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Professional Development Opinion

10 Strategies for Building a Professional Learning Community

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 21, 2021 14 min read
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(This is first post in a four-part series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is a professional learning community and how can educators build one?

Teaching can be an isolated profession—we’re in our rooms all day with students. Students can be very energizing, but we’re separated most of the time from other professional adults.

This series will explore one way to deal with that lack of connection—by building what’s called a professional learning community, also known as a PLC.

Today, Angela M. Ward, Valentina Gonzalez, Marci K. Harvey, and Kimiko Shibata share their ideas. All four were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

‘Personal Connections’

Angela M. Ward, PhD is a public school administrator with 23 years of experience. She is focused on creating identity-safe schools and workplaces and strives daily to nurture equity-centered schooling. Follow her @2WardEquity on Twitter & Instagram and visit http://2wardequity.com/blog/ to subscribe to the 2Ward Equity newsletter:

Professional learning is a foundational component of teaching and learning based on the development of knowledge to help educators improve their practice. Educator knowledge development enables a teacher, a teacher’s aide, a principal, or a superintendent to expand personal ability to impact success in the learning of each student in their care.

The typical district-level professional-development session goes through the motions of scripted lessons and strategies, takes one through the motions of curriculum, discipline management, FERPA, and test-taking preparation. Missing from this typical professional development are the personal connections made with colleagues through the stories one is invited to share to introduce new perspectives on old issues in schools. Educators form or join professional learning communities (PLCs) to expand their knowledge base and build personal connection to colleagues who want to improve practice.

Successful PLCs are based on a common learning interest that drives the educators to seek out resources, schedule regular meeting times, and make a collective commitment to improve practice. Educators interested in starting a professional learning community need only to take a few steps to begin.

  • Understand the context of your school, office, organization

    • Will you have the support of your leader(s) to engage in this learning during the workday? Meeting as a PLC during the workday professionalizes the learning and helps the group make meaningful connections. It also feels good to do the work at work rather than expending additional time and effort when off duty. I believe a PLC is an integral part of on-the-job supports for professional educators. It is important to determine what options are available for the PLC and decide how to proceed.
  • Survey potential members about the topic(s) of choice

    • Look at your data to decide what the focus should be. I recall as a teacher my colleagues and I wanted to improve inferencing and generalization skills of our writing students based on beginning of the year reading data and classroom observation.
    • No need for an online survey of the full staff, be relational. A simple conversation is all you need to determine interest.
    • Don’t take it personally if your colleagues don’t want to join. Sometimes we need extra motivation. Once they observe the success you are having sharing practice, you will pique more interest.
  • You are professionals, plan it out. Schedule a planning meeting to calibrate the focus and collectively establish learning and teaming parameters. You will be glad you spent time here when work and life get busy.
  • Schedule regular meetings, check-ins, and an ongoing cycle of renewal for your learning. One topic will surely lead to additional topics once you get into the groove of talking, reading, practicing, and observing each other’s success.
thetypicalward

PLCs Online

Valentina Gonzalez is a former classroom teacher with over 20 years in education serving also as a district facilitator for English-learners, a professional-development specialist for ELs, and as an educational consultant. Her work can be found on Seidlitz Education and on MiddleWeb. You can reach her through her website or on Twitter @ValentinaESL:

It’s been over two decades now since I first walked into my classroom as a 3rd grade teacher. A great deal has changed in education and in the world since 1997. I will never forget landing that job and being handed the very large white binder that held my curriculum within it. Back then, collaboration amongst us mostly meant team meetings to discuss goings-on and upcoming lesson topics. But in general, we planned and taught in silos. There was no online lesson sharing, Instagram, no Facebook, no Twitter.

It actually took me years before I began building what I consider my professional learning community (PLC). Why? Well, to begin with, I didn’t even know I needed one. Working in a silo became so natural for me. Why change what seemed to be working? I don’t recall what triggered my initial attempts at building a PLC. But I can tell you that my PLC changed the way I think about teaching and learning. Leader in school improvement Richard DuFour taught us that PLCs are not just meetings with colleagues. On the other hand, he proposed that PLCs consisted of ongoing collaboration and inquiry about learning in an effort to achieve success for students.

When I think of my PLC, I know these are educators:

  • with whom I can learn and collaborate
  • that inspire me to be a better educator
  • that I can go to for advice about education
  • who will lead me in the right direction

“If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.” ― George Bernard Shaw

Some teachers are happy with building a PLC in their campus or in their district. Others like to stretch further and grow a PLC outside of their scope of physical reach. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are the top three best platforms for building PLCs outside of the campus or district.

What I found most valuable about a PLC outside of my campus/district is that I can learn from educators who had varied experiences and perspectives, new ideas, and diverse outlooks on teaching and learning. Within my campus and district, we were all mostly doing the same things, reading the same resources, seeing the similar things, and experiencing pretty much similar lives. I craved NEW ideas, fresh outlooks. I didn’t want “apples” anymore. Like George Bernard Shaw says in the quote above, I wanted to exchange ideas with people. This was of more value to me.

It wasn’t long before I found myself in a professional learning community that spans globally.

Social-media platforms have opened new windows of opportunity for educators to build their own global PLCs. Twitter is the one I recommend most to colleagues who are looking for a way to grow professionally and gain new perspectives.

Here are five basic steps to building a PLC in Twitter:

Step 1. Create a professional Twitter account. Use this account solely for educational purposes.

Step 2. Follow authors and organizations linked with your role or content area. For example, my field is in ESL and language arts, so here’s who I followed: @LarryFerlazzo, @RegieRoutman, @JSerravallo, @KyleneBeers, @Edutopia, @MindShiftKQED, @MiddleWeb, @Seidlitz_Ed, @ColorinColorado

Step 3. Follow who they follow. This helps you to GROW your PLC.

Step 4. Read what they tweet. Like, retweet, or comment on what you see that is powerful and helpful. Most educators and educational organizations on Twitter are not sharing their personal lives, they are sharing useful articles and real-life examples from the field.

Step 5. Begin to share your own thinking, experiences, and resources. Tag Twitter “friends.”

A professional learning community such as the one above will help you to grow professionally but you are the one guiding the direction and the speed. You get to determine when and how much time you invest in learning and growing with your PLC.

myplcvalentina

Defining PLC ‘in a Broader Sense’

Marci K. Harvey is a renewed national-board-certified teacher at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. She teaches 9th grade integrated science and 11th/12th grade physics in the high school program at UNCSA:

In the acronym-filled language of education, they are called a PLT, PLN, TLC, or PLC. But what, exactly, is a professional learning community? Most often in schools, the membership of a PLC is predetermined by grade level or subject area, and the weekly meeting time is mandated by administration. In addition to this method of grouping, I prefer to define PLC in a broader sense and claim myself as a member in several PLCs, both face to face and virtual.

Some are based on my content area (physics, secondary science, etc.) while others are based on a shared passion (modeling, inquiry-based learning, national-board certification, etc.). The site allthingsplc.info defines a PLC as “an ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve.” Whatever acronym you choose to define “your people” with, let the group and the work serve as a resource for varied perspectives and a source of support leading to student success.

Action research is an essential part of 21st-century learning. Having a support group of other teachers allows us to develop new ideas and strategies for teaching. Richard Dufour published a summary article in Educational Leadership in 2004 urging teachers to focus on learning, collaboration, and accountability to make the PLC structure work in a school. How can educators build a productive PLC? Use the following considerations to get started:

  • Determine the goals of the PLC. Do you want to improve test scores? Would you like to collaborate on instructional or classroom-management strategies? The goal will drive the work and analysis of results so be specific. Whatever the goal, look for other educators who share your desire to work together to improve learning.
  • Together, decide how to reach your goal and how to assess your progress. Gather commitments from each member for what they will do. Build shared knowledge by assessing student learning in one another’s classrooms. Build in time for collaboration, action research, and reflection.
  • Set group norms and expectations. Collaboration takes work, and building relationships to share and be vulnerable is important for long-term success. Understand that some educators may leave the group as their interest and learning develops … this is OK because forced collaboration is not productive.
  • Be proactive. Invite educators you want to learn with to join your PLC. If you need a wider audience, Twitter already has a wide variety of education-related resources. Follow educators you respect. Involve administration for extra support, especially when you need that time for collaboration and observing classes!
  • Even if you establish an effective face-to-face PLC, take advantage of technology and learning-management platforms that allow you to meet outside the traditional school day, if necessary.

The benefits of an effective PLC include increased rigor for your students and better data analysis of their assessments. You are less isolated and can try new strategies in your classroom because you have peers that share your passion for support. Sharing our best strategies, evaluating data as a group, and lesson development with experts gives every member of the PLC an opportunity to serve as a teacher leader. Over time, this leads to a high level of professional satisfaction for PLC members. Although the work is challenging, the PLC group and the process of collaborative learning will yield positive results for both educators and students.

havingasupportharvey

‘I Am Constantly Challenged’

Kimiko Shibata is an ESL/ELD itinerant Tteacher for the Waterloo Region District school board. She can be found on Twitter: @ESL_fairy and has a resource page for ESL/ELD teachers and parents:

A professional learning community is a community of educators that is committed to continuous growth through asking questions, sharing research and ideas, and engaging in ongoing professional development to further student and educator success and well-being. It can also act as a support group and provides a meaningful way for educators to give back to their education community.

When I first started teaching, my PLC included my very supportive grade teaching partners, who were experienced educators and mentors. In addition, a very nurturing ESL teacher and developmental resource teacher allowed me to ask hard questions and to bounce ideas off of them and were eager to share their experiences, resources, and knowledge with me as I navigated my first few years as a classroom teacher in a high-needs school. I eagerly sought out “my people” in my school and was blessed by their support and care.

My PLC loaned me books, shared research articles and information about best practice, and offered me the chance to observe them teaching in their classrooms on my preparation times, with time to debrief after school about what I had observed and how I might implement some of the strategies into my own classroom. They also let me cry on their shoulders when needed. My PLC nominated me for a new teacher award through our teaching federation, and this extra bit of encouragement gave me the stamina to get through a particularly challenging year. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was much more fortunate than many other new teachers at the time. I didn’t realize that not every new teacher receives this level of support!

As I joined a variety of committees and attended workshops held by my school board and local and provincial federations, I expanded my PLC to include a variety of other educators in various roles in my district as well as across my province.

About nine years into my career, social media and discussion groups entered my professional life, and I quickly saw the potential for an even larger PLC. My personal PLC was no longer limited by proximity. I could suddenly share resources and ideas with educators from around the world who were on a similar learning path. I could access both experienced mentors and brand-new teachers in need of resources and ideas, and a whole new world opened for my professional development.

Some of my very best learning and professional growth has happened as a result of my interactions with my PLC. I love helping other educators to solve their problems and find appropriate resources to support their own learning as well as that of their students, but I also continue to take away so much from these relationships (both in person and online). I am constantly challenged and I am given so much upon which to reflect as a human being, a parent, and an educator.

Teaching can sometimes feel like a lonely job, especially if an educator is not in a building with folks on a similar learning path. The reality of our situation now is that we never have to be alone as educators. We can be connected to other caring educators with the click of a button, and that is nothing short of amazing. I look forward to continued growth and collaboration with my PLC peers from all over the globe as we continue this journey together.

teachingcankimiko

Thanks to Angela, Valentina, Marci, and Kimiko for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones won’t be available until February). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first nine years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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