Charlie Coleman

Charlie Coleman is principal of Cowichan Secondary School in Duncan, British Columbia. He has been a principal at the elementary, middle, and secondary levels in ethnically and socioeconomically diverse communities.

Revitalizing Your PLC

Educators have a rare opportunity every summer to rest, relax, and recharge. Most people in many other businesses and professions do not have the same luxury. Sure, they can take vacations, but rarely do they get to STOP and START over each year. As educators, we get to wrap up one year, take a break, and start fresh with a new school year. This summer, I had the good fortune to rest and relax with family and friends, as well as to refresh and revitalize with educational colleagues. I enjoyed both.

My “working holiday” this summer included collaborating with the staffs from many schools across several states including Nebraska, Kansas, Michigan, and Illinois. What continues to amaze me, as I travel and share in this work, is how many similarities there are despite the differences in locations. Rich or poor, large or small, urban or rural, most of these K–12 educators face many of the same challenges. The common theme this summer was, “How do we revitalize our PLC process?”

Almost all of the schools and districts had already had some level of implementation of the professional learning community (PLC) process. Each of the schools I worked with was at a different place along the PLC continuum, but most had come up against roadblocks or lost momentum for one reason or another. This is not surprising. DuFour et al. often talk about the PLC continuum, which ranges from preinitiating to sustaining (see reproducibles from Learning by Doing). All of the schools were looking for ways to get back on track. As I worked through some of the issues with these folks, a number of common themes emerged. Here are some of the highlights:

Mission, Vision, Collective Commitments, and Goals

Many of these schools had done some work on these key concepts of a PLC. To varying degrees of success, they could point to documents or mantras that showed they had done some of this work at some time. The question that I had in these situations is, “Is your mission and vision alive and kicking, or is it just a statement on the wall?” Even if a staff or a leadership team did this work a few years back, it is important to revisit the mission or vision and to review and refine the collective commitments and goals. What made sense to a subcommittee five years ago may not be crystal clear to the new team today. It’s important to review these foundation documents regularly to ensure everyone is still on the same page. It is equally important to identify the difference between a hope or a dream and a measurable goal or target. We need to ask ourselves: Do we have SMART goals or just rosy intentions?

Collaboration and Collective Inquiry

Most of the schools and districts I have worked with have committed on some level to create protected meeting times for their collaborative teams. They recognize the team is the fundamental building block of a school or district engaged in the PLC process. Some schools have devoted more time to collaborative team meetings than others. What was clear though, as I listened to each of the teams, is that meeting time alone does not ensure collaboration and collective inquiry. Harvard professor David Perkins warns against “co-BLAB-oration”—when educators get together but talk about the wrong things. If teams aren’t diligent about this, conversations during collaborative team time can easily slide into gossip or administivia. It’s vital to keep the focus of collaborative team meetings on the four critical questions of learning:

  1. What do we want our students to learn?
  2. How do we know if each student is learning?
  3. How will we respond to the students who aren’t learning?
  4. How will we respond to the students who are learning?

By staying focused on these questions, individual teachers and the entire team can be reflective on this important question: Are the teaching strategies we currently use making the biggest impact on kids and their learning?

Essential Learning and Common Formative Assessments

We can’t have meaningful conversations about learning and results if we are not clear on what it is we expect kids to learn. Most teams, even those who have been engaged in the PLC process for years, can usually do a better job of defining and refining those essential power standards (Ainsworth) that the team agrees are the critical learning outcomes for its grade and subject. This means having conversations with colleagues about what is critical and essential versus somewhat important and nice-to-know. Research by Marzano and others makes it clear that we will never be able to do a perfect job of helping every student learn every single outcome, so we had better make sure we are clear about which ones we will do a terrific job of in our school.

Once the essential learnings are clearly defined by a collaborative team, the members can then do the work of creating common formative assessments aligned to each essential learning. These in-house, team-created, real-time assessments help both students and staff identify who needs more time and support to learn what we have agreed is essential. These common formative assessments help the team collectively ask: How do we know if the students have learned the most essential skills, concepts, and dispositions?

Intervention and Enrichment

At many of my workshops, teams are eager to jump right to the intervention portion of the PLC. This is risky. When asked to give a session on the pyramid of interventions, I usually inquire: “Do you want to build a pyramid of interventions, or do you just want me to show you where you can send the kids who don’t get it?” It’s important to remember that the first, best place to start our interventions is in the regular classroom setting. That is where most teachers spend the most time with the most kids. The better job we do of differentiating instruction and assessments to accommodate student differences in the regular classroom, the fewer students will need to move up the pyramid. Intervention can be time consuming and costly, so we want to get the best bang for our buck.

If a collaborative team is clear on the essential learning and they have some common formative assessments to help identify struggling students, then they are more ready to properly place students into targeted intervention. The next challenge that comes up very often is TIME. Where do we find the time for intervention for struggling students, let alone the time to enrich the learning of students who are already there? In most schools, the answer has not been a big pot of new money! No, we have to get creative. The solutions are as diverse as the many schools facing this challenge. The answer lies in collaboration and flexibility. There are many great examples provided under Evidence of Effectiveness. The question becomes: How can we alter our bell schedule or adjust our staffing so we can find those precious moments for both intervention and enrichment?

At every school where I have helped to implement or refresh the PLC process, the staff has had to first reflect and ask:

  • How are we doing now?
  • How do we know?
  • How would we prefer to see our results?
  • What are we willing to do differently to get different results?

The high school where I am now principal has been on the PLC journey for more than a decade. Our results are pretty good, but there is room for improvement. Over that same 10-year period, each department has been at a variety of points along the PLC continuum. Are we all at the sustaining stage in all aspects of a PLC? No. But I am confident that we have the passion and expertise to collaboratively reflect, refine, and revitalize our PLC process. I’m looking forward to continuing the journey with this staff. And, after a great summer break, I am refreshed and ready to get back at it.

Comments

Karligd

I would also having a team leader and/or person that is in charge of running these PLCs to keep the group on track.

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alexab

I enjoyed and found the information here presented interesting and useful. I have experienced being in those talking groups at work that are intended to be active groups. However, those groups have become as said before a place to complain about things that are not going well. Though, i have also been part of groups at work which have come up with really good actions to be applied in order to make significant changes in our teaching practice. I have noticed that groups that actually become active are the ones that are rewarded for presenting certain action plans, therefore I am concerned about the expected reward for actions that can mislead the essence of teaching collaboration. Also, I want to add that collaboration groups should also be promoted as a way to avoid burn out, sometimes, talking about issues ans special cases can also help to feel supported and understood by others and why not to find possible solutions for similar cases.

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tmefford

I enjoyed reading this post. In my PLC we are trying to stay more focused during our meeting times to be more productive as it seems like we never have enough time. Each meeting we are working to stay more focused using added guidelines our principal has put in place this school year. The important question you brought up about reflecting on whether or not we are using teaching strategies that make the biggest impact on student learning could be another addition to the focus of our meetings. We discuss our teaching strategies each week to give each other new ideas or things that worked in our groups, however adding the specific focus of if they are impacting student learning would be beneficial. I sometimes feel like it is difficult to come up with new ideas of how to teach the same topic again during intervention and enrichment groups. Having this added focus would add purpose and maybe promote new discussion in our meeting to positively impact our students.

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daanderson

As I read this post, I started reflecting on the learning community at the school I am currently teaching in. I asked myself how well are we working to achieve a learning community that will help benefit student learning. I feel that I am luck to be in a school and district that understands the importance of professional learning communities and how they can have a profound impact on student learning. Over the past few years, the main focus in our building has been around math. We have really focused on how we can help our students be successful. We were able to split into teams with cross grade level representation. We focused on differentiation, integration, and assessments all with a focus on math. As we worked each month, we were able to work on the questions what do we want students to learn and how will we know if they have learned it. As we were able to work on and answer those questions, our focus turned to the third and fourth question, how do we respond to the students who aren't learning and those that are learning. We spent a few years working on these questions with student success at the center of all our conversations. This year our staff had conversations about the work we had done around math, and felt very confident in the work we had produced. We decided to shift our focus on writing. We have taken the model of a learning community we used for math and have applied that to our writing focus. One of the most important aspects that was brought up in the post was the need for time. I know that this work is important and will take time and effort to complete. I am just grateful that I am at a school and district that understands the importance of this work for student success and is willing to provide time for this important work.

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Charlie Coleman

So many great questions, so little time! Ask the folks at Solution Tree about PLC Associates who might be able to come to your school or district. There are many great PLC resources to help you move this forward. One of my favorites is "Learning By Doing" (Dufour, DuFOur, Eaker and Many), also from Solution Tree.

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LindseyP

I truly enjoyed reading your post. This is my second year teaching and my district has just begun to support teacher collaboration by giving us set times in the morning and specific days to meet with different specialists within the school. I found your section on collaboration and collective inquiry especially interesting. Most of my grade level collaboration times are spent gossiping or complaining. I’ve actually never experienced a productive collaboration time and I long for one! Do you have any suggestions on how to carefully guide my team members in the right direction?

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Nube

I think it is very important to analyze our work and after that we have to see the outcomes and turn them into positive statements that give us ideas to change our teaching for the better. Fortunately, every year we can start all over again and try new instructional methods. However, during the school year we also have to reflect about our lessons every day in order to teach students properly and have the results we want. PLC is a powerful tool that we can use in order to learn and share more information. I think collaboration from others will help us improve the strategies we implement in the classroom.

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byamamoto

This article was interesting to read. I think collaborative learning is essential for professional and student growth. It is important for teachers to have time to work together and share their successes as well as learn strategies for improvement. At my school, I feel very fortunate that we have a strong teacher community and collaborate in many different ways. We are given time to meet as teams during staff meetings and professional development meetings. We also meet in cross grade level groups which is inspiring. One thing I found particularly interesting was revisiting mission statements. My elementary school just recently revisited our mission statement because it had not been updated in several years. We spent a lot of time looking at mission statements from large companies, small businesses and other schools. We then came up with a draft and shared it with our parent community to receive their input. After several months and several drafts of one statement, we were able to come up with a statement that encompasses what we believe in and what we want for all students. I like the idea that the mission statement should be alive and kicking and not something that is just paper on the wall. We have not revisited the mission statement this year, but I think it is important to do so. I plan to bring this up to my principal so we can revisit all the work we did last year and make sure that we are living up to the values we wrote in our statement.

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Charlie Coleman

Jo, Sarah and TW: I am really enjoying the feedback and questions that this blog post has been generating. It causes me to re-think my own PLC as well. We never actually "arrive" at the perfect PLC (I've been working on it for at least 11 years, at 3 schools, K-12), we just keep working to make it better. I have had the good fortune of working with school teams in many districts across numerous states and provinces. There is no one best way to organize PLC time. Some schools are lucky enough to have it built into every day or week. Others have it formally once a month and informally once more. Some don't even have formal PLC time but, because they see the value in it, they carve out time to have the collaborative conversations about learning and results. Ideally, the school or district should structure PLC time into the working day. Until that happens, try to find other meeting times and turn them into PLC times. For example, much of what is on a typical staff meeting agenda is "administrivia" and could be covered in a memo. This would allow time for more PLC collaboration. The same could be done at traditional Department Meetings, School-Based Teams, Grade Teams, etc.

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Sarah Rose

I found this to be an informative read. Our middle school has been participating in PLCs for only 2 years. I related to the reflection portion of revitilizing the PLC. I need to ask my team members if the way I am running our PLC meetings is working for them. We are great team we work extremely well together, but is it working for them? I will ask them this week, we will have a moment of reflection.

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twilliams

I found this to be a great insight about PLC. Other then the monthly staff meeting, we may meet once or twice during the weeks of school vacation. When we do meet the meeting, may not be as in-depth as you have written here and sometimes it can be irrelevant to what we maybe doing in class. As we are here for the students, I feel that we need to collaborate more often and focus on the four questions you have put forth. I agree with Holloway-Williams while collaborating as a team; teachers should be able to learn something new and express any challenges they may have. As it seems we do not meet quite often. Roughly, how often does PLC get together to collaborate? I would like to share this information with my principal and colleagues

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jo86

I think schools should be looking at their existing PLC's and evaluating them for authenticity. Do they really give enough time and offer teachers a venue for collaboration to focus on the learning (not necessarily just test scores) of students? I go back and forth with the "mandated" times for professional development as many of these I feel are a waste of time as they do not directly apply to what is happening in my classroom. There needs to be a way to get more teachers involved in selecting the activities. Until then, independent professional learning communities are really necessary to continue the collaboration among professionals in order to continue sharing and building upon expertise.

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holloway-williams

A PLC community is important to be apart of and most importantly the activities that goes on in the community. I agree that a PLC community should ensure positive collaboration. Teacher should learn something and most importantly they should be able to express challenges and get solutions to them.It should also be a place that foster relaxation. I will continue to follow your blogs.

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Charlie Coleman

Elizabeth and Jenn: Thanks for your responses. I hope this blog post can help you kick-start a conversation that will re-invigorate your PLC. Don't despair. Becoming (and sustaining) a PLC is a process, not an end product. Good luck with your journey.

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Jennw20

Thank you so much for sharing your insight on how to refresh my PLC. I am new to my school this year and my PLC is working to find the most effective way to spend our time. I fully intend to bring the collective Inquiry questions to my team in hopes to have them guide our limited but meaningful meetings. I agree with ElizabethS about sharing these with our Principal in hopes that our school as a whole can be more focused and effective.

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ElizabethS

I really enjoyed reading this post. It explicitly points out the misconceptions about a PLC. In our school, we are being forced to meet more frequently but it is not the quantity of time we spend but the quality. Most of our meetings are not spent really focusing on student learning. Teachers complain, but even more so, they talk about their own personal lives and topics that have nothing to do with teaching. I would not mind meeting more frequently if we were talking about what we want students to learn and how we are going to know if they are learning. I am going to print this post and share it with my principal. I would like to put together a PLC team who could really figure out how to make our time more quality-based so we all walk away feeling like we have accomplished something.

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mindy

There are 8 schools in my district, which is possibly why we often see plans that are implemented lose focus after awhile. There is one building goal set for students at the beginning of each year, but there is little conversation generated from it. I think that conversation in regards to revitalizing our PLC is overdue.

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mindy

There are 8 schools in my district, which is possibly why we often see plans that are implemented lose focus after awhile. Unfortunately, this often results in many teachers not taking new district plans seriously, expecting them to wane. The expectation for district-wide curriculum mapping has just come up again, and most teachers in our district have never learned how to do this. In the past, curriculum mapping was done haphazardly, with a minimum number of paid hours for one teacher to write and post it to the district website, with little to no collaboration. I plan to bring this posting to the attention of my principal so that we can start a conversation about organizing a PLC team specifically to assist our staff with creating curriculum maps for their grade.

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pceja

I found your post very interesting; especially the warning aginst "co-BLAB-oration". Our school has been working on the implementation of the PLC process since we opened in 2005, and our administrators have done a fabulous job searching for the latest information and sharing it with us,teachers, in an attempt to improve our students' learning and academic performance. They have also alloted time for us to meet with our data teams to work on curriculum and common assessments. However, too often I notice that some teachers waste that time socializing rather than focusing on the task at hand, like "Professional Adults". This can be frustrating for those of us who really care about our students' learning because in order for us to perform like a true Professional Learning Community, we meed all educators to take their job seriously.

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Sam8311

This summer was the first time the district I work at publicly enforced PLC. We had a week long summer institute that included a two day book study concentrating on PLC. I really enjoyed the book study and learned so much from what was presented. I enjoyed reading this blog because it gave many ideas about questions we may ask to successfully run our PLC Meetings. I am proud to say that since we started enforcing PLC Meetings in our district, we have had many PLC meetings and together come up with many solutions to our much needed areas.

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Charlie Coleman

Thank you to all for the positive feedback on this blog post. Having been a principal on PLC teams at high school, middle school and elementary school, I am happy to be able to share my experiences with the PLC process. The comments and questions in these replies seem to have some common themes that I would like to respond to:
1. If it's working well at your school, keep doing it!
2. If it's not working well, STOP, and refresh, refocus and re-boot!
3. Use the questions in the blog post as conversation starters.
4. Go to Solution Tree resources like "Learning By Doing" (for PLC ideas) and "Pyramid Response to Intervention" (for PRTI ideas)
5. It's great to have a Student Support Team (under whatever name), but that is NOT the same as a PLC team. Schools should have both. Student Support Teams tend to focus on the needs of individual students. PLC Teams should focus on learning, collaboration and results for all.
Finally, enjoy the collaborative journey. It's much more fun than doing it alone.

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Tamiwithani

My school is involved in a grant, and we began doing PLC's and SLC's last year. We also videotape our teaching at least two times per year. It has been a wonderful growing experience for me as an educator. The grant lasts for 5 years, and I hope we continue after. The extra time and effort is beneficial for me as an individual and all of my colleagues.

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amanuel20

Your post was very informative concerning developing PLC or revitalizing them. By reading this post, I have gained new insights on how to construct a PLC that caters to the needs of at risk students. Students who require intervention need a team that works well together. Finding the right moments to insert intervention strategies is key to improvement inside the classroom.

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lrodgers192

I enjoyed reading your post. I think you offer some great ideas and suggestions. My school is currently working on revitalizing the PLC. I am going to share some of your insights.

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tstrawn

Thank you for posting this information. I was in PLC that lost it's focus, so seeing this post helped me realize that it does happen. The structure and mission was lost.

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nweber25

Thank you so much for this insight! We have been working in PLC teams in our district for a number of years now and I have noticed the negative change happening over the last year or so. It has become more of an informational meeting or a teacher gripe session. The focus has turned away from students in many aspects.
I have already introduced my building principal to this blog and we have discussed the information. I am really excited to bring some of the ideas mentioned here to our team meetings over the next couple of weeks. My fist goal is to definitely focus on the mission, vision, commitments and goals.
Any further suggestions you might have would be greatly appreciated!

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KellyK

I am just beginning my second year of teaching. On top of teaching, I started a Masters of Ed program. In the program we are studying the importance of PLC and reflecting on how it is applied in our schools. I am happy to say that my school has a strong community of collaborators and we work hard to create student achievement. Our school targets each level of the pyramid that you discuss above. Thank you for breaking this concept down into an easy to use pyramid. I plan on informing my colleagues about the pyramid and about your blog.

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david093020

I am a first year teacher that is just getting used to the whole idea of PLC. Fortunately, I am in a district that really focuses on improving student learning through the PLC process. That said, we have been focusing on a yes/no test for intervention rather than the idea of a pyramid. Thank you for reaffirming its importance. I will be relaying the information first thing at our next meeting.

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kknol

Thank you for reaffirming that my school is living and breathing the vision and mission statement. It is not just a message on the wall. Our goals are SMART, meeting times are protected, and the regular classroom is the place where interventions and differentiation begin. It is a good reminder that collaboration and flexibility are necessary for effective time use.

Revisiting mission and goals as a refresher for all staff is vital to the PLC. Revitalization is beneficial for all schools, no matter where they may be in the PLC process.

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Julie_239

I currently work in a small school district and we do not have PLC teams. We do have a student support team that is used for candidates for retention or special education. This team is chosen by the principal so no others are directly involved in making decisions. I would love the idea of having a collaboration and inquiry with co-teachers.

I liked that there are many ideas on how to ask questions as educators to help meet the needs of all our students in the classroom setting.

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Sara96

The tile of this blog caught my attention, and I was curious to find out if my district was one that needed revitalizing. My district implemented PLCs about 6 years ago. Since this time, I wanted to refresh myself on the foundation of the PLC philosophy, and in doing so I was pleased to find that many of the attributes of the PLC are still being implemented in my district.

The one aspect I found my district to be lacking in was the "Mission, Vision, Collective Commitments, and Goals" section. I do not feel that my district has revisited these since they were created. Since I am part of the PLC committee, I realize now that this is something we need to focus on.

I liked the questions that were posed under the "Intervention and Enrichment" section. These are important questions I feel all educators should constantly ask ourselves to sustain continual refective practices.

After reading the blog, I am confident that my district is headed in the right direction. Sometimes we just need affirmation we are on the right track.

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Becky03

Our schools have been doing PLCs for years. Lately the structur has seemed to be crumbling. Teachers are beginning to use the time as a complaining session. One grade level at one of our schools has kept the PLC a productive environment by always setting an agenda that keeps students as the primary focus. I love the questions that are posted here. I am going to bring these to the teachers in our district. We definitely need to be revitalized!

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