Several years ago, our school embarked on the PLC journey. In the beginning, we were all unsure of the process but excited about the notion of becoming a community of professionals learning together. During the first few years of our “PLC life” we met may milestones, took some tumbles, and learned a tremendous amount along the way.
This is the life journey of our Professional Learning Community. At each stage of development, we have learned some lessons that parallel the development of a child. And, as in life, we continue to learn and grow, continuously searching for better ways of doing things so that our students experience powerful learning as they advance through their own stages of life.
STAGE ONE: INFANCY
“To create a professional learning community, focus on learning rather than teaching, work collaboratively, and hold yourself accountable for results.”–Rick DuFour
Definitions of a PLC, such as the one above, made it sound so simple, similar to seeing a happy family at the park. To a casual observer, it looked perfect…and easy. But, just like becoming a parent, it was grueling, hard work that often seemed impossible to survive.
Life Lesson #1: Don’t rush too fast to move to the next stage of life. On the surface, it may not seem as though you are learning and developing during the earlies stages of life, but you are. Be patient!
During the beginning stages of our PLC journey, we began to engage in more frequent and honest conversations about teaching and learning. However, our practices and actions didn’t really change. We were akin to a babbling baby first learning to hear our own voice. As we continued, we started changing some of our practices on the surface, such as talking more about individual student achievement across each grade level and monitoring student progress, but we had not experienced any life-changing “ahas.”
STAGE TWO: TODDLER YEARS
“In [an] all-too-familiar cycle, initial enthusiasm gives way to confusion about the fundamental concepts driving the initiative, followed by inevitable implementation problems.” –Rick DuFour
As we advanced through the infancy of our PLC journey, we had learned how to talk-the-talk and our next step was to learn how to turn talk into action so that we could walk-the-walk.
Life Lesson #2: If you just stay on all fours and never take the risk to stand up and walk, you will never get anywhere.
Before we were ready to take our first “steps,” we were similar to a baby who could get up on its hands & knees but we weren’t quite coordinated enough to synchronize all of our parts in a way that would move us forward in a purposeful way. For a while, it was comfortable there. We were content. Although we kept superficial changes in place, (i.e. PLC agendas, meeting notes and action steps), our behaviors were not very different from how they were prior to beginning our development as a Professional Learning Community. Teachers were planning together on a more consistent basis; however, planning typically focused on what to teach with little discussion about how to teach it. As a result, teaching and learning often looked different from classroom to classroom. When teachers graded student work, they typically did so with little or no thought about how other teammates might grade their students’ work. At best, we assumed that an A in one class was the same as an A in another class.
STAGE THREE: CHILDHOOD YEARS
“Educators who are building a professional learning community recognize that they must work together to achieve their collective purpose of learning for all. Therefore, they create structures to promote a collaborative culture.”–Rick DuFour
As we advanced into the next stage, our staff collectively realized that to move forward we needed to dig deeper into the work of our PLCs. We renewed our focus on the four guiding questions of a PLC:
1. What should students know and be able to do?
2. How will we know if they have learned it?
3. What will we do if they haven’t learned it?
4. What will we do when we know they have learned it?
To help us stay focused on these guiding questions, we established a Weekly PLC protocol designed to push us to dig deeper by creating common, formative assessments, analyzing student work, and make instructional decisions based on that analysis.
The protocol brought focus and clarity to the work that happened during grade level PLCs. It also caused teams to engage in deeper discussions about teaching and learning. Each of these elements forced us to examine our individual practices and beliefs in comparison to those of our colleagues. This became one of the biggest challenges and most rewarding learning opportunities for us all.
Life lesson #3: Finding ways to agree on the rules of a game, learning how to give-and-take, and learning how to share are all important lessons that are learned by having frequent opportunities to interact with others.
Teams experienced ups and downs when discussing expectations of performance, instructional practices, intervention strategies and alignment of grading practices. Norms became a critical component and leadership capacity began to develop in authentic ways as teachers challenged themselves and each other to work differently. Over time, other protocols and structures have also been put into place to help move our PLCs forward. (Yes, hopefully content for another post.)
STAGE FOUR: REACHING MATURITY
“The professional learning community model flows from the assumption that the core mission of formal education is not simply to ensure that students are taught but to ensure that they learn….when a school staff takes that statement literally–when teachers view it as a pledge to ensure the success of each student rather than as politically correct hyperbole—profound changes begin to take place.” –Rick DuFour
The work that now happens in our PLCs and classrooms has transformed the culture of our school. We are a true community of learners working together to meet the needs of all of our students.
Life Lesson #4: Strong relationships energize you and bring meaning and purpose to the work you are engaged in. At the same time, they challenge assumptions, mental models, and the status quo causing all members of the group to reflect, learn, and grow in a more powerful way than could ever happen in isolation.
STAGE FIVE: LIFE-LONG LEARNERS
“The rise or fall of the professional learning community…depends not on the merits of the concept itself, but on the most important element in the improvement of any school—the commitment and persistence of the educators within it.” –Rick DuFour
As we continue our journey as a Professional Learning Community, we will continue to strive for improvement. We have learned that the work of a PLC is messy and challenging. We are not perfect and realize that we still have room to learn and grow. Challenges and opportunities for improvement continue to be our reality, as they always should. I am confident that we will never stop learning from each other and will never stop pushing ourselves to be better tomorrow than we are today. We are life-long learners!