Brian Butler

Brian Butler was appointed principal of Mason Crest Elementary, a new school in Fairfax County, Virginia, which opened its doors for the first time in September 2012.

It's Not a Meeting; It's a Way of Being!

I want to share the temporary soapbox that I got on last week when addressing a group of teachers and administrators about the term professional learning community. If we continue to use the term PLC in the way that it is being used in many quarters, then it truly has lost its original meaning and power.

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.

Assistant Principal Dawn Hendrick and I are still learning as an administrative team, but we do buy into the PLC concept. When I was an assistant principal at Lemon Road Elementary School only six years ago, I was taught by Principal Carolyn Miller and former Assistant Superintendent Ellen Schoetzau about what a true PLC is. I observed and learned from Dr. Robyn Hooker and Shirley McCoy, two other wonderful principals who truly understand the PLC concept. By listening, watching, and studying the words, work, and wisdom of Richard and Rebecca DuFour, Robert Eaker, Lillie Jessie (principal of Elizabeth Vaughan Elementary School) 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 PLC concept is not linear and it is messy, but when done in a collaboratively focused manner around the right things, it is immensely rewarding.

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 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 PLC. If you hold to the three big ideas (learning, collaboration, and results), and if you use the 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 PLC has, as cited in the book Learning by Doing, shifted 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 addition 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 the bottom up. It will only happen when we become students of the term PLC, and realize that 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 that you have every day. A PLC is a school made up of collaborative teams. 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 term PLC as defined by Richard DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Rebecca DuFour. 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 PLC is and what it is not? Better yet, if Richard DuFour, Robert Eaker, and Rebecca DuFour came to your school and asked you to make the case for your school being a true PLC, 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 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 if he or she would be interested in learning about PLCs with you by reading and discussing an article or a book or by visiting a school that is well its journey.

What are you prepared to do?

Comments

Brennan Hatfield

Two years ago, our district implemented “Professional Learning Communities.” It was to be held at least twice a week, during our common plan time, the 25 minutes before students enter the building, and with our grade level team. I am the only 5th grade science and social studies teacher in my building. When we were first presented the idea of PLC, we were told to collaborate with our grade level and to use data to discuss student learning. It all sounded very exciting and like we would be doing something very meaningful each week. However that excitement led to confusion. We were unsure of what we were to talk about, especially in the upper grades, because we all taught a different subject area. As a result, our PLCs usually ended up being about “housekeeping” things. While housekeeping items are important things for grade level teams to discuss, I never felt like I was specifically talking about the challenges I faced as a 5th grade science and social studies teacher. After reading this entry, I know that we are going by all of this wrong way. I know that my district has the right things in mind, but it does seem to me like just another meeting we have to attend instead of a group of professionals discussing things together that matter to us. While I know it is possible to have truly enriching PLC time with my grade level team, I yearn for more time to spend with other 5th grade science teachers. I leave my PLC feeling very overwhelmed with all of the “other” issues that teachers must handle on a day-to-day basis, instead of inspired to teach.

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Danielle

I have just recently been introduced to the term Professional Learning Communities! Through beginning my Masters degree, I have been enlightened on many things: one being PLC's. I was blown away by the idea and thought, WOW! If our district implemented this idea properly and if teachers were held accountable to carry these out appropriate what an impact it could make on our students. Although our district offers multiple avenues to continue our learning, as of now, they do so in a Professional Development type sense: mandated meetings that we're required to attend and such. On many occasions, I've heard teachers say, "If only we could spend more time meeting with other teachers to discuss things that work and don't work in our classrooms and comparing strategies and ideas!" Because of the statements and my desire to meet with great, more experienced teachers, I have been contemplating contacting different first grade teachers in our district to see if they would be interested in meeting once a month to discuss these types of things. What are some great steps to take to get this going and what are some ways I, as the initiator, can keep things focused and on topic.

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RG1026

My school has incorporated PLCs for the first time this year. We are still getting the hang of it, but my grade level enjoys this time to share information. We mostly enjoy the fact that it's not another required meeting, but that the time is very beneficial for our team to get together and discuss best practices that will drive our instruction.

During our professional learning time, we discuss books that we have read and insight gained, we have come up with common assessments and used this time to communicate about our parent portal. Parents are allowed to login and see their students grades and assignments.

It's just the beginning but it's been great!

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adugas0

I am currently a first year teacher in an elementary school that has a very strong commitment to professional learning communities. We meet regularly, once per week, to discuss strategies and evaluate student performance. I truly love the PLCs for many different reasons.
During this time, we set goals for our students and discuss materials that we will use to help the students reach their goals. We trade each others' assessments and use this information to drive our instruction. Outside of evaluating assessments, we also come up with a monthly goal on a skill that we would like our students to improve upon. From this we each gather materials and pre-assess and post-assess the students.
Finally, once it is the end of the month, we assess the performance of the students again. I have found through my first eight months of teaching, that this is one of the most beneficial learning opportunities that I have had. I have collaborated with several other teachers in the building; and I agree with you when you say that these aren't just "my" kids, these are "our" kids.

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grrlgenius

I agree with you! When we first started to collaborate and make decisions based on data, we hadn't even heard the term "PLC". Now I hear people throw it around like it's a brand name..."Do you do PLC's at your school?" or "We are doing that PLC thing." It is really something much deeper. I think unless your whole school day reflects a shift in focus onto kids and learning, you are not "doing PLC's". I rarely use the term anymore!

Meanwhile, at my school we are committed to maintain the kind of focus it takes to make the significant changes required to help kids learn and about to be committed...ha ha...because of the other things we are trying to do at the same time. The results we get make it worth it in the long run, however in the short run, we are trying to catch our breath among the constant budget slashing we have here in California. I can't get all my textbooks, staff my front office or get my classrooms cleaned. District teachers are not far from striking due to a proposed pay cut, so it is pretty hard for me to be a focused school leader right now. I can say that being a true PLC is sort of saving us because it has lead to a better school climate than most schools in my district. At least we have something positive to focus on!

Thanks for letting me vent a bit...while thanking you for the great article.

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