Published Online: February 20, 2013

How to Make the Most of Your Professional Learning Community

As the school year passes the midway point, the pressure builds. From my desk, my curriculum guide scolds me as if I were a student without a hall pass, "Now, where are you going? And, more importantly, where do you need to be?" A calendar taunts me: Standardized tests are mere weeks away. Meanwhile, a few weeks after the holiday break, my middle school students' annual malaise begins to set in.

Where can I turn for help?

To articles like this one, of course—but also to my professional learning community (PLC) of three other middle school teachers. Every Tuesday morning, we brainstorm about ways to work through obstacles together. Sure, we discuss data, assessments, and lesson plans during these meetings, but our fundamental purpose is to support each other in better serving our students.

We didn't start out this way. It took time to develop norms, procedures, and collaborative habits. Here are a few efforts that boosted our work:

Clarifying Our PLC's Goals

As educators, we value the effective use of time, right? For collaboration, buy-in, and trust to take place, PLC meetings must have clear objectives.

During our first meeting of the school year, we jotted down on sticky notes what each of us wanted to accomplish in our weekly meetings. Three main ideas rose to the top and have driven our work together ever since: support for each other, help with pacing an overwhelming curriculum, and detailed plans to implement with our students. Everything we do as a group addresses one or more of these three objectives.

A PLC can complete this activity at any time (not just the start of the year) to help make meetings and collaboration more effective.

Creating a 'Roundtable' Atmosphere

We began by agreeing to a regular schedule for a weekly get-together. We knew supporting one another would require a friendly, open atmosphere for our meetings. The principle lies in creating a trusting, comfortable meeting atmosphere as a foundation for the important work of the group.

Too often, PLCs work it in reverse; they start with data and work toward a collaborative environment. But we felt we needed to create a sharing, collaborative culture before rolling up our metaphorical sleeves.

At the start of each meeting we arrange four student desks in a circle to form, in effect, a roundtable. At each meeting, we go around the circle sharing anything school-related: challenges, discoveries, gripes, successes. Talking about the issues and pressures of teaching—always in a solutions-focused way, of course—is cathartic itself.

Our PLC has also implemented a "Las Vegas" norm for our discussions: "That which is said at the roundtable stays at the roundtable."

Sharing the Work

PLCs must find ways to share the workload, not increase it. Our PLC has committed to a "give one, get three" plan. Each member creates one lesson per month to be implemented with all of our students—meaning that we each get three more plans "free" from the three other teachers.

Of course, we don't create our lessons in a vacuum. We decide together which strategies and standards we want our lessons to address, and we take into account our findings from student assessments.

Action Planning

Effective PLCs must focus on student learning. It's no use becoming bogged down in issues or procedures that are out of our control as classroom teachers.

How do we do make the distinction? Here's one activity: PLC members write down their top five challenges in teaching. (Our foursome narrowed this even further to focus on the challenges of teaching 8th grade language arts at a Title I school.) Then, as a group, we sort the challenges into two categories: things we can affect and things beyond our control. As a PLC, we promise to focus on those things we can positively affect.

To keep ourselves on track, we examine our students' strengths and weaknesses, creating plans that maximize student success. Our collaborative lessons typically are part of an action plan to address standards with which the majority of students are struggling. We update the plan as students make progress and we identify other areas of need.

Selecting Meaningful Data

It's easy to let data bully your PLC. Commit, as a group, to only examine data that is relevant and applicable.

We create or find assessments to measure student progress toward focused learning objectives, and students complete them approximately every four to six weeks.

We have agreed never to give an assessment if we are going to do nothing with the results but record them.

And we make our data as simple as we can, depending on what our goals are. Typically, we use results to sort students into two basic groups: those who have learned the focused concept and those who have not. Then we can look more closely at how best to help those who have not yet mastered a concept and enrich the learning of those who have.

If we allow our instruction to be driven by data, we see learning gains. It's that simple.

(Plus, data from ongoing assessments can offer tangible evidence of our diligent work—always a good motivator!)

As teachers, we cannot remain behind our desks or in our classrooms, isolated and unsupported. It's not good for our students, our teaching, or ourselves.

PLCs give us the opportunity to collaborate and share our expertise, collectively tackling our students' needs. If we use them strategically, they can make a big difference in how we approach our work.

What strategies help your PLC to be effective?

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