Amanda Ziaer

Amanda Ziaer is the managing director of curriculum and instruction in Frisco, Texas. Frisco ISD is a suburban district north of Dallas, serving more than 57,000 students at more than sixty schools. The entire district is focused on the work of growing and developing professional learning communities (PLCs).

Developing a Model PLC Culture

Two things happened in 2017 that would test the culture I helped create the last five years at the Model PLC campus at Coppell North. I went on maternity leave for a few months and then I made the tough decision to leave my amazing campus team to be closer to my own family in early July 2017. To know, by evidence, that you helped plant and grow a culture so strong that even when you are gone short term or long term and it is still functioning as a true professional learning community (PLC) is one of the greatest legacies any leader could hope for their staff and students. The way I “principal” today was shaped by what I learned along my Model PLC journey.

As a new campus principal you spend your first few years trying to plant seeds of greatness to hopefully improve learner achievement on your campus. Hopefully those seeds you plant eventually take off and grow given the right planting conditions. I have heard many times from attending PLC at Work® Institutes that “hope is not a strategy” as Dr. Anthony Muhammad puts it. So make sure as the campus Lead Learner that you do your homework and that you pick the right seeds to plant.

Starting your PLC journey is a lot like planting a garden bed for the first time. You have to do it at the right time with the right tools and materials and once it starts growing then you just have to maintain it, feed it and nourish it. Once your campus is ready to start its PLC journey then turn to the AllThingsPLC website to find the right tools so that your PLC “garden” can grow. Solution Tree books give so many tools to help campuses on their PLC journey.

I started by finding a PLC at Work Institute that I could get myself and as many staff members as possible to attend. To be able to go to the institute, I reprioritized my campus budget, cut back where I could, and pooled departmental budgets to be able to send nine staff members to a PLC at Work Institute the first year. I continued doing this every year that I could. The number sent depended on the budget that year.

At that first institute, we learned so much as a team but we also had dedicated time there to reflect, talk as a team, and plan next steps. As part of the institute, we also got the book Learning by Doing by Dufour, Dufour, Eaker, Many and Mattos. We came back home, reflected on the conference as a team and studied the book while we accessed the PLC resources and study guide.

The seeds that I planted my first few years as principal centered around the idea of changing the campus culture. This was important because this was a traditionally high-achieving campus that was experiencing rapid change in our ESL, at-risk, and special education populations where we were struggling to meet their needs as evidenced on a state assessment and grading reports. After reading Learning by Doing and then looking at campus data, we had determined that the campus had to make a shift from a culture of teaching to more a focus on learning. If we truly wanted to make a positive impact on learner achievement, we had to make sure that we were focused on the right work that would benefit kids. The only way of really knowing if the changes we were making were truly affecting learning was by looking at various data points as outlined in Learning by Doing or School Improvement for All resources.

After looking at our data picture and looking at similar campuses’ data, we had to rethink many things. For example, how we approached homework, tutoring, grading, interventions, bell schedule, master schedule, enrichment, assessments, etc. In a blog post by Dennis King titled “Creating the Foundation: Why Do We Have to Do This?,” DuFour and Fullan (2013) state, “two things about cultural change: it is absolutely doable, but it is undeniably difficult.” I agree with this statement wholeheartedly. The campus had traditionally been successful, but times were changing and we needed to shift our mindset to a more student-centered environment. The way we were going to do that was embracing the three big ideas: a focus on learning, collaboration, and results. This required a shift in campus culture or the way we did things around here. Culture isn’t something that can change overnight by one person, but all it takes is one person to get a few followers and start slowly impacting change.

I’d like to share some of the ways we shifted from a traditional to a Model PLC campus. I started by using a change model to help guide the overall process. Here is an example of a change model to guide your approach to change. Next, schools can, and should, use the bullet points below to start planting their “seedlings.” The bullet points are the suggestions for changing culture on a campus as stated by Dennis King. Below each of those bullets, I’ve shared some advice or tips from my experience on my Model PLC campus.

  • Establish a guiding coalition of key teacher leaders.

    • For me, this was my leadership team which consisted of team leads, department chairs, counselors, administrators, a librarian, specialists from special education or special programs, and my school secretary. Everyone had an equal voice on the leadership team but with that came equal opportunity for hard work in studying, sharing, reflecting, and doing. This was the decision-making group of the campus. The leadership team eventually broke into three different groups of focus which could change year to year. Focus groups could be assessments, RTI, professional learning, future-ready skills, behavior interventions, etc. You can read more about guiding coalitions in Learning by Doing.
  • Examine student performance data.

    • When we first started our PLC journey, we used a simple protocol that I adapted for looking at our summative state assessment data to start our conversations around student data until we had common formative assessment data to drive the conversations. I also like using these protocols from Data-Based Decision Making by Edie L. Holcomb.
    • Global PD is also an amazing resource to hear from PLC experts explain how to navigate assessment data in their videos. One of my favorites is listening to Rick and Becky DuFour’s “Evidence of Student Learning.”
  • Align actions of the school with the school’s mission.

  • Collectively identify the school you wish to become through the establishment of a vision statement.

  • Create collective commitments to monitor, support, and celebrate behavior toward the desired culture.

    • For the three bullets above, hands down, I used Learning by Doing. I believe that everyone needs to start their PLC journey by reading and studying this book. Read it, go to a PLC at Work conference, then read it again. You will constantly refer back to this book throughout the duration of your PLC journey. It’s a “how to” manual when questions come up on your campus. If you are starting this journey on your own or with a small group or maybe you cannot go to a conference, sign-up for the self-paced online book study. I did this on my own just to gain a deeper understanding of Learning by Doing and PLC at Work concepts since I was the one leading the PLC charge. You could complete it in a week or over the year; it’s up to you.
    • Global PD has many videos available to help you and your team gain a better understanding of mission, vision, values, and goals. One example is Rebecca DuFour’s video titled “The Foundation of a PLC”. Another good one is Luis Cruz’s explanation of “The Purpose of your Purpose,” and one of my favorites by Anthony Muhammad is “The Six Characteristics of a PLC”. Global PD videos are amazing for my personal growth and for use with my staff.
  • Establish collaborative time for teachers during the school day.

    • Get creative if your district does not allow additional time built into your master schedule then try and find a way to create it with the use of volunteers, specials classes, late starts or early releases, paying for campus sub days for groups of teachers, turning staff meetings into collaborative time for staff, and sending our traditional staff meeting information in the form of videos using Edpuzzle, Educanon, iMovie, haiku deck, etc. Bottom line, as the building leader, if you are serious about a developing a PLC culture then you have to make time for collaboration by thinking inside and out of the box. That also means giving up some of “your” time so that teams can spend time focusing on learning.
  • Define collaboration and protocols of highly effective teams.

    • My secret weapon for guiding the work of a high-functioning collaborative team can be found in the book School Improvement for All by Sharon Kramer and Sarah Schuhl. It’s an amazing book and I use so many of the tools, charts, and protocols for the benefit of our collaborative teams and on the road when I am out supporting other campuses and districts. Here is a checklist with examples of what artifacts you would need to assess the fidelity of the collaborative team action: The work of collaborative teams. Use it with your collaborative teams at the beginning and end of the year to guide their next steps.
    • You can find examples of teams collaborating in the Global PD video library.
  • Clarify the expectations of teams based upon the four critical questions: What do we want students to learn, how will we know students have learned, what do we do if students do not learn, and what do we do when students have learned? (DuFour & Eaker, 1998).

    • I like the reproducible, “Corollary Questions” from Collaborative Common Assessments by Cassandra Erkens. This was the first assessment book we read as a leadership team when trying to better understand the preparing, designing, and delivery of assessments and a balanced assessment system. Great book to get you started in your assessment journey.
  • Monitor the actions of teams

    • Principals should participate in team meetings on specific days such as weekly data meetings. On my campus, all administrators and counselors attended Wednesday meetings to review data and talk about any students receiving tier II or tier III interventions that we were having trouble with in class. Our attendance was important because administrators and counselors were the commonality between collaborative team discussions since we teamed by department. Teaming this way gave administration some ownership in passing along weekly information to other teams on how particular student were performing/behaving and what was or wasn’t working.
    • I use the work of collaborative teams or a PLC continuum at the beginning and end of the year with my leadership team to determine where we are at so that we can decide where we want to go.
    • I also use the Texas Visioning Matrix alongside my PLC continuum to reflect and make decisions moving forward in regards to future-ready students.
    • I also found some wonderful jewels in the book Starting a Movement by Ken Williams. Chapter 5 has several charts that assist with evaluating how your PLC journey is progressing by using the analogies of flirting, dating, or being engaged to the various ideas of culture within a PLC. This was a quick and inspirational read that was filled with ideas, strategies, stories, and tools to support the culture on your campus.
  • Review common assessment data as a teams

    • Three books we refer to a lot are Common Formative Assessment and Simplifying Common Assessments by Kim Bailey and Chris Jakicic and Design in Five by Nicole Vagle.
    • Simplifying Common Assessments has a wonderful work cycle for collaborative teams to follow for creating and using assessments. It’s called the plan, do, study, and act cycle that is the reality of teams who are using assessments to guide next steps. I am also an advocate of backwards planning, so you know the end goal (assessment) you are trying to reach when it comes to lesson design.
    • This year I teamed up with two other middle school campuses to bring in Nicole Vagle, author of Design in Five, to speak to our staff about balanced assessment systems, designing quality assessments, the power of common and formative assessments, and looking at student work. I did this because it allowed me to split the costs of a Solution Tree speaker, it was an author/expert to expand on the book we purchased and read as a leadership team, and three campuses have since collaborated among departments on assessment design, implementation, and assessment data. It has been such a beautiful process for the campuses but especially teacher teams. On district professional learning days, we devote at least half of the day for our teachers from the three campuses to get together to continue their work centered around assessment design and data. The campus principals have also prioritized funds for pay for sub days for all three campus math/ILA teams to have design time together. The feedback from teacher teams has been amazingly positive.
    • Teachers spend a lot of time on creating heat maps, item analysis sheets, data folders, data rooms, etc. If you have the funds or can get the district to purchase it, try to use a program like MasteryConnect to track student data. This program helped us move forward even faster in the tracking and use of student data by standard.
    • There are several Global PD library videos over all things assessment—another reason to invest in the Global PD library.
  • Create intervention time within the school day for students.

    • This time was planted by me and the team that attended the PLC institute. We knew we had to make a major change by allowing for time built into the school day where enrichment and interventions could take place. We landed on four days of intervention time and one day of choice club time. The four days had a priority subject each day (Math - Mondays, English/Reading - Tuesdays, etc.) so that if that multiple subjects needed to pull a student, then the priority subject would get first dibs.
    • Teachers knew which kids needed intervention time by looking at most recent common formative assessment or assessment data. After 2–3 years of tracking data in data notebooks, my amazing assistant principal was reading Mike Mattos’ Best Practices at Tier I which mentioned MasteryConnect. She set-up a webinar and we used title funds to purchase. It was used to support the tracking and identification of students needs by specific standards and skills so that we knew how and what to intervene with during advisory time. The book Taking Action by Mattos, is the newest and most up-to-date book that really takes your team through the RTI process. I highly recommend purchasing one of these books for your teacher leaders, leadership teams, guiding coalition, administrators, and counselors to read and use the tools and resources available online.

It took five years of hard work, and a whole lot of “brain sweat,” before we were recognized as a Model PLC campus in 2017 and I left the district for another position in a neighboring district to start my PLC journey all over again. When I left my former campus I knew I owed it to the my staff to also ensure that things kept running as we had created, until the new principal could establish their way. Secretly, I also knew the staff would partner with the new principal in the PLC ways that we had developed for the benefit of both teachers and students.

Before I left, I created a principal binder with all of our past PD plans, staff meeting agendas, professional learning calendars, collaborative teaming calendars, job descriptions, budgets, notes from me and more to the new principal and the PLC guidebook that I created. I also left a jump drive with all of my files from the last five years. I felt it was important for someone to be able to come in and pick-up where I left off, actually where we as a campus had left off so that the next school year could keep moving forward and not take any steps back.

The guidebook was an idea that I got from the site’s evidence of effectiveness page, when I was browsing other Model PLC campuses similar to my own. You can look at all of the different model PLC campuses including their campus PLC stories and achievement data. Many have resources to use to help give you some ideas. You can and should start your Model PLC application anytime. It is a feedback model when you submit it, so if your campus isn’t ready to receive Model PLC status, then you will get specific written feedback from the PLC at Work board members which is incredibly powerful. I recommend that everyone who has been on a PLC journey for at least three years go ahead and start your application today here. At the very least, you will have clearer next steps for your campus. My former campus just received their second Model PLC recognition, and I could not be more proud of them for this accomplishment. I am proud of them and wish them continued success on their PLC journey.

Remember, it all starts with the quality of the seeds that are planted by the campus principal and leadership team. When you plant high-quality seeds and nurture them according to the directions, they will eventually establish roots and take off. If you truly take a vested interest in these plants, then the roots will grow strong and deep into the soil. Feed your wonderful garden, take care of it, and watch it grow. Think of the PLC culture of your campus as a root system of a plant or tree. Once established, your campus and the kids will grow and create an amazing climate from the fruits of your labor. Good luck!


References: Bailey, K., & Jakicic, C. (2011). Common Formative Assessment: A Toolkit for Professional Learning Communities at Work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press. Bailey, K., & Jakicic, C. (2016). Simplifying Common Formative Assessment: A Guide for Professional Learning Communities at Work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press. DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., Many, T. W., & Mattos, M. (2016). Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work (3rd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press. Williams, K., & Hierck, T. (2015). Starting a Movement: Building Culture from the Inside Out in Professional Learning Communities. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press. Holcombe, E. (2012). Data-Based Decision Making. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press. Mattos, M. (2015). Best Practices at Tier I: Daily Differentiation for Effective Instruction, Secondary. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press. Buffam, A., & Mattos, M., & Malone, J (2017). Taking Action. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press. Vagle, N. (2014). Design in Five: Essential Phases to Creating to Create Engaging Assessment Practice. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press. King, Dennis. “Creating the Foundation: Why Do We Have to Do This?” About PLCs | All Things PLC | Powered by Solution Tree, Solution Tree, 7 Nov. 2013,


Karen Georgacacos

HI Amanda, the information you provided was so relevant to me. We work in PLC groups at my school. When they first began 3 years ago we really struggled with wanting to reach the end. I would compare it to winning a race, who can get there first. We soon learned that our long term goal was called a long term goal because it takes time to complete.
Shifting thinking in a school can be difficult as it pushes people out of their comfort zone. Once people realized that this method would make their lives easier they bought in to it. The issue then became time. Teachers' time is precious, we coach, run clubs, have families and other responsibilities outside of teaching. Therefore, our administrators decided they needed to provide in school flex time for teachers to meet and work towards their goal.
In Canada we have not established a effective form of data or common assessments as we do not have state mandated evaluation. Therefore collecting data can be very grey as we don't have a starting point and traditionally teachers use cumulative evaluation. The idea of collabroative assessment or observational assessment is new. A great resource we are using it the book 180 Days by Penny Kittle. It focus' on collaborative learning which then helps create the data we will use.

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Dawn Sheeley

Amanda, I appreciate your analogy to growing a garden and planting seeds. I tend to be one who learns of a new strategy and can become discouraged when it does not work immediately. It is healthy to remind myself that few great things happen on accident. To growth takes intentional tending and patience.

Your connection to shifting your school's culture made a lot of sense with this imagery in mind. I am still young in my career, and I often feel timid offering ideas that I learn about in my reading of blogs or books. You show in your testimonial that when you share new ideas in small chunks, but frequently, slowly-- the culture of a group can change.

One thing I would like to grow in is progress monitoring. It can be difficult to maintain a value for looking over data when there is so much to do, but scheduling in the important things is how everything gets done. And this goes for many of the other collaborative elements of your model. I want to build in time to make sure I am not falling behind in this area.

You mentioned offering up "your time" for the sake of learning. That is one of the biggest sacrifices in my mind. I always think that meeting and planning times are consuming "my time" and even if I enjoy my coworkers, my ultimate goal is to be done quickly and with little effort. I'm learning as I progress in my career, that in order to be excellent, we must work together and strategize. This may require a sacrifice of what I personally would desire, but ultimately leads to greater success and unity.

I want to take these lessons and ideas to heart, and allow the seeds of this blog take root. I will be contemplating what seeds to tend to as my own mindset garden grows.

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