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Best Practices for Professional Learning Communities
By Scott Sterling
One of the key pieces of the beginning of the school year is the establishment or reestablishment of a school’s professional learning communities (PLCs). Although PLCS are a common practice in modern education, perhaps a school has a new leadership team or quite a few new teachers. Or perhaps they just want a fresh start with new groups. Either way, here are some ways of getting the most out of the PLC experience.
Stay away from random groupings
When setting up their PLCs, some school leaders simply have their teachers pull from a hat or some other random assignment method. This is a missed opportunity.
That’s not to say PLCs can only be uniformly derived from grade levels or subject areas. If you want to mix teachers up, great. But mix them up intentionally, making sure each subject area or grade level is represented. We have a tendency of getting too siloed in our practice. Make sure the PLCs don’t become echo chambers.
PLCs should have intention, otherwise they devolve into gossip-fests or informational meetings that have very little chance of improving student outcomes. Many schools subscribe to this method:
- Study – Collaboratively study current data and trends, and come up with a specific goal.
- Select – Choose research-based instructional strategies that will help accomplish the goal.
- Plan – Collaborate on a common lesson plan using those strategies.
- Implement – Teachers implement their lesson plan, gather student work, and reflect on how the lesson went.
- Analyze – Everyone gathers together to study the artifacts from the lesson. Technology, like our IE Growth Tracker, can help here to make sure everyone is seeing the same things in each classroom.
- Adjust – The group modifies their approach to better reflect their findings.
This method is just a baseline and can be modified for each PLCs needs.
The goal of a PLC is for everyone to learn together to improve their practice. Because everyone has the same “skin in the game”, there shouldn’t be a permanent hierarchy.
That’s not to say that a PLC doesn’t need leadership. Someone needs to hold everyone else accountable. But that person can and should rotate on a set schedule.
Intentional practice requires reflection on the part of every teacher, not just after the demo lesson but throughout the process. That includes after every individual PLC meeting. These reflections don’t necessarily need to be shared, but it’s important for each teacher to give themselves time to think deliberately about their craft.
Everyone gets observed
Lesson study is practically useless without third-party observation. There are simply too many things that teachers can miss while delivering a lesson. There’s also plenty that they aren’t willing to admit about their practice.
The PLC should schedule their “Implement” periods in a staggered fashion that allows the other members of the group to observe the lesson during planning time. If that’s not possible, think about taping lessons and sharing them to the rest of the PLC online. Only then can the “Analyze” piece truly be effective.
A certain level of autonomy
Having every PLC led or facilitated by an administrator is not only unnecessary, but it also stifles the creativity that would organically take place otherwise. Teachers are naturally going to filter themselves and their approaches in front of their bosses. Administrators asking for regular reporting is fine, but otherwise leave the PLCs with a set of expectations and then let them do their work.