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A Primer on Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)

We are blessed with many opportunities to continue to grow as teachers and administrators, not the least of which is the people God has placed in ministry with us.Where do you turn for professional development? Perhaps you attend teachers’ conferences, daylong workshops, or continuing education courses. Or, maybe you prefer book studies, Facebook groups, Pinterest posts, or Twitter feeds. Have you ever considered the experts in the classroom next to yours or down the hall? We are blessed with many opportunities to continue to grow as teachers and administrators, not the least of which is interaction with the people God has placed in ministry with us.

Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) can be a powerful approach to growing as an educator. Professional Learning Communities are not a new concept. The term has been around since the late 1960s, although it wasn’t until the 1980s that PLCs really began to gain popularity in the education field. In the past 30 years, PLCs have increased in popularity and broadened in terms of definition and application. For this reason, a common misnomer is that any gathering of teachers can be considered a PLC. A faculty meeting or department meeting is not automatically a PLC. A group of teachers meeting after school is not necessarily a PLC. So then, what is a PLC? Who can be a part of one? When do they meet? Where do they meet? How do I start a PLC? What are some of the common pitfalls associated with Professional Learning Communities? What are some of the benefits for educators and students?

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) defines a Professional Learning Community as:

“A small group of educators that meet regularly to accomplish shared goals
to increase teacher knowledge and skill and student motivation and achievement.” 1

In this definition, four main characteristics of a PLC are evident:

Small Group: As the name states, a PLC involves a community of people. One of the strengths of PLCs comes from the collaboration of educators working together. Unify the group through grade level, subject level, theme, or topic. The foundational principle, however, is that there is a group of people.

Meet Regularly: In order to make progress and realize benefits, the group must meet regularly. For some this is weekly, and for others it is monthly. The foundational principle is that meetings are regular and scheduled.

Shared Goals: Any group of educators meeting regularly does not equal a PLC. To transform a group into a PLC, there must be shared goals. The foundational principle is that the group is moving in the same direction and pursuing the same target.

Teacher and Student Growth: The ultimate goal of a PLC is that teachers grow in their knowledge and skills. As teachers grow in their competencies, students should also grow in what they know and can do. The foundational principle is that growth for both teachers and students is a direct outcome of the work done in the PLC.

A PLC can be composed of any group of educators. One of the most common groupings is a department. This could be a cluster of grades (kindergarten-second grade) in an elementary school, a single grade (several third grades) in a large school, or a subject-level group (the English department) in a high school. Professional learning communities can also be arranged based on a topic: teachers wanting to learn about standards-based grading or administrators wanting to learn about classroom walkthroughs, for example. In most cases, the teachers will be located in the same building. However, PLCs can also include teachers from various schools across a district or region.

The members of a PLC must meet together regularly. The frequency of the meetings and the duration of the meetings are completely up to the participants and their schedules. In many schools, PLCs meet once a month. In some cases, meetings happen every week or every other week. Professional Learning Communities can meet regularly for shorter times with longer sessions scheduled as a part of in-service days. There are many demands for an educator’s time. To achieve the goals of the PLC, meeting time must be scheduled, protected, and prioritized.

The use of these technologies can allow groups of educators to meet outside of school time.Traditionally, a Professional Learning Community would meet face-to-face in a classroom or office. This model works well, especially when the participants are from the same school or nearby schools. However, current technology opens up new avenues for meeting together. A PLC could meet through a conference call (although the lack of face-to-face interaction is a limiting factor with this technology). Video conferencing services, such as Zoom, can provide face-to-face communication for PLCs in which the participants are not in the same physical location. Google Hangouts provides the same capabilities within the Google platform. The use of these technologies can allow groups of educators to meet outside of school time. These technologies also open up the possibilities of a PLC comprised of teachers from across the United States or even the world! Facebook and Twitter also provide mechanisms for PLCs to connect through technology when a face-to-face meeting isn’t possible or practical.

Given that a PLC is more than just a group of educators getting together after school, provide intentional steps to establish such a group. Here are six steps, along with guiding questions, to lead you as you start a PLC:

Study: What do we want each student to learn?

Select: What resources will help us achieve our goals?

Plan: What action steps will lead toward success in achieving our goals?

Implement: What do we need to do in implementing our plan?

Analyze:

Adjust:

As with any endeavor, various dangers and pitfalls can derail the effectiveness of our work in a PLC. For groups based on a grade level or subject matter, staff attrition can present a challenge. Acclimate and assimilate new teachers into the group. Make the goal of the group clear. Otherwise, the group can meet but not accomplish anything of value! Protect the meeting time. If group members see the time as optional and miss meetings, it weakens the value of the community. The meeting needs to remain focused, as there is much to accomplish and time is limited. Participants in the PLC must remain on task. Administrators need to support the work of the PLC by providing time, encouragement, and resources that enable teachers to do their work.

In working together, educators grow in their knowledge of educational topics and strategies as well as their skill in implementing new knowledge.A significant potential benefit derived from a Professional Learning Community is growth. In working together, educators grow in their knowledge of educational topics and strategies as well as their skill in implementing new knowledge. School culture can also be positively impacted as educators work together and strengthen relationships. In Lutheran schools, PLCs can also include devotion and prayer. Educators can be supported in both professional and personal needs. The greatest benefit, however, is student success. Whatever goals the PLC has, their work should ultimately result in greater success for the students they serve!

Are you looking for a new avenue of professional development? Are you looking for fellowship and relationship with other educators? Are you looking to impact student growth in your classroom and school? Professional Learning Communities can be just what you need to strengthen your skills, deepen relationships with colleagues, and increase student growth!

Tim Walz has 30 years of experience in Lutheran education and currently serves as principal at St. John Lutheran School, Kendallville, Indiana. His Personal Learning Community includes wife Mindy (a Lutheran high school teacher) and sons Nathan, Joshua, and Caleb.

ENDNOTES

1. “Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).” Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) Resources - Articles, Books, Videos, ASCD, http://www.ascd.org/research-a-topic/professional-learning-communities-resources.aspx.

2. Provini, Celine. “Best Practices for Professional Learning Communities.” Best Practices for Professional Learning Communities | Education World, Education World, 2012, https://www.educationworld.com/a_admin/best-practices-for-professional-learning-communities.shtml.

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