having organized time to work with colleagues to analyze data, evaluate materials, and examine practices can only benefit us. The use of peer observation, collaboration, and focused attention to specifics within our disciplines can only make us better and our students stronger.

Professional learning communities, if developed thoughtfully and thoroughly, will have a tremendous impact as we reflect on teaching versus learning.

How have PLCs worked in your building? What have been the strengths? What have been the obstacles? Tell us in the comments.

Allison Staffin is the assistant principal at Cherry Hill High School West in Cherry Hill, NJ, and is the 2016 New Jersey Assistant Principal of the Year.

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