It takes a villiage of educators to build a world-class professional learning community

Growing a Professional Learning Community (PLC) is much like tending a garden. You want it to grow organically, you want it to flourish, and you want it to survive beyond its grower. 

A PLC is not an initiative or something to do because it’s in vogue. A PLC is a way of being. A PLC is a group of educators who collaborate in an effort to ensure that students are truly learning. These professionals often identify areas of interest and/or need. The PLC commits to this focus and develops tools to assess if it is achieving progress and seeing results related to its area of inquiry.

Cycle of Inquiry

Almost eight years ago, my professional team and I embarked on a journey of learning together. It began as a conversation among building administrators and an outside consultant about our definition of leadership, our understanding of the cycle of inquiry, and our role related to building PLCs. We each decided to bring a friend to the next meeting, and so our group grew.

The Value of Dialogue

When we next met, we talked about the value of dialogue and the wealth of knowledge and resources that existed among our staff. This fed into a discussion about how we wanted to help staff learn together and work toward the deprivatization of practice. Sure, we had always talked to one another and helped one another, but we were not yet comfortable opening our classrooms to one another. Over the course of the next few months, we met regularly and expanded our understanding of important concepts by reading articles and examining them using various protocols.

Harvard Project Zero

We shared our learning with the staff at large and laid out plans to begin to examine student work the following year. After considering many models, we decided to use Steve Seidel’s Collaborative Assessment Conference protocol. Upon reviewing student work, we determined that our students were very skilled at completing tasks and following guidelines. 

We realized that we wanted to ask even more of our students; we wanted to give them more choice and the challenge of thinking more critically and independently. We also talked about Richard Elmore’s notion of improving the instructional core and the need to make changes related to all three elements of the instructional core to see true growth. By our third year, we developed a theory of action, which helped guide our work and expanded the conversation to include watching students at work in the classroom.

Creating a Template

By the end of that year, we decided that we were going to observe students in the classroom by using the Instructional Rounds model—a method patterned after medical rounds that doctors employ in the health care community. Careful to establish norms, we created a master template that provided a space to identify a question or area of inquiry and then used columns to capture what students were saying and doing. In addition to helping provide a clear lens through which to see, the template later helped guide our debriefing, which focused on evidence and observation. We also underwent informal training, which included watching videos of lessons in order to practice the art of evidence gathering.

Some PLCs shared that as the years progressed (and as a result of building great trust and respect), their norms changed. Teachers began talking more about needing to make a shift in their role—from being more of a deliverer of information to a facilitator of learning.

Identifying Unique Areas of Inquiry

Over the next five years, we conducted Instructional Rounds. In fact, we continue to this day. One of the most important elements of our success is our support of each PLC in identifying its own unique area of inquiry each year. We helped teachers see how working with their PLC was the link that brought together all of their learning—it was important to them as they undertook new initiatives and worked toward new mandates. 

Some saw forming a PLC as a group that could help them assess the level of student-initiated and/or student-sustained dialogue; others examined the degree to which students were generating questions; and still more scrutinized the significance of problem-based learning with real-world applications. Then we aligned our work to greater district goals and still made it meaningful for us. We knew that our PLCs were not another initiative; PLCs helped us do the real work!

Celebrate Success and Plan for the Future

Making the time to celebrate success has proven critical as well. Each year, everyone involved in a PLC is invited to participate in a large group lunch so we can celebrate our achievements and plan for our learning in the upcoming year. Those actively involved in PLCs also regularly play a role in sharing their learning with the rest of our staff, which happens in a number of ways, including department meetings, conference days, working lunches, and faculty meetings. 

Much like how we modified protocols to meet our needs, the model for our Instructional Rounds changed each year to meet current needs and areas of inquiry. In the same way, our debriefing process changed as well. 

We originally captured every bit of evidence regarding everything we saw students doing and saying; then groups wanted to spend time talking more about what really mattered to them. Realizing we did not want to get bogged down capturing everything, I introduced a simple, schoolwide Google Doc to which each PLC contributed and through which PLCs connected. These documents recorded the “so whats; I think … ; I want to try … ; I noticed …”  Takeaways transformed over time, beginning to sound more like: “A lesson I can now adjust is … ; A new question I will ask as I plan is … ; I am thinking more about what students can do, what they should do, what they want to do, and someone I need to ask about this idea is … ”  

Despite the dynamic nature of our learning model, what remained constant was the rich dialogue, reflection, and sharing of the “so what.” Each person consistently identified some new nugget—something that each teacher would think more about, try in the classroom, and then share back with the group. What we realized is we were beginning to see a shift within classrooms. 

For PLCs to establish strong roots and become the foundation of your school culture, ongoing reflection and open dialogue are essential. Individuals and groups share feedback with me, and I have facilitated countless sessions in which we have reflected on the process itself and our areas of focus, which have led us to recommit to the work. 

Reminding ourselves that the work of PLCs could look very different, we reaffirmed that examining data, reading articles, visiting classrooms, and engaging in countless other activities were meaningful, as long as the purpose remained to ensure that all students are thinking and learning. Because we all agreed the process was valuable, we also identified challenges and supports to help make the process more fruitful. For example, finding enough time for our PLC was always a concern, so we committed faculty meeting time to planning and debriefing the cycles of inquiry. 

Our PLCs serve as a framework for us to evaluate our success and develop next steps as we continue to move forward. Our success with students is a result of dedicated, mindful, purposeful tending. 

Juliet L. Gevargis is an assistant principal at Tappan Zee High School in Orangeburg, NY.

Making It Work

How principals can cultivate PLCs at their schools:

  • Articulate a clear building-wide focus or purpose that is connected to a larger system goal. This will serve as a guide and unite efforts toward a common end.
  • Empower teachers to identify their area of focus.
  • Facilitate opportunities to share learning, gather feedback, gain input, institute revisions, and recommit to the work. 
  • Make time to acknowledge and celebrate successes.