How do education systems foster continuous growth when there are so many differing roles and specializations of key players who are part of a students’ learning experience? The wealth of knowledge among individuals can remain siloed because school structures and schedules don’t often allow for easy communication and collaboration. One tool that can support educators in developing productive systems of collaboration is the Professional Learning Community.
What is a PLC?
A Professional Learning Community, or PLC, is a group of individuals who work together to learn from one another, analyze student outcomes, troubleshoot challenges, or develop solutions that support student learning. The reasons for establishing a PLC are varied and usually center around the need to bring in multiple perspectives on an issue or question that a school wishes to examine. One PLC leader that I coached supported the rollout of a new ELA curriculum in her school; another worked on defining educator practices that support equity in their district. Whatever the reason for establishing a PLC, this collaborative group has a few common features:
- They work towards a common goal aligned with the school/district initiatives.
- They use data to analyze, develop, and evaluate solutions to support their goal.
- Each member has a meaningful role to play in the group.
- They meet at regular intervals to support continuous growth.
BetterLesson’s strategy Building a Professional Learning Community can help outline the steps for establishing PLCs.
Who is part of a PLC?
A PLC can be made up of teachers, administrators, or staff. The composition of the PLC is dependent on the focus and goal of the group. For example, if a PLC is created around a new district initiative, all stakeholders in the initiative might be involved. The ELA group I mentioned was composed of grade-level lead teachers across a district who were implementing a new curriculum and examining the shift in student outcomes that resulted from implementation.
In other instances, a PLC might be formed by a group with a common interest in an issue they identify that falls under a broader umbrella. One equity PLC formed after teachers volunteered to explore instructional practices that supported equity. This was not a mandated topic but one that they identified as aligning with the district’s broader diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. Their group included educators and department chairs from various content areas with a shared focus on instructional practice, student engagement, and policy.
The key feature of PLC membership is that everyone can learn from and contribute to the group’s goals in meaningful ways. Here are some examples of PLCs structures:
- Building-level PLC focusing on a school-wide initiative, such as integrating technology resources into their instruction, might include teachers, technology staff, and instructional coaches.
- District-level PLC examining the roll out of SEL practices across buildings and grade levels might include assistant principals, teachers, and school counselors.
- Department-level PLC focusing on a goal such as improving assessment scores might include all teachers in a specific content area.
Establishing a focus for the PLC and determining who takes part is an important first step in creating an effective collaboration. Before the work begins, group members determine each person’s role and responsibilities as it relates to the PLC’s goal. It is also important to note that PLCs can be dynamic groups that change from time to time as the focal point of analysis changes.
Why Establish PLCs?
There is great power in talking through ideas and solutions with a group of colleagues. But sometimes bumps can occur in the process. To think through the potential benefits and pitfalls, consider these points:
- Many hands make light work. By sharing the workload of analysis and problem-solving, many students can benefit from the individual efforts of a productive team.
- Educators are supported and encouraged in their work when they receive collegial support—which has been shown to improve teacher retention.
- PLCs are cost effective and flexible. The small group format enables more person-to-person discussion and is easier to schedule.
- The collaborative nature fosters creative and innovative ideas. Bringing varied voices and perspectives to a PLC helps generate new insights.
- PLCs can seem like one more extra task that busy educators have to put on their list.
- Without a clear focus, a PLC can turn into an idea factory with lots of enthusiasm but little action when it comes to accomplishing a focused goal.
- PLC structures can take time to establish with consistency as part of the school routine. To be most effective, it is important to ensure a collaborative school culture is in place.
As with any classroom lesson or strategic vision, when educators thoughtfully plan for an outcome and clearly communicate the vision with others, the potential for successful implementation is greatly increased!
Having a clear understanding of the what, who, and why of professional learning communities is a starting point to developing strong collaborative teams in schools. While the members of a PLC and the specific goals might vary from group to group, or even from year to year, establishing a structure to form and focus the work of a PLC will help ensure its success.
Educators are always working to ensure that students succeed and thrive in their schools. PLCs can be one tool that allows for productive collaboration by leveraging educator expertise in support of student growth.
Kennedy Schultz, BetterLesson Instructional Coach
Kennedy is the founder of KMS Intercultural Education based in Buffalo, NY. An experienced educator and coach, she has a passion for developing cultural capacity and collaborative leadership in education and business sectors. You can find Kennedy on LinkedIn here.