Investigating Professional Learning Communities


Mary Kuchta

South Dakota State University

Abstract

Developing the best teaching strategies in the classroom can be a challenge for any teacher. It can be difficult to increase student motivation and student achievement. Many school districts have implemented professional learning communities into their weekly routine. Teachers and administrators collaborate to try to find those best practices that will help student achievement. Research has indicated that professional learning communities have positive results on student improvement. When PLC’s are utilized in a school, teachers are given the time to reflect, learn, and work together to try to help each and every student reach his potential. When teachers begin to collaborate, the culture in the building can begin to change. I am currently a teacher at Norfolk Junior High School in Norfolk, Nebraska. PLC’s were introduced to Norfolk Public four years ago. The purpose of this project is for me to reflect on the productivity, advantages, disadvantages, and the areas of improvement for PLC&squo;s. I also want to determine how different teachers within the building view and utilize PLC’s.

Keywords: professional learning communities, collaboration, teacher collaboration

Introduction

Teaching is changing form every day. Today there is a push in many school districts to move from the individual approach of teaching to the collaborative or team teaching approach to best meet the needs of the students (Riveros, Newton, & Burgess, 2012). With this push for collaboration comes Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s). PLC’s are considered to be an effective tool for improving student achievement and promoting educators with an opportunity to develop professionally. PLC’s are defined 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 (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker & Many, 2010). Studies have shown that teacher collaboration has shown an increase in student achievement. Just because a school district incorporates weekly PLC meetings doesn’t mean that student achievement will increase. PLC’s work when they are implemented correctly, they fit the culture of the school, and the educators keep the students in mind.

Many times PLC time is incorporated into a school district, but teachers can be confused or frustrated with what is expected of them during this time. Simply putting well-meaning educators together and expecting them to collaborate is not enough (Thessin & Starr, 2011). Teachers need to know their mission. Once they know their mission, they can form a vision and a purpose. Professional learning communities emerge from a purpose (Easton, 2012). There are great things that can come from PLC’s, but if the time isn’t spent trying to figure out what would benefit the students, then PLC’s don’t serve much purpose. There is constant learning when teachers and educators get together with a purpose. This learning can produce common assessments, best teaching practices, and support for each other. Relationships can build as teachers help teachers. When this happens, students can benefit.

Literature Review

The Professional Learning Community (PLC) is gaining recognition as an effective strategy for professional growth. PLC’s involve teachers in ongoing, collaborative professional development. These groups of teachers are working together with a shared vision (Linder, Post, & Calabrese, 2012). The focus of a learning community is how to benefit the learning of each student. As teachers focus on the student and collaborate on best teaching practices, they begin to learn and grow. Learning is what energizes the members of the PLC. “Learning is at one deeply personal and inherently social; it connects us not just to knowledge, but to each other” (Easton, 2012). This learning is based on the adult learning theory. This theory suggests that adult learners stress self-directed learning. Life experiences serve as a source of information. They focus on problem-centered learning and they have an internal motivation to learn (Linder, Post, & Calabrese, 2012).

The focus on teacher collaboration is not new in education reform literature, for instance, Dewey (1916) suggested that teachers’ reflections upon their practices would bring benefit to the entire school system (Riveros, Newton, Burgess, 2012). Research has shown that school districts and students have benefited from teacher collaboration. There was an urban school district in Texas that organized more than 200 schools into smaller professional learning communities so that teams of reading teachers could collaborate for the purposes of learning, joint lesson planning, and problem solving in order to increase reading achievement. As a result of consistent collaboration among teachers, students’ reading achievement increased across the district (Williams, 2013).

Teacher collaboration has the potential to move the field of teaching forward by energizing teams of teachers to activate and guide teacher improvement and learning, but there is a need to increase knowledge of collaborative inquiry and to show how teacher practice can be enhanced through close collaboration with other colleagues (Egodawatte, McDougall, Stoilescu, 2011). Sometimes teachers are thrown into PLC’s and don’t know how they work or how to efficiently utilize this time to help improve student achievement. If PLC time isn’t used to collaborate, teachers might use this time to do their own personal lesson planning. In order for professional learning communities to be effective, there are three big ideas that every teacher should use to drive the PLC. The first idea is that the purpose is to ensure all students learn at high levels. The second idea is that helping all students learn requires a collaborative and collective effort. Finally, the third idea is that results must be focused in order to be effective in helping all students learn (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, Many, 2010). These three big ideas can drive a PLC to a mission, but even with these three big ideas in mind, it can still be a challenge to determine how a PLC should be run in order to best benefit each student.

PLC’s can take different forms in different school districts. Whatever the form is, districts must be deliberate in their efforts to teach teachers how to collaborate (Thessin & Starr, 2011). There are five key principles that every PLC needs to acquire in order to be the most effective. Professional learning communities emerge from passion and purpose, they are sensitive to the environment, they are a result of relationships, they acknowledge a variety of solutions and processes, and they energize thinking (Easton, 2012). Teachers need to have a clear understanding of the expectations. They need to have common goals that they want to collaborate together on, and they must develop questions and solutions based on those goals. They must work as meaningful teams that create a guaranteed and viable curriculum for all students. Each team must monitor student learning through balanced and common assessments to inform and improve the professional practices in order to improve student achievement (DuFour, 2012). PLC’s are about goals, ideas, solutions, results, and reflection. Each team should start with a common goal in mind, come up with ideas and solutions, look at results from common assessments to determine student achievement, and reflect on what worked and what needs to be improved. This is a process that takes time and needs to be learned, but when teachers work together consistently, this process can develop into a meaningful process that will help student achievement.

PLC’s have a place and they can improve student achievement. When a district implements PLC’s, there needs to be a clear plan of how this fits into the district’s overall improvement process. Also, the teachers need to be given the opportunity to learn how to best utilize PLC’s. If there isn’t a vision or focus then teachers can become frustrated with the process and not truly understand the true benefits that can come from PLC’s. “If teachers and administrators work together to address student needs by engaging in a continuous process of instructional improvement, then teaching and learning will benefit” (Thessin & Starr, 2011).

Methodology

Purpose

The purpose of this project is for me to reflect on how I perceive PLC’s, how they have changed me as a professional, and how student achievement has changed. I want to reflect on the advantages, disadvantages, and things that need to be improved. Another purpose of this project is to determine how other teachers and administrators in my same school use their PLC time. I want to determine how they view PLC’s and what they believe are advantages and disadvantages. I want to determine if they are seeing improved student achievement and determine what improvements they would like to see within the district.

Project Design

I will reflect on what a Professional Learning Community is. I will explain how it is incorporated in our school district. I will then reflect on advantages and disadvantages of PLC’s. I will reflect on whether or not they benefited the students. I will reflect on how my teaching has changed since we started implementing PLC’s in our district.

Along with my reflection, I will also interview various teachers from different content areas to determine their thoughts about PLC’s. I will ask them numerous questions about how they value the time provided, changes they think should happen, and if they felt students benefitted from PLC’s.

I will also interview an administrator to determine why the district decided to implement PLC’s into the weekly schedule and how he feels student achievement has changed. I will also ask what changes he would like to see made in the PLC process in our district.

Participants

The participants in this project are a teacher from each of the core areas and an administrator. These core areas include a math teacher, a science teacher, an English teacher, and a social studies teacher. In addition to these professionals, I also reflect on how I use PLC’s.

Reflection and Interviews

Professional Learning Communities are frequent meetings where people that have a common goal get together and problem solve. They can consist of teachers in the same discipline or in other disciplines. There needs to be a focus and a purpose for each meeting. The PLC is designed for teachers to learn from each other and brainstorm ideas that will help benefit the student. Along with brainstorming, comes reflection. The teachers in a PLC need to reflect on their practices and determine if what they do is working and what isn’t working. I know that when we sit down and reflect on our practices in our math meetings, we really make each other think. I have greatly improved my reflection process since I have been involved in the PLC’s. One thing that I noticed since we started PLC’s is that our team members have grown closer and are more open to sharing and receiving ideas. We are not afraid to give and take criticism when we are brainstorming ideas. We realize that criticism helps us grow professionally and our goal is to best serve our students. PLC’s provide teachers with the time to collaborate, reflect, and grow as professionals. One of the math teachers that I work with summarized his definition of a PLC.

A professional learning community is a group of people that have a common time to work together collaboratively. I believe that the purpose is to discuss issues that need to be addressed and make common plans for the future. In a school setting the purpose should be to discuss and plan curriculum and talk about issues that would best benefit the students (J. Ayers, personal communication, February 5, 2013).

Professional learning communities have changed me as a teacher. I have gained a greater insight of different pedagogy and have been able to implement new ideas into the classroom since we have started PLC’s at Norfolk Junior High School four years ago. In comparison to the teacher in-service days that were incorporated in our district before PLC’s, I feel there is a lot more accomplished with the PLC’s. We meet weekly instead of just a few times a year. By meeting more regularly, I feel that we are able to accomplish more as a group and reflect on the practices that we implement in our classrooms. Our building principal explained why the Norfolk Public School District decided to try the PLC’s.

We implemented “district wide” weekly PLC’s about four years ago. The need for the weekly PLC meeting time came as a result of teachers and staff wanting more consistent blocks of instructional time together where they could plan and collaboratively set instructional goals. Before the district wide PLC’s there were blocks of time scheduled throughout the year in day or full day increments. These days were okay, but staff said that they were too spread apart and the follow up from one meeting to the next was not always consistent. Now with the weekly or biweekly PLC meetings staff can count on time together to problem solve instructional and curricular issues and plan common assessments and lessons (M. Hart, personal communication, February 6, 2013).

Our PLC meetings have taken a different form since the beginning of the year. We still meet with our departments weekly, but many times we are only given thirty to forty minutes to work together. The remaining time is usually spent in building and faculty meetings. We still get the time to collaborate each week, but I feel that we would benefit from more time with our groups and less time in faculty meetings. An English teacher explains how she feels about how our PLC meetings are set up in our building.

While I think professional learning communities can be opportunities for grade level departments, district departments, and grade level teams to gather and share important curricular information, I think that they have become more of an opportunity to hold faculty meetings (which I think have a different purpose). I see faculty meetings as more of a top down informational time, while PLC time needs to be used for sharing time among professional educators who have many ideas and plans to offer each other (D. Fuller, personal communication, February 5, 2013).

PLC’s are great tools for educators to align curriculum and collaborate, but they need to be implemented correctly. There are many great things that resulted from implementing PLC’s in our district. But I feel they could be implemented slightly different. If we had more time in our small groups, we would be able to get more things accomplished, such as aligning curriculum to the state standards, reflecting more on teaching practices, reflecting on state and common assessments to determine strengths and weaknesses, and fill the gaps in our curriculum by aligning it across the entire district from kindergarten to twelfth grade. We do have some time, but I would like to see more. This is a common feeling in our building. A science teacher and a math teacher share their views on the use of PLC time in our building.

We need to make more common assessments. We need more time to work in our department if this method is going to work (J. Millikan, personal communication, February 4, 2013).

I would like to see more time to work in our departments. Much of our PLC time has been devoted to building meetings about various things. While these are valuable, I think the department time is more valuable (J. Ayers, personal communication, February 5, 2013).

Another important aspect of PLC’s is that teachers need to know how to use them. The staff was not given any type of training when we started the PLC’s. We were just thrown into them. I feel that teachers need to be trained on how to use this valuable time. Many times teachers get together and they have great ideas and are focused, but it can be a challenge at times to determine what to focus on. I find it difficult at times to figure out what we should talk about in a meeting that is only about thirty to forty minutes long. There are times when our group will start something, and then finish it before school, after school, or during our lunch. That is great that we communicate throughout the day, but it would be nice to be able to sit down together and finish what we start. A civics teacher expresses his frustration when I asked him about what he would like to see improved.

Clarification! I believe we all work better when we are told exactly what we need to do and be given an example of how it should look when we are done. There is virtually none of that in our PLC’s. That is very frustrating when you have no idea of what you should be working on. That also makes it harder to get everybody “on board” and excited to work (C. Swenson, personal communication, February 1, 2013).

I don’t want to paint a picture that PLC’s in our building are not productive. Great things have come from them. Our eighth grade math department wrote all common assessments, aligned our curriculum to the state standards, completely transformed our teaching styles, and we have seen great results. Last year we had an issue with homework completion and motivation in our math classrooms. We wanted to try something new that would help the students in these areas. In our PLC time and time outside school, we were able to come up with a plan. We decided to try a whole new approach to how we present material to the students. We have transformed our classrooms into more of a collaborative, student centered environment by incorporating what is called flipped teaching. We made videos of each lesson and the students watch those lessons at home. When they come to class, they work in groups on their homework assignments. We are there to answer any questions they may have. We also have come up with various activities that we incorporate in our classroom to help them utilize the material they learn. This seems to help with keeping the students’ motivation high. Since we have incorporated these methods, our homework completion has increased and students seem more motivated to work on math. It is still a work in progress and there are things that we want to change, but we feel that there are definitely some advantages. We would have never been able to do all of those things if we weren’t given the PLC time to do it. I do feel that we would benefit from a little more time so that we could reflect more on how our students are doing.

Our math department has used PLC time to collaborate and improve our pedagogy. We were given the time to reflect and address issues that affect our students. I feel we are taking steps in the right direction and growing together as professionals. Our department is not the only department that is seeing growth. A civics teacher explains how his department has benefitted from this time.

We are able to discuss teaching styles, activities, projects, and have common activities and assessments. We currently only have two common assessments in place, but are working on some for Nebraska Studies. The best part of department PLC’s is bouncing ideas off of each other. I have tried new projects and we have created activities as a result of our meetings. I have seen an increase in student achievement on the assessments and activities we have created together because I know I work that much harder to make sure the kids understand the information before I move on (C. Swenson, personal communication, February 1, 2013).

Our building principal also mentioned some of the changes that he has seen in the building since PLC’s were put into place.

We have seen an increase in student achievement since the implementation of the PLC’s. Scores on standardized tests have risen and students receive a more comprehensive and consistent curricular “scope and sequence” of what is being taught across grade levels and content areas. There is more collaboration and less “close my door and leave me alone” philosophies. Grading and content have become more consistent. As with anything, there are definitely areas for improvement, but collaboration time for professionals is critical to moving an organization forward in a positive manner (M. Hart, personal communication, February 6, 2013).

PLC’s have a place and can be very beneficial for the teachers and the students. We have to remember why we do what we do and we have to have a purpose. Learning is a part of life and it energizes us. If PLC‘s are steered in the right direction, the possibilities of what can be accomplished are endless.

References

DuFour, R. (2012). When Districts Function as Professional Learning Communities. Education Digest, 77(9), 28-29.

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. (2010). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work. (2nd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Easton, L. (2012). Principles of Design Energize Learning Communities. Journal Of Staff Development, 33(4), 49-54.

Egodawatte, G., McDougall, D., & Stoilescu, D. (2011). The effects of teacher collaboration in Grade 9 Applied Mathematics. Educational Research For Policy & Practice, 10(3), 189-209.

Hewson, K. (2013). Time Shift: Developing Teacher Teams. Principal, 92(3), 14-17

Linder, R., Post, G., & Calabrese, K. (2012). Professional Learning Communities: Practices for Successful Implementation. Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, 78(3), 13-22.

Pella, S. (2011). A Situative Perspective on Developing Writing Pedagogy in a Teacher Professional Learning Community. Teacher Education Quarterly, 38(1), 107-125.

Riveros, A., Newton, P., & Burgess, D. (2012). A Situated Account of Teacher Agency and Learning: Critical Reflections on Professional Learning Communities. Canadian Journal Of Education, 35(1), 202-216.

Thessin, R. A., & Starr, J. P. (2011). Supporting the Growth of Effective Professional Learning Communities Districtwide. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(6), 48-54.

Williams, D. (2012). Urban Education and Professional Learning Communities. Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, 79(2), 31-39.

Appendix A

Teacher Questionnaire

  1. What subject and grade level do you teach?
  2. What is your definition of professional learning communities?
  3. Have you seen an increase, decrease, or no difference in student achievement since PLC’s were implemented? Are there results that can show this?
  4. What are some things that have resulted in your department from PLC’s?
  5. Has your pedagogy changed since PLC’s were implemented?
  6. What are some things you would like to see improved?
  7. What are some things you think are working well?
  8. Do you have any other comments about PLC’s?

Appendix B

Administrator Questionnaire

  1. Why were PLC’s first implemented in the district?
  2. What is your definition of professional learning communities?
  3. Have you seen an increase, decrease, or no difference in student achievement since PLC’s were implemented? Are there results that can show this?
  4. What are some things that have resulted from PLC’s?
  5. What are some things you would like to see improved?
  6. What are some things you think are working well?
  7. Do you have any other comments about PLC’s?