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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Professional Development Opinion

‘A Professional Learning Community Is Not a Faculty, Grade Level, or Department Meeting’

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 27, 2021 11 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."

(This is final post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

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

In Part One, 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.

In Part Two, Jennifer Hitchcock, Rosemarye Taylor, Carol Chanter, Keisha Rembert, and Lisa Sibaja offered their suggestions.

In Part Three, Marilyn Chu, Ed.D., Kimberly Sopher-Dunn, M.Ed., Sean McWherter, Ed.D., and Jeremy Hyler provide their responses.

Today, Marcela Falcone, Kathy Dyer, and Julia Thompson share their ideas.

Different Types of PLCs

Marcela Falcone is in her 20th year as a 3rd grade bilingual teacher in the Brentwood school district on Long Island in New York. She previously taught pre-K, 1st grade, and 2nd grade. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_falcone:

A professional learning community is a group of individuals who meet in person or online to share ideas in a collaborative way. For educators, it represents a process of learning as a collective team. A PLC is an ongoing journey of discovery.

It is important to understand that a professional learning community is not a faculty, grade level, or department meeting. A PLC is also not a school committee, such as one set up to decide on a new academic program. These types of learning environments may include individuals with a shared vision, but a PLC is more aligned with continuous improvement over time.

A central function of a PLC is reviewing, analyzing, and discussing best practices in classrooms and schools. It includes educators with a shared vision and the same mission to improve as professionals. The community may evolve over time, but a focus is always on researching and evaluating ways to take effective action in the best interest of students and the school community.

Within a school or district, a professional learning community may include faculty and staff members with similar responsibilities, such as teachers from the same grade level. A PLC may also be formed with educators in different academic departments. Overall, members will have a common understanding of the socioeconomic status and student population of the school community. For example, as colleagues, it might be easier to discuss topics related to curriculum, assessments, or extracurricular activities. But the absence of an outside perspective and knowledge base can negatively impact the overall progress of the PLC.

Another type of PLC is educators from various school districts in the same geographic area coming together. These groups might discuss a broad range of issues related to the region. In addition to conversations on curriculum, topics may include school safety, transportation, and other issues specific to the county or state.

A third type of professional learning community is one that you can build on your own. This PLC can be created through active participation in professional organizations, education associations, and collaborating on social media. The key is staying active in initiatives and community activities.

To find a professional organization, you can collaborate with other individuals who share responsibilities in your own school. There are associations related to general education purposes, along with very niche groups. Mentors and veteran educators can make recommendations to you based on your specific position in the field.

Technology advances have presented a wonderful opportunity for educators to connect with each other across the country and from around the world. On social media, Twitter has become a leading platform in developing a virtual PLC. A search of hashtags related to education highlights many opportunities. Examples of hashtags include #pd4uandme, #edtechchat, and #Ellchat_BkClub. In many instances, you can join the PLC by connecting with the coordinator on the platform.

Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social platforms provide many features to support professional learning communities. For example, these networks allow for the creation of groups to facilitate interactions. Video-conferencing apps like Zoom and Skype also continue to become more popular in improving virtual connections.

Members of a virtual PLC may read the same books or review specific curriculum resources. The completion of a book or conversation topic is simply part of the overall learning process. For both in-person and online communities, the PLC represents an ongoing journey of collaboration, development, and improvement for educators.

To build a professional learning community, it is important to understand what you can offer the group. A new teacher can provide a fresh set of eyes to school-based issues and learning initiatives. For veterans, the facilitation and exchange of expert analysis can have a profound impact on professional growth and educational improvements.

aplcfalcone

‘Voice & Choice’

Kathy Dyer is an innovative educator with over 25 years’ experience. She served as a public school teacher, principal, and district assessment coordinator. Kathy researches, designs, and delivers professional learning opportunities for educators across the United States and around the world:

While the term “professional learning community” (PLC) is widely used in education. it has a variety of meanings and may be known by other names. From the early days of Rick DuFour and Bob Eaker, the term has signified a collaborative team who

  • shares mission, vision, and values
  • learns from one another
  • publicly reflects
  • practices inquiry
  • demonstrates a willingness to experiment
  • is action-oriented

Building a PLC

Provide voice and choice: Teachers, like students, need and appreciate choice. Choice within a given framework or focus allows teachers to determine their priorities for changes to classroom practice. Voice may come into play when deciding if the PLCs will be grade-level-focused or content or vertical or . . .

Start with the foundation

Trust is key. Focusing on collaboration rather than competition may be new for some, as may be suspending judgment. Some of this foundation building may be accomplished with the development of a shared mission, vision, and values. Not everyone knows how to collaborate so spending a little bit of time on that may be useful. Learning how to ask questions that don’t make people defensive might be worth talking or reading about. Providing feedback is a similar topic. The more we learn and practice collaborating and giving feedback, the better we get at both.

Time is another foundational aspect of PLCs. Regularly allowing enough time for teachers to meet, learn, and work through what surfaces demonstrates both the importance of the activity and the trust given to the group.

Provide small steps

Learning is incremental. Inquiry takes time. Providing protocols to spark inquiry and personal reflection is one way to teach PLCs how to create new habits of collaboration. It takes time to change practice. Provide voice and choice for PLC members in what the learning focus will be.

Build collegial support

PLCs provide opportunities to develop personal action plans, to report back to a peer group about what happened as a result of implementing those plans, and to reflect and receive feedback and support from colleagues who are working on the similar changes in practice.

Building a PLC may not be easy, but it is worth it. Numerous resources talk about improved teaching AND learning, and that’s why we do it. Professional educators participating in highly functioning PLCs report feeling renewed and invigorated by discovering common ground, clarifying the focus, learning together, and monitoring what’s happening using collaborative processes. It’s about helping educators get better at what they do so students can learn more. It’s about learning with, from, and for one another.

plcsaredyer

Teacher Action Research

After receiving her B.A. in English from Virginia Tech, Julia Thompson spent 40 years teaching in Arizona, North Carolina, and Virginia. Author of several books for teachers, Thompson also provides advice on a variety of educational subjects through her website: on her blog: and on Twitter at TeacherAdvice:

In the most general sense, a professional learning community is simply a group of educators with a shared goal such as increasing their understanding of a subject, solving a common problem, or developing skills in a particular area. The most helpful communities in a school are not always those that are mandated by administrators but rather are those informal and dynamic partnerships that teachers create for themselves. These communities exemplify collaboration at its best because everyone involved is focused on working together to meet the group’s goals.

An excellent example of this type of informal learning community is a book study group where several colleagues read the same book and then meet to discuss their reading. Although a school study group tends to be geared to pedagogical issues, I once taught at a school where our entire English department read the works of Thomas Hardy together. It took quite a long time to plow through the reading, but the results were worth it. I learned a great deal about literary analysis, picked up practical tips for presenting literature to teens, and bonded with my colleagues as we gossiped about what was happening to our characters in the fictional Victorian world.

Another type of teacher-created learning community that can be particularly helpful is one that is devoted to action research. By its very nature, action research is initiated by teachers who identify an issue or problem that they want to investigate such as helping students learn to use effective study strategies. The group meets and formulates a potential solution and generates ways to apply it to the problem. The members of this learning community then collect and analyze data to determine the effectiveness of their possible solution. Together they decide whether to continue with the solution, tweak it, or even discard it in favor of another one. This professional learning community works well because its members are focused on problem-solving issues that they have identified themselves.

One of the biggest problems educators face when trying to establish a professional learning community is that there is so little free time at school to meet even if everyone involved has the same planning periods. The most obvious way to surmount this problem is to reach out electronically. Using our school’s email system, I once started a professional learning group that I called The Community within a Community. Every day, as curator of the group, I sent out a quick message, a link, a meme, a reminder of a school event, or asked for opinions and advice. Our little group quickly grew into a schoolwide digital teacher’s lounge consisting of experienced and beginning teachers all sharing ideas and supporting each other in a wide variety of ways. Our only caveats: Every post had to be about educational topics, be of interest to the entire group, be professional in tone and content, and be supportive of the members of the group. The positive effects of this informal learning community made the work of maintaining it well worth the effort.

Although there is merit in participating in assigned professional learning communities and in developing an online network of supportive colleagues, don’t hesitate to use the resources that are available to you in your own building. Every school has as many experts as it does staff members; and their expertise is enhanced by their knowledge of the school culture and willingness to work with colleagues for the benefit of everyone. Just ask.

anothertypethompson

Thanks to Marcela, Kathy, and Julia 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.

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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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