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How to Build Radically Different PLCs That Empower Teachers with Ownership and Raise Student Achievement
By: Jody Honaker, Deana Senn, and Shakira Fetherolf
This blog is part of our series, 11 School Improvement Secrets for Radically Different Results from the Nation’s Top School Turnaround Provider.
Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) should be one of your most powerful levers for raising student achievement. And yet, in many cases, PLCs can feel like a waste of time for teachers. Often, instructional coaches exhaust themselves in carrying the full load, educators sit in silence with no structure for meaningful contributions, and the PLC has no way of measuring its impact on student outcomes.
A radically different approach to PLCs not only includes teacher voice – it depends on it. Teachers take ownership and lead their teams to constant self-improvement, and their time together feels invaluable for professional growth. These radically different PLCs constantly raise the bar on student achievement.
In the following guide to build or rebuild your PLCs, you’ll learn how to get started on the journey to radically different results through your PLC structures.
Why traditional PLCs often don’t work
Before jumping into positive shifts you can make with your PLCs, let’s think about why teachers aren’t feeling engaged and empowered in most PLCs in the first place.
PLCs often mirror traditional classrooms, where the leader lectures and directs while the others sit in compliant silence with little motivation to engage. Instructional coaches usually take on the leadership role in a PLC and do all the preparation and all the work facilitating during the meeting, leaving little room for teacher autonomy and productive struggle. If teachers lack buy-in and engagement in PLCs, it’s usually not about laziness, but more often a symptom of false collaboration and frustration.
The problem is that the planning process is often not designed in a way that is worthy of conversation and debate and rarely requires every teacher to bring their unique talents, skills, and expertise to the team. Without a worthy task that can only be solved through teamwork, the team has no reason to exist, and the PLC’s time together doesn’t feel purposeful. Teachers find themselves asking, “Why am I here, when I have so many other things to do?”
When teachers’ needs aren’t met in PLCs, it trickles down to affect the quality of Tier 1 core instruction in the classroom. A strong lesson starts with a rigorous planning process and ends with informing the next lesson by reflecting on daily student data. This planning and reflecting should be the focus of PLCs. If PLCs waste time on other issues, teachers leave frustrated and unable to make progress on student achievement goals.
What about a scripted curriculum?
Planning quality core instruction can be a complex task. Some argue it’s easier to hand teachers a scripted curriculum to follow. However, scripted curriculums remove teacher autonomy – and along with it, any chance for productive struggle. In the classroom, productive struggle and academic rigor engage students and deepen their learning. In PLCs, it does the same – cultivating teacher growth, professional learning, and teacher ownership.
When handing a scripted lesson to teachers instead of engaging them in the complex task of collaborative lesson planning, your intentions may be good, but consider the message it sends. Do scripted lessons respect teachers’ professional expertise? Does it establish trust? Does it create a situation where there is one right way to teach and many wrong ways to teach? Does it support diversity of thinking? You can see how a scripted curriculum may feel quite defeating. Rather, we want teachers to feel empowered with their instruction. With that empowerment comes responsibility and accountability, and you’ll need to develop the structures to support that.
Do scripted lessons cultivate teacher growth, professional learning, and teacher ownership? Instead, build empowering PLCs with this guide. @Learn_Sci… Click To Tweet
Envisioning the PLC team you want
As a leader, you’ll first need to reflect on your vision for the team. Creating an empowered PLC team involves various shifts as you gradually move your team to a higher level of maturity (we’ll cover the different levels of maturity below). You can begin by asking yourself, “What am I taking responsibility for that I can support my teams to start taking responsibility for instead?” As you share more responsibility with your team, you move teachers further toward autonomy.
When PLC team members begin to take on new roles and responsibilities, we are supporting equity of voice in the PLC. Teachers may step up to lead PLCs as the team matures, which further reinforces an atmosphere of trust and psychological safety. Welcoming different voices and opinions also allows for the intellectual friction that drives diverse thinking.
|4 Tips for Promoting Psychological Safety in PLCs|
What should PLCs focus on?
Keep in mind these three main areas of focus when building or rebuilding your PLC structures:
1. Compelling Purpose
First, the PLC must have a purpose for working as a team – a shared vision that keeps them motivated and focused. Research on high-functioning teams recommends that a team’s compelling purpose is challenging (energizes and enhances motivation), clear (orients and allows the team to self-correct and self-direct) and consequential (engages and fosters full utilization of knowledge and skills) (Wageman et al., 2008). As a PLC, your compelling purpose will likely be around raising student achievement. Taking the time to build a safe environment for teachers with a shared vision and goals helps the team feel grounded in their purpose with intentionality and focused on the next two important areas.
2. Instructional Planning
Much of a PLC’s time together should center on instructional planning, such as creating learning targets and tasks or planning interventions. This process if often rigorous for the PLC, because it involves aligning to the standards, planning for interactive learning experiences such as student teams, intentionally designing the task to create productive struggle and build student agency, and strategizing for how to address student learning gaps in the moment. This is why the PLC should engage in instructional planning together – so they can utilize every teacher’s knowledge and skills for this challenging process.
3. Data Analysis
The other area where PLCs should spend time is collaboratively analyzing data. PLCs should engage in conversations about what student evidence might look like when demonstrating particular standards. They can also align daily student evidence to projected proficiency on assessments to understand if students are on track. PLCs can use their collective knowledge and skills to analyze student data and help one another adjust their instructional planning to better meet the needs of all students.
When PLCs take the time to think out their compelling purpose and use that purpose to keep a clearer focus on the big rocks of instructional planning and data analysis, they are well on their way to becoming more effective.
Making PLCs a Success!
Why should PLCs work interdependently?
To foster true collaboration and communicate the belief that everyone’s time is valuable, first make sure that PLCs are working on challenges together that truly require the knowledge and skills of the whole team. Ask yourself, is this discussion and planning truly good for the group, or is it information that could be shared in an email or something that teachers could work on by themselves? Make sure the PLC discussion is so deep that it requires everyone’s thinking in the room.
Teachers have the monumental task of improving core instruction to help every student be successful every day. It’s no small feat and certainly not a job for one person. When this task is rightfully shared with the PLC, it becomes empowering for the PLC to take on as a team.
When reflecting on whether your PLC is interdependent, you may ask yourself:
- Do teachers have cooperative goals and is there evidence that our PLC is striving for a common purpose?
- Is everyone on the same page? Do we all know what to expect when we walk into the room, including our purpose for being there?
- Do we trust the level of expertise within our instructional staff?
- Do our actions say, “I trust you, I need you on this team”?
Fostering interdependence in PLCs means solving challenges together that truly require the knowledge and skills of a whole team. The discussion must be so deep that it requires everyone's thinking in the room. @Learn_Sci… Click To Tweet
The different levels of PLC teams
Harvard researchers developed the following three levels of teams through their work on what makes teams most effective (Wageman & Lowe, 2019). Think about what level your PLC is currently at and where you want to be.
In a manager-led PLC, the school’s leadership team directs teachers to execute tasks. Leadership decides what will happen during the PLC and leads it. Manager-led team accountability often comes from actions such as the PLC turning in their agenda notes to leadership. This is an acceptable starting place – some type of planning is happening and people are together – but truly effective PLCs step up to the next two levels.
Teachers get their first taste of PLC ownership and empowerment as self-managing teams take on many of the responsibilities of planning. Accountability for a self-managing team comes from the team members holding themselves and one another accountable to shared goals. Teachers help make decisions regarding the focus for each upcoming PLC meeting. A self-managing PLC often has their plans and goals mapped into the next semester, which keeps them focused and helps them track progress.
Further along in their development, PLC teams may adopt a self-designing team structure. This is where teams might decide who is on the team. For example, the 5th grade PLC team may decide they are too large and not making the most of their time because of the team’s size. In a self-designing team, they are empowered to decide if they want to split into two teams. Self-designing teams also have more discretion in deciding the content and structure of PLC meetings. For example, they may decide on more of a conversational approach instead of planning during a PLC. Self-designing teams grow their impact, voice, and purpose while still carrying out all the responsibilities of a self-managed team.
Who should lead PLCs?
The PLC’s leadership depends on what level the PLC is at. Traditionally, the instructional coach or another school leader leads PLCs. As PLCs mature into a self-managing team, we find teachers taking the role of PLC leader.
Having transparent expectations of the PLC leader is important. The PLC leader should take on the role of facilitating conversations, which means ensuring everyone has a voice within the planning walls. But the PLC leader does not come into the PLC carrying more than they can handle. The goal is for the PLC leader to be a facilitator, not the hero leader who does all the work.
Example of Expectations of a PLC Leader:
- Create and communicate agendas/invites
- Record minutes and keep records
- Facilitate conversations
- Ensure all team members are heard (equity of voice)
- Serve as a point of contact for admin
PLC roles and responsibilities
Helping teachers understand their roles and responsibilities for PLCs is important. Everyone should understand it isn’t just mandatory to show up Tuesday at 10:30 for a PLC meeting, but that PLCs are dependent on the active participation of all members. Take time to reflect on the norms of conduct and expectations that will set your PLC up for success.
For example, when thinking about the different roles and responsibilities, you may decide to designate a teacher who brings in the learning target and success criteria for each PLC meeting. You may designate another person whose job it is to reference the standard and the learning targets with every conversation, whether it is data analysis or planning. Maybe someone else brings in last year’s planning to serve as a reminder of what worked before, and another teacher brings the district’s curriculum so they can have the conversation around it.
Ensuring everyone has a role and responsibility to the team planning ensures interdependency, as discussed above, and communicates everyone plays an important part in the compelling purpose of raising student achievement.
Example from the field:
How Lakewood Elementary School created a culture of professional collaboration
When Lakewood Elementary School in St. Petersburg, Florida began their partnership with IE in 2018, their leadership team made it clear that professional collaboration was a priority. They placed high value on teacher teams, PLC time, their professional learning committee, and common planning. IE also recognized professional collaboration as a critical schoolwide system that could move core instruction forward.
We worked with the new principal, Stephanie Woodford, to strengthen PLCs. The Lakewood team knew they had to do something radically different to get radically different results, which meant scheduling empowering PLCs often and consistently. A team of teachers, a Lakewood instructional coach, and an IE coach (if on campus) met by specific grade and subject and planned rigorous, standard-aligned tasks.
As Lakewood’s PLCs matured, growing from a manager-led team to a self-managing team, many lead teachers became the voice for their PLCs. Those who understood the power of teams and collaboration came to PLCs “team ready” with ideas and wonderings. Teachers became critical consumers of their curriculum, determining if it was aligned to the standards and what rigorous questions and tasks they needed to create to reach the full intent and rigor of the standards.
Teachers at Lakewood were empowered to add their voice and choice to core instruction as they engaged in rich discussions with their colleagues. PLCs collaborated on standards-aligned learning targets and tasks, designed lessons around student teaming structures, discussed how to use formative assessment to ensure all students were learning, and planned how to track learning progress and use the data to inform instructional decisions. Every PLC at Lakewood became fully focused on instructional planning and/or data analysis.
Lakewood’s professional collaboration evolved and shifted throughout the three years they worked with IE as the school welcomed new instructional coaches and teachers and tackled new challenges (hello pandemic!), but the PLC structure remained strong. Teacher turnover rates at Lakewood decreased dramatically from 2018, when the partnership with IE started, to 2021. See figure 1. (Toth, 2021).
Figure 1. Teacher turnover decreased from 23 out of 33 replaced before IE partnered with Lakewood, to only five teachers replaced after one year of partnership and one teacher replaced after three years of partnership.
Lakewood’s team was focused on their compelling purpose of raising student achievement, and their culture of collaboration with a structured, proactive process made a radical difference in core instruction for students. See figures 2 and 3 below.
|Lakewood Elementary School
MATH Proficiency Improvements – 2018 to 2021 (FSA Grade Level)
|3rd Grade||4th Grade||4th Grade|
|2018 (“F” School)||25%||20%||18%|
|2021 (“A” School)||45%||63%||68%|
Figure 2. Lakewood’s math proficiency improved in every grade level.
|Lakewood Elementary School
READING Proficiency Improvements – 2018 to 2021 (FSA Grade Level)
|3rd Grade||4th Grade||4th Grade|
|2018 (“F” School)||23%||16%||9%|
|2021 (“A” School)||35%||35%||47%|
Figure 3. Lakewood’s reading proficiency improved in every grade level.
Lakewood went from the lowest performing traditional public school in Florida in 2018 – a low “F” – up to an “A” school in 2021, among the top 6% of traditional public elementary schools in the state. Congratulations on your hard work, Lakewood!
“We started to do things differently in our PLCs. I began to send out the standard and success criteria ahead of time, and everyone would bring their ideas to the PLC. Together we would create a graphic organizer and we would ask each other ‘Is this aligned to the standard? Is this going to get our students where they need to be?’ It was all about designing the tasks to get our students to success. Our new PLC sessions helped teachers develop confidence, because teachers built the tasks and lessons, and they owned them. Teachers no longer had to say, ‘Let me go and look at that script and see where I’m at.’ They’re now very secure – you can see the confidence.”
– Michelle Summers, reading recovery teacher, Lakewood Elementary School
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- Webinar recording: Building Ownership in PLCs One Empowered Teacher at a Time
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Toth, M. D. (2021) How Florida’s lowest performing school improved from an “F” to an “A” after partnering with IE. Instructional Empowerment. https://bit.ly/32UefAW
Wageman, R., Nunes, D. A., Burruss, J. A., Hackman, J. R. (2008). Senior leadership teams: What it takes to make them great. Harvard Business School Press.
Wageman, R. & Lowe, K. (2019). Designing, launching, and coaching teams: The 60–30–10 rule and its implications for team coaching. In D. Clutterbuck, J. Gannon, S. Hayes, I. Iordanou, K. Lowe & D. MacKie (Eds.), The Practitioner’s Handbook of Team Coaching (pp. 121-137). Routledge.
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