Why This, Why Now, Why Bother
One question I am often asked by classroom teachers is, “Why should we care about PLCs, Bill?”
And as the self-proclaimed “why guy” on my faculty—the curmudgeon constantly asking, “Why this?” and “Why now?” and “Why bother?” any time administrators introduce initiatives to our school—I totally understand where they are coming from. Veteran teachers have learned that the professional development planned and delivered in schools rarely makes a significant impact on student learning because it rarely stays around long enough to become a part of a school’s culture or driving philosophy.
The result: We are almost always skeptical when our bosses bring something new back to our building and try to convince us that it is worth investing in.
So why should classroom teachers care about PLCs?
Because when they are done right, they answer my three why questions better than anything I’ve seen in over 25 years of full-time teaching.
Teachers should care about professional learning communities (PLCs) because they inherently value the knowledge and expertise of practitioners instead of the knowledge and expertise of presenters or heavily scripted programs developed by outsiders who know next to nothing about our kids or our classrooms.
When a school or a district commits to restructuring as a PLC, what they are REALLY saying to their classroom teachers is, “We believe in YOU. We believe that the answer to improving learning in our community rests in the hearts and the minds of the people sitting in THIS room. It’s YOUR knowledge and skill that we are willing to invest in. We want to empower YOU to find solutions to the challenges that are keeping our kids from becoming their best academic, social, and emotional selves.”
That kind of confidence in the ability of teachers is just plain refreshing in a world where our credibility is questioned at almost every turn. If we can prove that working together, we can develop strategies and solutions that have a positive impact on kids, we can also reinforce our argument that teaching is professional work that deserves professional compensation and respect.
That’s a challenge we should embrace.
Teachers should also care about PLCs because today’s classrooms have become incredibly diverse places, filled with students who have a wide range of academic, social, and emotional needs. As a result, it is almost impossible for any one person to have the know-how to move every student forward.
If we are being honest, each of us could easily name the type of students that we struggle to serve well. For me, it is students with learning disabilities. Scaffolding my lessons to meet their individual needs is something that I’ve never been very good at. And I know it. It’s a gap in my professional skillset—and it’s preventing some of the students in my room from succeeding.
But here’s the thing: I work on a learning team with a colleague who has spent countless hours polishing her practices in this area. She knows a TON about how to effectively differentiate her lessons for students with unique learning needs. If I’m willing to open myself up to her—something that happens naturally when teachers work together on professional learning teams—my bet is that my practice will improve. And I’d also bet that there are gaps in her professional skillset that I can help fill.
Knowing that we don’t have to struggle alone is a relief, y’all. When meaningful collaboration becomes a part of our work patterns, we gain a set of thinking partners that we can rely on to find solutions to our greatest professional challenges.
The moral answer to this question would be, “PLCs ensure that every child has access to the best instruction regardless of instructor—and every child deserves our best.”
But there’s a selfish answer to this question, too: “PLCs give teachers a chance to relentlessly question their practice together—and relentlessly questioning practice is professionally rewarding!”
That’s the thing we forget sometimes. PLCs aren’t just about the learning of students. They are also about creating a stimulating learning space for the adults in a schoolhouse. So, if you lean in to your collaborative team, identifying important questions to study together and then working through continuous cycles of collective inquiry in service of student learning, YOU will be more motivated by the work that you are doing each day.
The people drawn to teaching are deeply creative and reflective by nature. The work of high-functioning teams feeds those traits and will leave you professionally jazzed in a way that teaching alone could never do.
Now don’t get me wrong: Learning communities aren’t all sunshine and daffodils.
Early on, you are likely to experience frustration. That’s what happens when folks who have spent most of their careers working in complete isolation come together to collaborate for the first time. Until your team develops the skills and processes necessary for working together effectively, there’s going to be some “storming” in your weekly meetings with one another.
But I’ve never been more energized or more effective in my entire teaching career either.
I look forward to meeting with my colleagues because I know that I’m going to get to explore my practice with people who are just as capable and passionate as I am about improving. Together, we learn more about instruction that works, and we polish the things that we do best. We have a commitment to one another and to our students—and that commitment brings us back year after year to work together again.
THAT’s why you should care about PLCs.
William M. Ferriter is a Solution Tree author and consultant with expertise in structuring the work of professional learning teams, reimagining classroom grading and feedback practices, and teaching with technology. The title that he is the proudest of, however, is that he is still a full-time classroom teacher, working with sixth grade science students in a professional learning community outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. You can follow Bill’s thinking on his widely-recognized blog and on Twitter.