If you’re an educator or school leader, you’ve probably heard about professional learning communities (PLCs). In fact, your school likely already has one, considering that more than 80 percent of TpT teachers said in a recent Facebook and Twitter survey that they would be participating in a PLC this coming school year.
The popularity of PLCs is unsurprising, given the fact that there’s evidence to suggest that interest in traditional professional development (PD) offerings — like one-and-done lectures, meetings led by consultants, and workshops — is weakening. For instance, a recent study done by The New Teacher Project found that even though districts spent an average of $18,000 per teacher and 19 days per year on PD, only 30 percent of teachers actually improved their performance. And according to research from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, few teachers (29 percent) are highly satisfied with current PD offerings, citing that they want PD “that is relevant, hands-on, and sustained over time.”
At their best, PLCs are “the most powerful professional development and change strategy available” (Huffman and Hipp, 2003). And when done well, studies indicate that they can lead to reliable growth in student learning and a boost in teacher morale. Researchers found that there was a significant correlation between student growth and school environments where positive teacher collaborations flourished. If a teacher had high trust and frequent interaction with her or his fellow teachers, students’ math scores increased by 5.7 percent (Pil and Leana, 2009). Similarly, in a study conducted by Learning Sciences International, teacher morale was higher if teachers had forums for collaborating together on how to improve student learning.
Because of these and other benefits, PLCs are very attractive to schools and to their teachers. So, let’s take a look at what PLCs actually are and how educators can implement and sustain effective PLCs in their schools.
What exactly is a PLC?
A PLC is more than just a staff meeting or a group of teachers getting together to talk about a book they’ve read or a relevant issue. Rather, a PLC represents a way of working. It’s an ongoing process in which educators in the same school work together to reflect on their instructional practice, study new learning standards, improve their teaching, and develop solutions to improve the performance of the students they serve.
Unlike traditional PD, inquiry and reflection on data are at the heart of PLCs. Participants are constantly asking questions about how a particular strategy impacted students’ learning and what they can do better next time to address any gaps. According to Education World, PLC meetings include typically six steps: (1) studying student data, (2) selecting instructional strategies for meeting the standards, (3) planning on how to incorporate the selected instructional strategies into lessons, (4) implementing the planned lessons, (5) analyzing student work, and (6) reflecting on the outcome and adjusting as necessary. This structure of continuous inquiry and reflection enables teachers to learn from one another, to experiment with new solutions, and to examine what does and doesn’t work in order to find the best teaching methods for their students.
How can my school create an effective PLC?
We’ve heard from educators in the TpT community that it takes careful planning to create an effective PLC that doesn’t feel like “just another meeting.” As Nicole from Simply Coaching and Teaching advises, school leaders should strive to make their PLCs “useful and purposeful for teachers. The goal should be to have them take away something that they can utilize in their classrooms immediately.”
The research and editorial staff at Teachers Pay Teachers drew upon recent industry research and the experiences of the educators in our community to create five guidelines for school leaders and teachers who are looking to implement and support PLCs.
1. Build a culture that supports collaboration.
The success of a PLC hinges on collaboration and on teachers recognizing that their individual and collective goals are best met by working together. As TpT Teacher-Author Ha from Happy Days in First Grade puts it: “The more that teachers share and learn from each other, the more that students will be able to do the same with each other. A collaborative culture is one that supports the growth of all teachers and students.”
However, collaboration is not something that can be forced, and it often takes some proactive work to make it a reality. To help foster collaboration, school leaders may need to take steps to help educators feel a sense of commitment and ownership to the work that needs to be done. According to the American Association of School Administrators, some ways to do this include matching tasks and roles to staff members who are personally invested in them, expanding leadership roles, and making coordination easy.
| Sample Strategy: Articulate clear and specific objectives.
While PLCs are focused on improving student outcomes, words like “success” and “better” lack specificity. This, in turn, makes it difficult for educators to understand how they can contribute to the goals of the PLC. When initiating a new PLC (or restarting a PLC at the beginning of the year), educators should begin by reflecting on what’s going on with their students. Based on their reflections, they can create a goal for the PLC that is specific to their students, such as “building communication and collaboration skills.” Each individual meeting may then have a specific goal — like “exploring approaches to teach students how to negotiate conflict” — that is aligned with the overarching PLC goal. At the next meeting, teachers share observational data related to the impact of this approach and determine whether further instruction is needed in this area or if they should revise their objective and focus on another strategy.
For new PLCs, start with short-term goals that allow teachers to take smaller risks together. Then, as they become more confident in their skills and their capacity to succeed, begin to shift the focus of the PLC to long-term goals.
TpT Teacher Author Tip
At our PLCs, we have a SPED Teacher, the librarian, the GT Teacher, Learning Liaison, and all the teachers in our grade level. We discuss and openly share ideas on how to integrate STEM into our upcoming math, science, and humanities units. Being open minded and being willing to think outside the box makes all the difference for us.— Ha Dinh from Happy Days in First Grade
2. Foster an atmosphere of trust.
When implementing a PLC, some steps may need to be taken to help educators feel comfortable sharing information about their techniques and their students’ performance. Teachers in many schools work in isolation once their classroom door closes, and they may feel reluctant to open up about their challenges, to share the instructional strategies they use, and to hear feedback. During the implementation stages of a PLC, some of the focus should be on providing nonjudgmental structures and supports to establish a setting where educators feel open to discussing their work.
| Sample Strategy: Have teachers pair up and observe each other’s classrooms.
One way to foster supportive PLC culture is by providing teachers with the opportunity to observe each other’s classrooms. By sharing their understandings and instructional approaches with one another, teachers can support the learning of all community members There should be no judgment associated with these observations, as the goal is to build comfort in sharing.
TpT Teacher-Author Tip
“High trust and low fear! Teachers need to be able to openly share data without feeling judged. Teachers who think about all students as ‘our students’ instead of ‘my students’ is also important.”— Rachelle Smith
3. Establish a set of shared norms.
It may be beneficial to develop specific norms and expectations regarding the roles, responsibilities, and relationships for all members of a PLC. This helps teachers establish a baseline for how they should work together.
| Sample Strategy: Develop a set of beliefs and practices to refer to.
Creating a set of shared beliefs and practices helps teachers monitor their own actions, hold each other accountable, and ensure that they are all active participants in the PLC process. These practices may include things such as: arriving at meetings on time, remaining focused and avoiding distractions, rotating the role of facilitator among group members, or agreeing to prepare certain materials ahead of each session.
Some staff-wide behaviors that support successful PLCs include: openly sharing mistakes, challenges, and uncertainties in work; colleagues accepting disagreements that foster new dialogue; and teachers being respectful and considerate of their colleagues.
TpT Teacher-Author Tip
My teaching PLC meets weekly, and we have norms that we set up and refer back to every time we meet.
(1) Be present and engaged. Laptops and multi-tasking are allowed as long as we make sure to be active in collaborations.
(2) Come prepared with materials and ideas. Be ready to work.
(3) Work hard until 4pm. Make sure to allocate one short break around 3pm.
(4) Open to all voices and opinions. Honor all “directions.”
(5) We are the leaders. We take ownership. Ask ourselves “what else can WE do?”
(6) Rely on one another for support and guidance.
(7) We remember Q-TIP (Quit Taking It Personally).— Diane R. from Fifth in the Middle
4. Provide structure and guidance for PLC time.
Like their students, teachers may need support when developing new habits, and it is beneficial to provide guidance to help teachers best utilize their time together. Nicole of Simply Coaching and Teaching advises PLC leaders to plan their meetings like they are teaching a lesson in the classroom. “First, I talk about the objectives that we’re going to cover during our time together. Every discussion is structured around five key questions:
- Where are we going?
- Where are we now?
- How do we move learning forward?
- What did we learn today?
- Which students benefit and which students don’t?
We work together to break down the skill or instructional strategy that we’re focusing on. Sometimes I’ll use a quick video to demonstrate our focus area before moving into activities.” For the two PLCs that she leads, she’s found this framework to be particularly helpful in focusing the conversations and making the meetings purposeful and actionable for the teachers.
| Strategy: Point PLC members toward relevant resources or knowledgeable staff members.
PLCs encourage teachers to identify not only student learning needs, but also gaps in their own knowledge. Once a group has determined its goal, administrators should point members toward relevant resources or knowledgeable staff members who can help them learn things like how to analyze data, unpack standards, and identify the most effective instructional strategies to address a standard. This support can come from principals, instructional coaches, curriculum specialists, and other teachers with specific subject matter expertise.
TpT Teacher-Author Tip
“SMART goals, agenda with set time limits that we stick to, and everyone staying positive and on track!”—Alison Hislop
5. Focus on results.
At the end of the day, student results should be the guiding light of all of a PLC’s activities. Evidence of student learning should be used by PLC members to judge their group’s effectiveness, and to inform and improve their teaching practices. As TpT Teacher-Author Jameson from Lessons With Coffee points out: “Successful PLCs should use data to talk about and share teaching strategies.”
| Strategy: Create products that focus on the goal of student learning.
PLCs should focus their efforts on student learning, through the creation of lists of desired student outcomes, types of assessment, analyses of student achievement, and instructional strategies. PLC members should also consider how they will know if students have met the goals they have set and create criteria for assessing outcomes.
TpT Teacher-Author Tip
“PLCs need to be more than just a time to collaborate and commiserate. It really all comes back to student performance and how that is directly linked to what happens in the classroom. The focus needs to move away from ‘I taught that’ to ‘the students learned that.’ When PLC members come to the meeting with real data and an open mind, they can learn how to improve their practices so that student performance is increased. That’s the bottom line.”—Echo N. from Vavoom Classroom
It takes careful planning to form a useful and functional PLC, but once the foundation is built, the benefits will soon be evident. When you allow educators to take charge of their own learning, you empower them to do what’s best for themselves and for their students.
Here are a few resources to help your school’s PLCs succeed:
- Professional Learning Community (PLC) Agenda Template
- SMART Data Analysis Template for Professional Learning Community
- The Basics of Professional Learning Communities 4 PLC Questions Freebie
- The Gut-Level Teacher Reflection
And here’s one specifically for administrators, with a whole chapter on PLCs:
Further Reading List
Want to dive deeper into PLCs? Here’s a curated reading list of the sources that we cited and referred to while writing this piece.
- Basileo, L.D. (2016). Did You Know? Your School’s PLCs Have a Major Impact. Learning Sciences International.
- Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (2014). Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development.
- DuFour, R. (2004). “What Is a Professional Learning Community?” Educational Leadership.
- Kruse, S.D. (2009). “5 Ways to Build a Culture of Collaboration With Staff, Teachers and Parents.” American Association of School Administrators.
- Pirtle, S.S., et al (2014). “Implementing Effective Professional Learning Communities.” SEDL Insights. Vol. 2, No. 3.
- Pil, F.K., and Leana, C (2009). “Applying organizational research to public school reform: The effects of teacher human and social capital on student performance.” Academy of Management Journal.
- Provini, C. (2012). “Best Practices for Professional Learning Communities.” Education World.
- Ullman, E. (2009). “How to Create a Professional Learning Community.” Edutopia.