Bill Hall

Bill Hall is former director of educational leadership and professional development for Brevard (Florida) Public Schools and past president of the Florida Association for Staff Development.

Why Your PLC Should Be Planning Backward

Okay, be honest. Have any of your professional development decisions been made at the last possible minute, or in some cases, the last possible second? How many times have you primarily based your PD decisions on available funds? Have you ever brought in a professional developer based on his or her name and reputation even if the presentation topic did not target the learning needs of your faculty and staff? If any of these planning scenarios describe you, raise your hand. Go ahead. No one is looking. I certainly have my hand up.

Traditional PD planning is usually based on resource availability—money, people, and time. In fact, if you really think about it, much of our PD planning is often determined by resource scarcity. The conversation sounds something like “How much is in our PD budget? Okay, who can we bring in for that amount?” or “We’ve got our summer leadership institute next month. Find out who’s available to come in to present to our team . . . and we only have X to spend.” Yikes!

Stephen Covey (1989) taught us to “begin with the end in mind.” Educational researchers and authors encourage us to use “backward design,” moving us from whole to part. In golf, there are instructors who teach the “green-to-tee” concept where players start their shot planning from the green and work backward to the tee. Wow! If this concept works for researchers and golfers, it must be a good thing for professional development planning—right?

As a former building principal, the most effective, satisfying professional development I ever experienced was when I attended workshops or sessions with a team of teacher leaders. The benefits of attending with my teams were many. The networking opportunities during sessions, breaks, and downtime were invaluable. Personal and professional relationships were developed and enhanced. Mutual accountability became a standard by-product of our collective work. Professional development moved from being done to staff to being done with staff. Our teams would chunk out the session agendas to ensure that after each event our teams as a whole would have been exposed to every presentation and topic. Even before these events were over, we were already planning our entire yearlong professional development and starting to identify roles and responsibilities for each member of our team. We would ask ourselves what our school would look like or do differently in the future based on the implementation of our new learning. Then we worked backward to plan the specific steps and actions to accomplish our established goals that would fully make our new learning part of the school culture.

In schools and districts that function as professional learning communities, when leadership teams plan for professional development, they do so in a proactive (not reactive) way. Rather than assessing resources first, PLCs begin by assessing learning needs first and then work backward to determine the resources needed to accomplish the adult learning goals. Leveraging your resources to their fullest based on your long-range goals and desired outcomes will provide you and your teams with top-quality, targeted, and timely professional development.

Here’s a cautionary note to new school-based and district-level administrators and professional developers. Look carefully at the quality and design of professional development that you were exposed to earlier in your career. If you experienced last-minute, episodic, one-shot, say-and-spray professional development and that’s all you know, chances are excellent that you will pass those same experiences on to those you serve. You, however, can be that transition person who can break the legacy of ineffective professional development in your organization. Step back, take stock, surround yourself with a guiding coalition of professionals, and assess whether or not your professional development system meets the criteria and standards that will ensure the very best learning for your staff.

Now is the time to start planning the necessary professional development activities to support and move the PLC process forward in your organization. Don’t wait to start your planning at the beginning of the school year, or worse, after the year has started. It will be too late. Based on current needs assessment data of your staff, what are your main areas of focus for 2015–16 or even 2015–17? What are the best delivery systems available to meet your identified PD needs?

Once the decision is made about how to address your PD needs, plan how you will provide and support the PD activities after the event. In other words, plan well in advance of the school year who is going to do what by when throughout the year. Answer these questions: When the PD session is over, how will you embed the key learning into your culture? How will you continue to breathe life into the learning? If after the main event you plan well in advance and if you purposefully act on that plan by providing job-embedded PD on a regular and consistent basis, your efforts to become a high-performing collaborative learning culture will be rewarded. It’s okay to put your hand down now.


Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York: Simon and Schuster.


Peaches Hash

I like this advice a lot. Too often, it seems like any useful time I would have to collaborate with my PLC is taken by pointless or ineffective presentations. For instance, we barely ever have "teacher work days now," but we recently had a PD day in which we listened to four speakers in four hours in a morning that were supposed to provide us with "world class" inspiration. Yes, I think seeing an Olympic gold medalist is cool, but I would've traded it in a heartbeat for time to plan with my colleagues where we didn't have to submit required meeting notes with targeted goals from the central office.

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Sarah Lautenschlager

Thank you for the great information!

I am realizing that my district thinks it is conducting PLC's and in all actuality, we very much ARE NOT. Like another reader mentioned, our scheduled PLC time is a forced meeting during our prep time and is often combined with staff meeting. I think a lot of the problems we have are due to negative attitudes in response to having much needed prep time taken away. Can you offer any advice on how to change that? How do districts with successful PLC's find the time?

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Bill Hall

Thanks for the response, Eileen. Best wishes for a great school year!

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Eileen Kolb

This makes perfect sense to me! As a teacher, I am always asking myself, “What do I want my students to learn by the end of this lesson? Or, what objectives do I want my students to meet? Then once these questions are answered, I am able to work backwards and decide what is the best way for my students to reach this goal that I have set for them. Similar to how I plan for each lesson, schools and districts should also be asking themselves these questions. What goals do we have for this school year? What do we want to accomplish? Once they know the answer, they can decide what PLC’s or Professional Development opportunities will help them to reach their goal.

Thank you for sharing! I have never thought of PLC's in this way!

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Emma Copsey

I love the idea of thinking backwards when it comes to PLC's. My district has also implemented PLC's but after researching more about them I am realizing that the meetings we have are not PLC's. I love the idea of making our meetings more productive and meaningful. I am interested in suggesting that we discuss PD options at some of our meetings based on the needs we are seeing and our students. Thanks!

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Bill Hall

Hi Shanna, thanks for sharing your story. The five-year plan that your principal has begun is right on target - it IS a journey not a race. The fact that you are learning together along the way is critical to ensuring your success. Best wishes to you and your school. It is a laborsome task; but instead of everyone working hard in isolation, the collective energy and collaborative work will carry your school to heights you cannot yet imagine.

Good luck along the journey.

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Bill Hall

Hi Rachel,

I believe one of the biggest barriers to becoming a fully functioning PLC is when schools implement PLC concepts poorly . Your response describes what so many schools are going through when getting started.

One great resource that you may wish to consider is "The Journey to Becoming a Professional Learning Community" by Keating, Eaker, DuFour and DuFour. This tool lays out a suggested path or journey to becoming a PLC. It starts with creating a guiding coalition first, creating a common vocabulary, assessing the school's current reality, and creating shared knowledge. Once these components are in place, celebrate the fact that the first steps towards becoming a true PLC have been put in place - this is the second step or stage. The third step or stage is to answer the question, "Why become a PLC?" - followed again by celebration. And so on...note that schools celebrate team and individual efforts between each major step or stage - celebration is a must!

Another great resource is "Learning by Doing -
Second Edition." There are other resources like the DVD resource, "Collaborative Teams in PLCs at Work" which has some great examples of real teams in actions so that you can hear what collaborative teams sound like and see what they look like.

Tons of FREE resources are available to your and school on and

The journey to become a high performing PLC typically takes three to five years. (Note: the term "PLC" describes what the school will become once all the learning teams [or PLC teams or collaborative teams] are properly functioning. The term "PLC" is not used to describe the individual teams but rather is used to describe the school as a whole.

Collaborative teams should meet once a week. The fact that your principal has created weekly meeting time is a great step in the right direction. However, the work in those team meetings must center exclusively on teachers asking and responding to the four critical questions - "What do we want our students to learn? How will we know if they have learned it? How do we respond if they don't learn it? and How do we respond if they already know what it is we are about to teach?"

Another essential piece of working together collaboratively is teams must develop and use common formative assessments. These assessments not only let teachers know how students perform but also inform teachers on how well they are teaching.

Go slowly to go fast with this process and make sure your foundation is solid. There is a lot to the process. The really great news for you is that your interest and determination in helping make your school better for students and teachers will help start the discussion and the work. Let me know if you have further questions or need clarification on anything. Best wishes.

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Shanna Foskey

I am encouraged by reading your blog post. I am a teacher in a relatively small school district with only a handful of teachers teaching the same grade and subject as myself. Prior to this year, a PLC has been non existent with little emphasis on truly evaluating student achievement and teacher effectiveness. With a new principal, he met the challenges head on and began a five year plan to implement the PLC within our school. We started with the backwards design approach with an emphasis on what our students truly need to know and be able to do. This was our driving force with our development of new assessments to measure our goals for student achievement. This has been a laborsome task but very beneficial for our long term plans.

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Rachel Brownlee

My hand is raised! At my school, we just started having PLCs this past year, but after researching what PLCs should be, we definitely do not have PLCs. Our PLCs are mandated meetings that we are forced to go to during our planning time every Tuesday. I related to your statement about feeling that professional development decisions have been made at the last possible minute because it does feel like that. I often question why administration chose to use the only free 45 minutes of my day to discuss this topic when it doesn’t relate to me at all.

I do know that the lack of available funds is a factor in my school district; however, effective PLCs can be driven from the discussion of educators, which is very budget friendly. I am currently on the leadership team for my school and am very ashamed and concerned that PLC discussions are not even mentioned at our monthly meeting. I am not really sure who plans our PLCs or where “they” get the ideas for each meeting.

Your article was eye opening to me that I need to get more involved and do my part to make PLCs useful and meaningful to our teachers. You stated not to wait to start planning until the beginning of the year and to get to it now, so I intend to do so now! I’ve emailed my principal to get some information of who plans PLCs and how can I join. Can you offer any advice or guidelines? Should our PLCs be the same for each grade level or different depending on needs? Since we are just beginning this process, I want to help make the process smooth and inspire our teachers and get them excited to attend these meeting instead of dreading Tuesdays. Do you know of any resources that I should check out or even a video segment of a PLC, so I can see how an effective PLC is conducted? I’d appreciate any insights?

Thanks for an eye opening blog!

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