Operationalizing the Big Picture: The Liberal High School PLC Journey
As we sat in the Cockrell Theater in San Antonio, Texas, last June at the PLC at Work Institute, our three-member-team was a little stunned as Rebecca DuFour clarified what a PLC is and what it is not. While we knew that we had a great deal to learn – after all, that is why we were there-- we quickly realized that we identified with more indicators that pointed us to being a pseudo-PLC rather than actually operating under the true definition and big ideas of a PLC.
Many of our core teachers had common plan, they met weekly, and they shared common goals with the school, which was to meet the state’s expectations for AYP. However, several core teachers had also been allowed to have alternate plan periods from their team because of coaching duties or various other reasons. Teams who did meet together did not have a guaranteed and viable curriculum, and therefore, were unable to answer the four PLC questions in any specific manner, let alone provide timely and targeted interventions. The time spent together was devoted to sharing strategies and ideas, attending professional development sessions in the instructional coaches’ office, analyzing student assessment data, and occasionally observing in other classrooms—all of which could be done in a true PLC, but none done systematically, intentionally, results-driven, and/or interdependently. Needless to say, our team of the principal, an instructional coach, and the English department chair was acutely aware before the end of the first keynote that we had even more to learn than we thought, and that we had our work cut out for us to be able to shed the costume we wore collectively and called a PLC.
Throughout the remainder of the institute, we wrote copious notes and took full advantage of the presenters’ breaks that were designated for discussing as teams practical application of what they had just said. During the nine hour trip of flights, layovers, and commute home to Liberal, Kansas, we filled a notebook, full of ideas, notes, and processes that would act as a playbook to help us be prepared as we approached the staff in August with the new vision we had for how our school would function to ensure that all students were learning at high levels.
There was a method to our madness as we discussed ideas, determined a system, and created documents to guide teams in their work. In order to not overwhelm ourselves too much, we began by identifying what we were doing right. Then we put blinders on to focus on the three big ideas and essential tasks that needed to be done before August to ensure that this time, there would be no costume, and we began the year truly implementing the PLC process. Before we even returned home, we had set things into motion. A list of negotiables and non-negotiables along with a list of resources to provide to PLC leaders and teams were drafted. From one of the airports, we contacted the lead counselor about rearranging the master schedule so that all teachers of like courses had a common plan period, no excuses of special allowances. Leaders were carefully selected not only by their depth of knowledge of pedagogy and their content but also by their ability to influence and lead others.
Amongst the three of us who attended the institute, we divvied up the remaining tasks and scheduled a meeting date in July to put it all together. Eli, the English department chair, prepared a segment for the back to school meeting that clarified the purpose of the extra emphasis and structure for PLC’s and inspired teachers to join in this collaborative and worthwhile effort. Keith, the principal, helped the lead counselor with the master schedule, fielded phone calls and concerns from teachers who had caught wind of a change in their schedule, and helped to proofread and approve the manual with me, the instructional coach.
Before the school year began, we were able to add an additional instructional coach, Ginny, who helped to refine the documents and process even more. Once school started, we met with PLC leaders to give them a more specific description of the process, a manual, and expectations. And they were then off and running. As the year has gone on, we have made revisions to the manual based on additional research and feedback from the teams. Though the manual itself has evolved greatly since August, the process remains the same. When we returned to school for the second semester, teams met in the instructional coaches’ office, and we, the instructional coaches, asked each team to complete the “Critical Issues for Team Consideration”. We celebrated the issues that were true for each team, and then chose a critical issue that was not true and used it to create a team operational goal, using a SMART goal template (p. 11 of the manual). In addition, as teams created new unit plans, we provided them with a rubric (p. 30 of the manual) to help them to refine their work.
What would a reflection about PLC’s be without mention of evidence? Since our “PLC do-over”, teams of teachers now all have guaranteed and viable curriculum, including a long-term SMART goal, that they developed together. They use that curriculum to make short-term SMART goals, which in turn are made into unit plans that revolve around the four critical questions of learning (p. 15 of manual). Some teams used a tool (p. 25 of the manual) with students that contain the unit’s objectives and common ways to assess student learning on each objective; they bring student examples of learning (as demonstrated on the common tool) to each collaboration time so that their conversations are focused and targeted. Other teams collaboratively plan interventions and enrichment, sharing students when most efficient, after they track and monitor student progress within each unit. Another piece of evidence came at the beginning of this semester. When talking to a parent of a student, she mentioned that her daughter had been disappointed at the beginning of the year not to get a certain teacher. However, at the end of the first semester, she told her mom that she felt like she had learned as much as she would have with the other teacher; she added that she was sure because both teachers gave the same tests.
A copy of the manual that we created to support our teams of teachers is provided on the Tools page of AllThingsPLC as well as on the Liberal High School website. As aforementioned, it is something that is constantly evolving. Thus, while we encourage others to use it as a guide, we give strong caution to adopting it for your school as it is. It has been in the process of doing the work (revising, updating, and refining) as a school-wide PLC that we have been able to deepen our learning.
The PLC process has become so much a part of what we do and the culture of who we are....we no longer wear the costume of a pseudo-PLC. We are still rough around the edges, but we are certain that we are now on the right PLC path, working and learning together.