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How to create a winning professional learning community at your school

Are you ready to make your school a more collaborative place? One where change isn’t a war to implement and results for students are easier to achieve? Then it may be time to embrace the notion of turning your school into a professional learning community (PLC). 

The benefits of a PLC environment are many: a more collaborative spirit, greater trust among colleagues and an openness to sharing new ideas and resources—all in the name of better learning. But how do you make sure your efforts to create a PLC are successful? Consider the following steps to guide you as you embark on this challenging, yet extremely rewarding, endeavor.  

Educate your team on what a PLC really means.

PLCs have been a popular topic in education for years, yet they are also a highly misunderstood one. When your fellow staff members hear “professional learning community,” it’s easy for them to assume it will be just another administrative reform attempt that will come and go. When in reality, it’s quite the opposite.

A PLC isn’t a program or a new way to take orders from administrators. It’s a collaborative, ongoing process that fundamentally shifts the focus of your school from teaching to learning. It requires educators and administrators alike to contribute equally and hold themselves accountable for continuous improvement. It’s a whole new way of approaching your job not just for the school year, but for the long term.

So before you attempt to get a PLC up and running, set the stage for your colleagues. Consider hosting an informal information session or posting on your school communication boards to define a PLC, highlight the benefits and clarify the ins and outs for those who may be unaware.     

Start with learning.

Well, that sounds obvious. But if you want to build a community that’s all about learning and improving, then a wise first step is to bring your fellow educators together to learn something. Take the initiative to do some professional development together around a specific problem or goal at your school. After all, you’re a learning community now—and learning is what you do. Professional development should become a regular, if not daily, activity. When teachers learn, they can improve the way students learn—and that’s the driving concept behind a PLC.   

Embrace a collaborative culture built on trust. 

Let’s be honest, it isn’t always easy to get a group of teachers collaborating happily together. But it is possible. And a PLC can’t function without that kind of cooperative culture in place. 

The key to fostering such a culture is open, judgment-free communication. As you know, teachers often crave an outlet for their frustrations in the classroom. So create a time and place where your team can vent and help each other out, rather than tear each other down. Use the sessions to exchange ideas and suggestions for improvement. This will allow everyone to grow professionally by learning from one another, which creates better results for students, which creates a more unified spirit amongst colleagues and fuels your efforts. It’s a virtuous cycle. 

Decide together how things should run.

Like any community, there need to be rules in place that define how things work, what’s acceptable behavior and what isn’t. They’ll ensure things run smoothly along the way. Since you want to establish a collaborative tone, it’s a good idea to define these norms for the community in a working session where everyone can give input.

Call a meeting and arm the group with post-it notes and markers. Establish it as a judgment-free zone. Then ask everyone to write down the norms they think the community should abide by. Once they’re all up on the wall, discuss, keep and cull them together. You’ll walk out not only knowing the rules governing your PLC, but you’ll also emerge with a warm-and-fuzzy sense of teamwork. 

Set SMART goals.

Goal setting is one of the most important tasks in starting up your PLC. The mission of the community is to agree upon goals, strategize to achieve those goals and when successful, set even more ambitious ones. So, what exactly do you set out to achieve? Choose things that are S​pecific, M​easurable, A​ttainable, R​esults­ focused and T​imely (SMART). Here’s a simple template to help guide each goal statement: 

[Who] will achieve [what] by [when] as measured by [assessment]. 

Make sure none of the goals are impossible to measure, such as "We want our students to be lifelong learners." And aim for goals that, if not achieved, will reveal the evidence you need to adjust and improve your approach.  

Consider bringing in outside help. 

So, you may do all of the above and discover that this whole PLC thing is harder than you thought. Or maybe there are a few sticking points your team just can’t seem to work out. Or maybe you’re just not getting the results you had hoped for. That’s ok—don’t give up! Bringing in an outside consultant with a broader perspective could be all you need to get over the hump and keep things going. 

PLC consultants live, sleep and breathe these communities and have seen it all. They can help focus your groups, facilitate difficult conversations and train members of your team to be facilitators. They require an investment, but the results will be worth it.  

Know that these things take time. 

When you get anxious and frustrated about not seeing immediate and astounding results, remember what you’re undertaking. Making a fundamental shift in how your school operates and how staff approach their jobs won’t happen overnight. A culture of collective learning and application won’t emerge from a few training sessions, nor will open communication and collaboration happen after a couple of group workshops. 

But day after day, as time goes on and the PLC is respected and practiced, the community will build and strengthen. You’ll see the results. You’ll high-five your colleagues. And you’ll wonder how your school ever functioned any other way.