It’s Not a Meeting; It’s a Way of Being!
In her keynotes, Becky DuFour often uses the phrase "Clarity precedes competence!" Over the years we have heard the term/acronym "PLC" used in so many ways that it will be hard for schools and districts to be truly competent unless they are clear regarding the meaning of the Professional Learning Communities at Work process. If we continue to use the term "Professional Learning Community" (PLC) in the way that it is being used in many quarters, then it truly has lost its original meaning and influence.
This is the most promising school reform concept ever (not just my words, but the words of many highly respected experts (see On Common Ground and Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work™, among others)), but if we continue to treat the term "PLC" as something we have to do as opposed to how we do business, then it is reduced to an add-on, a meeting, or a program. We don’t need or want any more unnecessary add-ons, programs, or meetings in our already busy school days.
Diane Kerr, Sherry Shin, and I, are the administrator team at Mason Crest Elementary School. We were fortunate enough to receive the first ever DuFour Award (2016) signifying us as the most outstanding Professional Learning Community at Work school in the country. We are still learning as an administrative team, but we do believe wholeheartedly in the Professional Learning Communities at Work model. When I was an assistant principal at Lemon Road Elementary School many years ago, I was taught by Principal Carolyn Miller what a true Professional Learning Community at Work was. By listening, watching, and studying the words, work, and wisdom of Richard and Rebecca DuFour, Robert Eaker, Mike Mattos, Tom Many, and Lillie Jessie (former principal of Elizabeth Vaughan Elementary School and now a School Board member in Virginia) and others, I immediately knew this model or way of doing business made sense. I also found out that some of us wanted a quick fix, a program, a meeting, or a silver bullet that would cure all of our educational ills. The Professional Learning Communities at Work model (PLC at Work) is sequential yet non-linear, messy yet a cyclical process (see the book Concise Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About Professional Learning Communities at Work, 2016, Mattos, DuFour, DuFour, Eaker and Many) and when done in a collaboratively focused manner around the right things, it is immensely rewarding. It is not a quick fix! It is a never-ending process of improvement.
Educators work too hard and do too many wonderful things in our schools every single day to allow this model or way of doing business to be reduced to a meeting as opposed to a way of being. Please don’t allow our efforts and great work to be overlooked because of a lack of will to, as Robert Eaker says, go from knowing to doing to being. In a keynote address that I have had the privilege to witness, Dr. Eaker said that the term PLC does not even need to be used if a school is a true Professional Learning Community at Work. The term “At Work” means your school is learning by doing and this process is a never-ending journey of learning and getting better. If your school creates a shared foundation of Mission, Vision, Collective Commitments/Values, and Goals (The Four Pillars of a PLC at Work), embraces the Three Big Ideas (Learning, Collaboration, and Results), and if you use the four Critical Questions of Learning to drive your conversations, then I say don’t even use the term PLC during the day.
Once you get to the point of being, as soon as someone walks in the front door of your school they will know that something is different. What they will notice are the cultural shifts. A school that operates as a Professional Learning Community at Work has, as cited in the book Learning by Doing, shifts from:
- A focus on teaching to a focus on learning
- Infrequent summative assessments to frequent common formative assessments
- Individual teachers determining the appropriate response when students don’t learn or already know it to a systematic response that ensures support for every student no matter who the teacher may be
- Isolation to collaboration around the right things
- Each teacher clarifying what students must learn to collaborative teams building shared knowledge and understanding about essential learning
- An assumption that "these are my kids, those are your kids" to an assumption that "these are our kids"
- An external focus on issues outside the school to an internal focus on steps staff can take to improve the school
- Teachers gathering data from their individually constructed tests in order to assign grades to collaborative teams acquiring information from common assessments in order to (1) inform their individual and collective practices and (2) respond to students who need additional time and support
- Independence to interdependence
- A language of complaint to a language of commitment
- External training (workshops and courses) to job-embedded learning
- Assessing impact on the basis of teacher satisfaction (Did you like it?) to assessing impact on the basis of improved student learning
- Learning by listening to learning by doing
- Using inaccurate language to define a PLC and its relating concepts (e.g., the inaccurate term PLC meeting) to becoming students of PLCs and collectively understanding and embedding its meaning and all the concepts surrounding this way of doing business
The deep understanding of this way of doing business has got to come from a desire to ensure that schools and districts move as ONE where common language, common knowledge, and common expectations are the norm rather then the exception. It will only happen when we become students of the Professional Learning Communities at Work model and to develop and adhere to clear understanding of the term Professional Learning Communities at Work as well as other key terms. Remember, it is a continuous learning journey with no end.
However, I would suggest that you get rid of the term PLC in your daily conversations and start to build common language around the kinds of collaborative team meetings and their structures and purposes that you have every day. A Professional Learning Community at Work is a school made up of collaborative teams who take collective responsibility for student learning. Collaborative teams are not PLCs.
If you are reading this, then it is highly likely that you are interested in becoming or are already a student of the Professional Learning Communities at Work model as defined by Richard DuFour, Rebecca DuFour, Robert Eaker, Tom Many, and Mike Mattos. You are also most likely an educator who deeply cares about making sure your staff, students, parents, and community members get the most accurate information possible.
If a parent or another educator came up to you and said, "I heard about this PLC thing. It sounds like a great way to do meetings," what would you say? Would you go along to just get along and talk about it as if it was a meeting? Or, would you take the time to build shared knowledge with this individual to help deepen understanding around what a Professional Learning Community at Work is and what it is not? Better yet, if Mike Mattos, Tom Many, Richard DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Rebecca DuFour came to your school and asked you to make the case for your school being a true Professional Learning Community at Work, would you start by talking about your PLC meetings? Remember, precision in language is critical!
Would we, as teachers, allow our students to continue to incorrectly define a term without giving them corrective feedback? Why do we allow each other as professional educators to change, misuse, and redefine terms without holding each other accountable? We are too good for that! If we want to be taken seriously, let’s at the very least do our homework to ensure that common language, common knowledge, and common expectations are at the core of how we do business in our schools and districts.
A good place to start may be to say, It’s Not A Meeting; It’s A Way of Being! Then ask that person or team if he and/or she would be interested in learning about the Professional Learning Communities at Work model with you by reading and discussing an article or a book, or by visiting a school that is well along on its journey.
Best of luck on this amazing learning journey!