Getting Started as a Professional Learning Community

So, I was kinda shocked to find out that my post about PLCs, which I thought no one would read, is my second most popular post of all-time.  (Yes, I know I’ve only written 16 posts, thank you very much.)  It seems teachers are really excited about PLCs, so I figured I’d write an update about my team.

For starters, there are three things you need to know.

First, we (the teachers in my PLC) are really lucky. For the most part, we know, respect, and yes, even like each other.  That doesn’t always happen on teams, so I’m sure not taking it for granted.

Second, this is our first year as a “PLC.” In the past, professional development was top-down and unfocused. We’d work on word study, then writing, then look at a sample of student math work… teachers assembled impressive collections of resource binders for their shelves, but there was no consistent, measurable impact on student learning.

Third, each grade level K-4 is working together as a PLC. We have 22 hours of meetings this year, facilitated by Elementary Instructional Leaders (EILs) like me.

So far, in our first two PLC meetings (four hours total), the third grade team has (drumroll, please!):

  • discussed what it means to be a PLC,
  • unanimously decided what the focus of our work will be,
  • defined common vocabulary,
  • written our first SMART goal,
  • sketched a plan for our work over the course of the school year,
  • listed and prioritized other work we’d like to accomplish, and
  • taken first steps towards becoming a more cohesive team.

Ta-da!  I think that’s an awfully impressive list for people who are working as a PLC for the first time.  At least, I feel really good about what we’ve accomplished so far.  There are a few things that I think have helped.  For those of you who are also working in PLCs (I know some of you have been doing this a long time), please share your ideas in the comments.  I’d really love to read them.

Communicating About PLCs

My partner in crime, Nina, is the other third grade EIL.  Her idea from the beginning was to tell our team that we’ve resembled a PLC in many ways for a long time.  As third grade teachers, we’ve studied together, looked at student work together, and defined common expectations for student achievement.  At our first meeting, Nina and I emphasized the importance of the teacher-led process we would go through, and we de-emphasized the jargon.

Building A Cohesive Team

The members of my PLC come from five different elementary schools.  Five schools with different cultures, different past practices, and different approaches to teaching.  Get us all into a room, and guess what?  One table has teachers from one school, the next table has teachers from another school, and so on.

We just couldn’t work effectively as a team that way, so at our second meeting, Nina and I asked the group to rearrange themselves to make the most diverse teams possible.  Within three minutes, people were at tables that represented each of the different schools.  There was diversity among genders (although three guys almost sat together at first, not that I can blame them), years of teaching experience, ages, and “lifestyles.”  We worked for the next ten minutes this way, then we told folks they could move back to their original seats if they wanted.

I think it’s pretty neat that no one did.

Defining a Common Vocabulary

Have you learned to hate the words “curriculum map,” “continuum,” and “scope and sequence?”  It’s hard to have a conversation with people when you’re using words with such shifty definitions.  Before writing our SMART goal, we came up with our own definitions for these words as a team.

I think it was indicative of where we’ve been when one team member asked me, “After we write our definitions, are we just going to be given official definitions that we need to use anyway?”  In the past, the answer might have been yes.  My answer was, “Absolutely not.  We’re all smart people.  We know what we’re talking about, and we’re going to write definitions that work for us.”  We did, and those definitions came in really handy during our discussions.

“I think I’m hearing you say ____.  Is that right?”

I love Nina, and it’s a good thing she’s a big talker.  She’s clear and concise (and loud, too), and she thinks really fast on her feet.  Although my third graders might disagree, I’m not such a big talker, so I have appointed myself a big listener instead.  And I’m a wicked fast typer, so I listen and type.

In our last meeting, I helped facilitate from my seat at the computer (which, although I probably don’t need to say it, I hooked up to an LCD projector for the meeting).  What I found most helpful was listening and asking people, “I think I’m hearing you say ____.  Is that right?”  And then I’d type up what they were communicating.  Or I’d listen for themes across the conversation and say, “I think I’m hearing a consensus that ____.  Is that right?”  Our team was good about giving nonverbal feedback, which helped us make so many decisions in such a short time.

Those are my thoughts so far.  At our next meeting, the work really begins.  We have to take writing maps from 17 different teachers and 5 different schools and define a scope and sequence that we can all agree to.  I can’t wait to see what happens.

— a. fox

3 thoughts on “Getting Started as a Professional Learning Community

  1. a. fox,
    I really enjoyed your post. Not only is the content insightful, but you writing is great.

    I have completed much research on the topic and my data strongly suggests that the success of a PLC is very dependent upon the effectiveness of the teams within those communities.

    I recently had the fond opportunity to open a new school—focusing on PLCs and Multiple Intelligences. In my experiences opening the school and leading, I have found that one of my most difficult tasks is to get team members working in harmony. Diversity in staff experiences, personalities, and worldviews makes it tough, and fun!

    I commented on another post earlier today. She was speaking of teams and her experiences. I referenced Smith and Berg’s (1987) Paradoxes of group life. Specifically, the leader must extend their own trust in order to earn trust from the staff. Also, the paradox of authority states that leaders gain power when they empower.

    Sounds like your team is on the right track and the leadership is supportive. Keep up the great work!

  2. Your blog is very interesting. To put all those teachers from different schools and districts to collaborate for the future is wonderful. All those great ideas to use in different places, can’t wait to see what is coming. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Hy, your post is really enjoyable and I agree to perrywiseman that success of a PLC is upon the effectiveness of the teams within those communities. Thanks for the post. Keep it up.

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