As a retired principal and still practicing educator who isn’t finished learning, growing, teaching, and leading, I feel fortunate to serve a noble profession that lifts all when done well and right. Given today’s political climate, “well and right” is being challenged more than ever.
Even so, I say bring it on because educators everywhere are focused on the main thing: to ensure our students, each and every one, learn all they can in a safe, caring, rigorous learning community. But with the level of scrutiny educators are subject to right now, I recognize having a clear focus is hard. Harder than it needs to be.
To enhance our focus, I assert this is a perfect time to advance equitable strategies that promote the well-being of all and therefore, these strategies should remain in our schools. This is a perfect time because the pandemic has challenged us to approach teaching and learning in differing formats. A perfect time because the loss of face-to-face time has directly impacted a teacher’s ability to work closely with other professionals to resolve the teaching and learning problems encountered daily. Lastly, it’s a perfect opportunity to re-evaluate which strategies actually promote learning for every single student.
With equity in mind, establishing a Professional Learning Community (PLC) is a worthy tried-and-true strategy to consider. If already rooted, then it’s an ideal time to re-evaluate your school’s current PLC reality. If not established, then your school may be missing out on a proven strategy to enhance teaching and learning.
At each of the three schools I led, we worked steadfastly to fully embrace the Professional Learning Community (PLC) model. PLCs, as championed by the DuFours (2004), have a proven track record of student success. Done well, they empower teachers, coaches, and administrators to collaboratively make potent, “just in time” student-centered decisions. Done well, they benefit students, their families, and ultimately our world.
What’s a PLC? “The PLC process is not a program. It cannot be purchased, nor can it be implemented by anyone other than the staff itself. Most importantly, it is ongoing—a continuous, never-ending process of conducting schooling that has a profound impact on the structure and culture of the school and the assumptions and practices of the professionals within it” (DuFour, DuFour et al., 2016).
As I ponder this definition of a PLC, several words jump out that cause me to celebrate again the power of this strategy. For instance, “profound impact…” Who doesn’t want to have a “profound impact on learning?” No parent or teacher ever says “I’m ok with my child learning less.” When considering “structure and culture….,” as with any high-functioning organization, structure and culture are crucial to its success. Again, no one in any organization says “I want to do a poor job” or “I want to be less efficient and/or effective.”
Establishing a Professional Learning Community takes persistence and commitment. Over the years, I learned it is an ongoing, day-to-day, year-to-year process worth our time. Here’s why it’s advantageous for every school to embrace this model.
Like those in the field of health care, educators are expressing they are exhausted – exhausted at levels I’ve never experienced during my 33 years as a teacher and administrator. Step into any classroom and a very wide range of academic abilities is almost immediately apparent. This was not typical of classrooms pre-pandemic. Add to this mix the social and emotional impact of the pandemic on students, their families, and our educators. This plays out in lost instructional time daily in our schools.
The good news is when implementing a PLC model, students learn more. Teachers ultimately do less: less stressing, less guessing, less wondering why a kid isn’t learning what they taught. Just as important, this model restores individual educator confidence and competence. We are affirmed when our strategies work and when we see them implemented across other classrooms, grade levels, and in other schools.
“The Power of Teacher Engagement”
A vital component of an effective PLC is collaboration. Examples include weekly grade level meetings at the elementary level and at the secondary level, weekly departmental collaboration. When working collaboratively, teachers identify how to respond to each student’s specific academic needs by engaging with other professionals (something we hope our doctors and other professionals are doing, right?). This includes reviewing curriculum, analyzing assessments to identify what students need to know, and then investigating the results to see what they actually learned. From there, teachers learn what they need to teach.
By articulating productive learning strategies with peers, teachers expand their ability to create plans for students who didn’t learn it and for those who already demonstrated mastery. Collaboratively sharing strategies builds collective teacher efficacy. According to John Hattie (2016), “collective teacher efficacy” is the factor with the greatest influence on student achievement, three times more powerful and predictive of student achievement than socioeconomic status and more than two times more influential than prior achievement. With the limited amount of planning time for educators, collaboration is time well spent!
Engaging in these kinds of discussions with other education professionals often leads to more equitable implementation of rigorous instructional strategies like the ones often seen in classes with identified gifted learners. (Sadly, even though we know strategies such as Socratic Seminars and other inquiry-based strategies benefit all learners, they are not uniformly implemented across classrooms.) Professional discussions about teaching and learning ultimately lead to the elimination of less productive instructional strategies. This includes worksheets and handouts that don’t promote critical thinking and rigorous engagement. It also leads to increased use of effective strategies such as integrated, hands-on, meaningful and relevant learning opportunities.
Additionally, schools built around the PLC model help teachers and administrators build stronger, deeper relationships that ultimately benefit students, their families, and staff members. When administrators consistently participate in collaborative planning sessions, they are better positioned to unleash resources necessary to respond to the academic, social, and emotional needs of the students and staff. When educators consistently collaborate, they feel more empowered and prepared to respond when hard questions like “why are you using that book to support instruction?” arise either from a parent or administrator. (I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather hash this out with my peers before a parent asks.)
Schools that have already embraced the power of a Professional Learning Community have learned that a curious mindset and focused questions from coaches and administrators raise the bar for all learners. There is power in posing “I wonder” questions when working together. With safety and equity in mind, inquiry statements help us to think more deeply about our work, who it impacts, and who is benefiting from the learning opportunities being offered.
If your school is interested in taking their collaborative work to the next level, here are some thoughts and questions I encourage teachers, coaches, and administrators to consider:
When thinking about your collaboration model, what norms do you have in place to ensure this is a “safe” space to discuss what we don’t understand, to take risks, and to receive student centered feedback?
When discussing instructional strategies, consider asking:
Who is this strategy benefiting? Who is it not?
What different strategies can we try?
What opportunities will this provide for our students?
When discussing curriculum:
Specifically, what do we expect students to know, understand, and do by the end of this lesson or unit?
Who is benefiting from reading this book? Who is not?
What will we do differently to ensure the students are benefiting from this book, resource, etc?
When looking at data:
Who showed evidence that they learned? (We know it was taught, but did they learn it and how do you know?)
Is there a different format that may enable the student to show they learned what was expected?
When do we offer additional assessment opportunities?
If we are more focused on learning and not grading, what does this assessment tell us this learner needs?
Now for some really hard and important questions inspired by fellow Edjacent designer and DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging) coach, Melissa Smith:
When do we feel discomfort and is there a benefit to addressing this? For instance, I know that teaching some subjects or reading certain books may make a teacher feel uncomfortable. When do you talk about discomfort? What discomfort do we anticipate for our learners? And one of my favorite questions from Melissa Smith, “Whose comfort are we willing to protect?”
What is our intent when teaching _____ and what will be our impact when teaching ______?
These are not easy questions to ask. Yet they need to be asked if you are willing to live your values, model your why, stay focused, and work for change. As educators know, the future is not just about an individual human being. It’s about us – all of us. Professional Learning Communities and the time we spend collaborating can enhance our instruction and classroom environment to support the humanity of everyone. It’s time well spent.
Note: As advocates for teachers and students, Edjacent is devoted to interdependent learning. I am most grateful to my fellow Edjacent designers Sebrina Lindsay-Law, Meghan Raftery, Melissa Smith, and Doug Wren. You inspired the title, questions worth pondering, and helped to inform with clarity.