My initiation into the world of professional learning communities was unusually swift. The staff at my school had to get from zero to functional teams faster than most schools. And although we knew that swimming was the only option, sinking was definitely part of my past experience.
Most of my years in teaching have been spent in “at-risk” middle schools—schools that have Central Office staff visiting nearly every day and morale problems that interfere with instruction. In fact, I once chaired a teacher morale committee at one of these schools. Morale was so bad that the committee members wouldn’t even show up for the meetings.
After years of working to improve student learning (and teacher dispositions) in these challenging settings, I was given the opportunity to step over the county line and help open a brand new middle school. In July 2006, our faculty met for the first time for a summer retreat. We were strangers, most of us, a melting pot of teachers from all over the county, and from many neighboring counties, who had the same vision for being part of developing an exemplary school.
I remember feeling awkward when it came time for lunch. No one really knew where to sit, but I grabbed a teacher I had met in the parking lot, and we ate together. It was a strange feeling to realize that after many years, I would be teaching beside people I barely knew. But the world was about to spin in another direction. Just minutes after the tasty dessert, I heard the words “professional learning community” for the first time.
I take that back. I’m sure I’d heard the words before. But so what? Of course we are professionals. Of course we want to learn. And all schools consider themselves communities. But I was about to embark on a PLC journey that would change my thinking about schools and “community.”
To make the PLC case to our newly melded staff, our administrators brought in an expert to speak to us—a middle grades teacher who was part of a successful professional learning team. We soon learned we had something in common with him: he’d been a member of a faculty that had recently opened a brand new school not far from us. We sat and listened, wondering if our school could ever display the positive characteristics he described.
Unfortunately, the school year began with our new building unfinished, and we became squatters at a nearby school. Circumstances were difficult. Not one of our teachers had a classroom. The band held class in the host school’s instrument closet. The former “shop” became two classrooms with no doors or instructional boards. Teachers wrote lessons on chart paper.
We soon began gravitating to the media center during our planning periods. It was there, where we sought refuge (and a place to sit), that our professional learning communities were born. People who had been total strangers only a month before were now inseparable: making plans, discussing instruction, and collecting student learning data. By the time we moved into our new building in early November, we were a blended faculty. We had the same mission and goals, but we still needed to define our relationships within our own walls.
Growing a Culture
As we settled into our new home, our administrators pulled together a five-member group of teacher leaders who comprised the instructional team. We worked for several days that year with a regional school leadership institute, participating in sessions like “Building a PLC Culture.” We soon realized we had much to learn before we could truly define ourselves as “a collaborative team whose members work interdependently to achieve common goals linked to the purpose of all.”
Even so, we have made great strides since those first few months when we didn’t have a place to call our own. Content area PLCs are thriving, planning together daily. Students are assessed using common documents every three weeks, and teachers adjust instruction according to those results. Grade level PLCs are meeting, and while they are reminiscent of “middle school team meetings” of my past, there is one major exception: No longer do we sit around a table and discuss student behavior or share “woe is me’s.” Instead, all our conversations were focused on one result: student achievement.
As part of a partnership, teachermagazine.org publishes this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.
In addition, our PLCs had a component that most schools would have difficulty implementing. Because 8th graders were “grandfathered” and able to stay at their original middle schools, we opened with only 6th and 7th grades. This situation meant that elective teachers were without students in the middle of the day—the time they would eventually teach 8th grade electives. Our administration saw this as a tremendous opportunity to build PLCs that could cross the border between curricular areas.
That first year, elective teachers participated in ten literacy workshops—professional development that gave them strategies to teach reading and writing through their own content. Then, during the middle-of-the-day time slot, they “buddied” with a core teacher and shared students. Sometimes they were team teachers in the same room; sometimes they pulled students for remediation or enrichment activities. Importantly, the administration allowed times for core and elective teachers to meet in grade level PLCs together. There were times when administrators covered duties for teachers so that all disciplines could meet and plan together.
While we were working quickly with colleagues we barely knew, I believe that our fast pace was helpful in keeping out some of the negative feelings that can carry over from year to year and make a true professional learning community very difficult to build or sustain. Those early days without our own building bonded us in a positive way. Currently, our school is thriving, and I believe our entire staff would agree that a strong relationship among colleagues is one of the most attractive characteristics of our school.
We are also participating in a regional teacher leadership network created by the Center for Teaching Quality and funded by the Wachovia Foundation. We are still relatively new to this work, and the opportunity to share ideas with colleagues in other schools who are further along in the process of forming and utilizing PLCs has been very valuable to us. Most of this dialogue takes place online in a virtual learning community. And while many of the schools involved are within an hour’s driving distance, we all know that every school is a time-bound island. The technologies supported by CTQ make it possible to knit these islands of teachers together into a meaningful whole.
For schools that don’t experience the “start-up” situation we had, the challenge is to find a way for teachers to build the all-important trust and respect. Each school has its own distinctiveness; Professional learning communities can grow out of that individuality and thrive as they work together for children.
And I have to wonder how much easier our professional lives could have been in my former school if PLCs had been established. Maybe there wouldn’t have been a need for a morale committee. Certainly, we would have managed to actually have a meeting!