by Erin Dye
Professional Learning Community (PLC), n. (education) A group of teachers who regularly meet to focus on and share knowledge and experiences about a specific topic or topics.
Are you part of a professional learning community at your school? Have you ever felt like you’re not getting anything useful out of it? Or, is your school talking about building PLCs to replace current PD efforts? PLCs have a lot of potential to make professional development successful, but only if implemented correctly.
We’ve done some research and gained some experience, and we’ve noticed a few key things that will make PLCs effective.
1. Teachers must be allowed to choose what they learn.
I was recently at a conference where Robert Schuetz demonstrated exactly this concept. Before the session started, he allowed the left half of the room to choose a piece of candy from a bag, while the right half had a specific piece of candy given to them. Without knowing this was an exercise to prove a point, the right half began to quietly grumble…
“…But I don’t like Tootsie Rolls…”
“…I’m allergic to chocolate…”
“…Why didn’t we get to choose?…”
Without being given a choice, half of the class was ready to write off the session, and it hadn’t even begun yet.
PD goes much the same way. When given a choice, even if it’s only between two interesting options, teachers are already more likely to be engaged and—most importantly—to learn something they can take back to their classrooms.
2. The time between official meetings has to include observation and modeling.
Let’s say that my PLC is focusing on the best ways to facilitate close reading. I learned something really cool during the February meeting—to pull up the Gettysburg Address on my interactive whiteboard and have my students come up to annotate the text as a group. But now it’s time for our March meeting, and I realize I haven’t tried out that activity with my 10th graders yet.
This is a big PLC fail. I know that I should have taken the initiative to try out the technique, but I also needed my team leader and fellow teachers to support me in testing out this new strategy. As we all know, modeling is a “safe” way to learn something new.
3. Communicate expectations clearly and follow up throughout the month.
Don’t leave follow-up time to chance. The PLC should agree on dates and times that will work for modeling and observations. This helps teachers know how to plan their lessons and gives them time to prepare. Teachers being observed won’t feel as threatened or uncomfortable as they try the new technique.
Moreover, the skills you’re teaching or learning in the PLC are important. Sometimes they even mark a big shift in pedagogy or policy. There’s no way a big change can happen successfully with only one or two lessons. The process has to be ongoing. Demonstrate that the PD is important by making teacher follow-up support part of the official schedule.
There are plenty of other good tips for effective PLCs, but these are good places to start if you’re building a new PLC or trying to salvage one that isn’t working properly. Stay tuned—we’ll continue to share what we learn about the process.
Erin Dye is Manager of Consulting Services for Green Light Professional Development. She has extensive experience creating digital materials for interactive whiteboards and iPads. She writes about technology integration and GLPD’s work in local schools.