Guest Author

Each All Things PLC blog post author has been personally invited to contribute by the All Things PLC committee. All contributing experts have firsthand experience successfully implementing the PLC at Work™ process.

Joshua Curnett, English teacher, Singapore American School, Singapore

One Teacher Leader's PLC Journey

Note: This blog post has been adapted from an email that Joshua Curnett sent to the staff at his PLC.

It's February, the time of year when I cannot remember my name. It's (picture me stretching my arms out as wide as possible) this far from the beginning of the year and (same image) this far from the end. I can barely remember what Jackie (another teacher) and I decided for our standards-based assessments back in August, much less what our norms would be for the year. I think I asked her to be on time to meetings and not to insult me while using swear words. I think she asked me not to wear so much no-iron and to occasionally bring her tea.

I'm sure all of that is in a Google Doc somewhere. (Now if I could just remember the title of it. . . . )

In the halcyon days before I was in a PLC team (early 2000s), I was happy to shut my classroom door in February (and in all the other months, actually) and leave it at that. I shut it especially hard when I felt overwhelmed—like I do in February. Every February. No big deal, though; I was free to "Jackson Pollock" my way to the end of the year, having my students follow my every brush fling toward their eventual abdication of my classroom.

What I said, went. I did not need to consider much more than my own "professional decisions." It was that simple. Flick. Splat. Connect the dots. Flick. Splat. Connect the dots.

It worked very well—this "Jackson Pollock-ing"—because there was no real accountability. It was easy. I had no teammates who would check in with me for any reason other than to ask, "Hey, are you finished with Of Mice and Men yet? No? Great, Curnett. I need the class set next week, and you said you'd be done by then, you imbecile. I guess I'll have to use A Separate Peace now. Thanks a bunch. I hate that book." My administrators saw somewhat-well-behaved, somewhat-happy students in my room and called it a success. It didn't matter if I was teaching them how to parse iambic pentameter or read a graphic novel, apply cinematographic terms to film or write haiku about their grandmas. I could do whatever I felt comfortable doing. As long as it looked like English class and sounded like English class, I was on terra firma.

Even then, though (before PLCs arrived in my school) I remember having a sinking feeling. What if what I think students should be learning is not really what they should be learning? And this: What if what I think students should be learning is just because I like the content? I tried not to dwell on those questions very much, because teaching my favorite books and films and plays and poems was, well, so much fun. Fun for me, that is. Probably not so energizing for the many students who had to endure my personal version of English language arts. It's fun when you're always the expert, right?

Enter PLC thinking in the early 2000s, hot on the heels of NCLB (and I can still hear American educators calling it "Nickleby"). I remember the dour, unfortunate colleague charged with brainwashing us, the English Department radicals. We probably appeared to her like a bunch of Beat poets sitting around in berets and striped shirts, smoking Gitanes while playing the bongos. It is no surprise that we didn't like her ideas one bit.

After our initial meetings with the dour, unfortunate PLC lady, I wrote an angry, very-hyphenated missive to my administrators at the time, citing Orwell and Bradbury and Vonnegut and Chomsky and McLuhan and all of my other favorite iconoclasts, warning the folks in the office that they were leading us down the road to ruin. That PLCs were the embodiment of groupthink. That PLCs would eviscerate my individualism as a teacher, which is why I became a teacher in the first place (not to be eviscerated, but to be an individual). That PLCs would create lock-stepping lesson plans which boxed teachers and their students into an eternally mauve-and-ecru world of mediocrity.

The administrators humored me. Then they made me a PLC team leader. Then they made me department chair. I now understand their strategy. I used to think it was because of my talent. Then they sent me to a Solution Tree workshop in Lincolnshire, Illinois.

Then I saw the light. It was very much like a Thomas Kincaid painting, actually. Bob Ross would have liked it, too. Very welcoming and fuzzy light, it was. It came from the windows of a Hobbit-like abode with smoke curling out of its chimney just there at the end of a rain-wetted path.

But seriously, I learned what the research said about teachers working together with a well-defined, standards-based curriculum. I read books by Beverley Tatum and Mike Schmoker and Robyn Jackson and Judy Willis and W. James Popham. I learned about equity, and I learned about why standards exist in the first place. I learned about effect sizes and their, well, effects. I learned not just from Richard and Rebecca DuFour, but from Robert J. Marzano, Kati Haycock, and Grant Wiggins; they're kind of my educational Mount Rushmore.

They were all saying the same things in their own ways, and it all came down to this: teachers need to collaboratively decide on what all students need to learn, how they'll get all of the students to learn it (every last one of them), and what happens next. The DuFours show us how to collaborate. Marzano unpacks the kinds of choices we make in the classroom and the impact they have on the students. Haycock explains why we need the standards for all of our students, and Wiggins gives us the architecture for our delivery.

Go back to Wednesday morning, February 18. It's 5:15 a.m., and I'm sitting at my computer, writing. I'm thinking about the upcoming PLC meeting, thinking, "We have nothing to talk about today!" That's code for "I want to shut my classroom door and not worry about standards and lesson design and student achievement across a grade level." Go to 8 a.m., after Jackie and I have been working for half an hour. The discussion is invigorating for me as we bounce ideas off of each other regarding an upcoming student assessment. We are pulling standards out of the vault and applying them in ways we want our students to achieve. We are modifying rubrics to reflect language which works for our standards-based targets. We are discussing the best ways to get students from practicing to learning what they need to learn. Go to 8:30, when the bell rings for school. We've created a solid approach to a very complex situation that will affect more than 100 students in a positive way. We can ensure that all students will have a shot at learning clearly defined standards, which we'll measure several times.

By the time we wrap it up, I'm as happy as I've felt in a few weeks as a teacher, feeling clear and confident and ready for what the day might bring. This is not how it used to feel when I "Jackson Pollock-ed" to June. If I'm honest, it used to feel like, "I sure hope I'm doing this the right way." I had no way of knowing for sure.

Now I do.


Laura Lupo

Thanks for sharing your insight! The idea of PLC's are new to our district, and like you, I was only hoping I was teaching my students what I needed to. My curriculum can be challenging to get through everything, so I also wondered if I was just teaching what I like. We have monthly after school meetings to discuss student data and achievement. So far, everything is going well, but it is refreshing to hear from another educator how straightforward and clear everything seems for you now that you are meeting with teachers on a regular basis to bounce ideas off of one another.

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Tiffany Hepton

Thank you for your honest insight into your PLC adventures. While I teach at a very different level than you (I teach kindergatren), it was nice to read that I'm not alone in the education world. I have taught in different sized schools. Some of those assignments would have been more difficult to utilize PLCS due to the small number of teachers (at most one per grade level) that covered the grade levels. However, I remember often thinking the same way as you. I often wondered if I was teaching what my students needed to learn. Of course, I always felt like I needed to appear as though I knew exactly what I was doing. So, I continued on, not necessarily doing what was best for my students. This past year was my first real experience working at a a school using PLC teams. It was refreshing. It was nice to know that I had support and we could work as a team to create what was best for our students. I, too, had days I didn't feel like meeting. However, what came out of the meetings was well worth our time. It sounds like you have a lot of success working with Jackie.
Your article has encouraged me to try to gain even more from my PLC meetings this year. Thank you for the humorous encouragement.

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Thank you for your well-written reflection. Great analogies regarding teaching and the PLC movement and funny!
I agree that PLCs do benefit student learning especially when you are working with good fellow staff members that you can trust and work well together ( It seems as though you and Jackie are a strong team dedicated to student achievement). It is such a great thing to be part of a team that respects each other and that you can feel confident about the work that is accomplished in your PLC meetings.

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Gwen Spurr

PLC is a new concept for me. It is good to know that some of the ambivalence I feel is shared by others. I teach in a career and technical school, so each of my colleagues in the building provides instruction in a different program of study. I am not sure how the PLC would work effectively in my school unless we divided by career clusters. Within our career clusters our programs do overlap in some of the competencies. All of our programs do share the common goal of preparing students for entry level workforce placement. Perhaps sharing best practices from our individual classroom experiences could be a way of connecting in the PLC and aid us in enhancing the student learning within our individual disciplines as well as to provide us with opportunities to grow professionally.

I would be grateful to hear if there are other ways the PLC could be implemented in my school situation.

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Lisa Hemphill

I really enjoyed reading about your experience with PLCs. I am also glad that you have discovered how effective they are. I, too, feel much the same as you did when we reach mid-year. I am hoping that my school adopts something of the sort or maybe I will just work with my colleague in that capacity and we will start a trend!

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Hannah Morris

Hi, I really liked how you were so honest in your post. I never thought of february as the month that is in the middle of the school year! But now I realize that is when I have the most trouble focusing in and on school work! I think you made a great point that more brains put together equals a better outcome. PLC to me is a very rewarding style because like students we are all unique and when we focus on teaches all students the same we hit road blocks. PLC works to apply different perspectives into one that suits everyone.

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Kettina Robinson

PLC's are very helpful. I love to attend them if there is an agenda. Without an agenda teachers are sitting and staring at each other. An agenda addresses important points and directs educators throughout their meeting. Professional Learning Communities also give teachers a place to share ideas and learn from each other.

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Lisa Hemphill

This was a great article in helping me understand that one, I am not alone in the feeling of isolation and wondering if I am doing the right thing and two, that PLC isn't a bad word or a strict guideline that limits teachers to box lesson and such. I know that when I discuss a coming up unit with my coworker that we both have great ideas that we try to implement into our classroom. Sometimes it works and other times not. But just the idea of brainstorming bigger and better ways to help students succeed gives me empowerment. Thank you discussing your experience with PLC and showing me that it ultimately has positive outcomes for all.

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Emmanuel Guevarez

HI Joshua

I must admit that I related my situation with your experience of before becoming a PLC, I also was that teacher who just got to school received my students shut the door and nothing else mattered out side from my classroom, and just hope that whatever I did that looked, and sounded like a English class was the correct thing to do, didn't care much about looking, or sharing ideas for lesson planning and/or teaching strategies, well this is how I was back in Puerto Rico. Now I was recruited to teach ELL students in Maryland, and ten I notices how different teaching is in this state, I need to be guided on how to teach these students, thanks to some of my colleagues who shared their experience with me and also worked with me on how and what exactly I needed to do, in which now I go to school confident in what I'm doing , all because I joined a PLC.

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Natalie Murillo


Thank you for sharing your experience. I am a new teacher and many times I feel like shutting the door also. At the end of the day I am just exhausted and ready to leave my students. I think if my school had PLCs in place that things might be different. I need new fresh ideas on how to reach my students. In order to get these ideas and to improve as a teacher I need to be able to collaborate and build ideas with other teachers. I hope that my school can begin having PLCS.

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michelle webber

I am so glad to hear about similar experiences from other places than just my classroom. It is great to see that others see and feel things that I do. I used to close my door to my classroom and do what I wanted also. Then, I became a grade level team leader and placed in a leadership position. Next, I had to lead collaborative planning meetings. I too had the epiphany that teachers working together, bouncing ideas off each other and discussing how to reach each student is essential to children's success in school. It is amazing the feeling that an educator gets when they have meaningful activities. They collaborated with a colleague on the lessons and reflected after the lesson to change or implement things later. I am so glad that I found this blog and read it. It makes me understand that there are truly effective teachers out there that care deeply for the education of this generation.

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Tripp Presley

Thanks! You clearly articulated the process of individual growth, and your honest and creative approach was both entertaining and humorous. I think lots of teachers have those feelings as they begin to learn about the PLC process. In the end, we must all come to realize that all of us together are smarter than any of us acting on our on. Equity and equal access are mandatory if we want all students to learn. I believe that the PLC process is the vehicle to school improvement that has been missing for many years in.our schools. Well done. You nailed it! As a friend of mine likes to say: "If it's good for kids lets do it!"

Tripp Presley
Professional Support Provider
Texas Center.for District and School Success

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William M. Ferriter

Hey Josh,

Just want you to know that you are a remarkable writer and a powerful voice. Your Jackson Pollock metaphor is perfect.

So glad that we connected in Seattle and can't wait to see what you write next.


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