Starting the PLC Journey
There are many paths that lead an educator, a school, a district, or even a state to the PLC journey. Some are led to the path through a state or district initiative, others through the vision of their principal, others by a guiding coalition of teachers at their school. And some, like myself, discover the path through their individual journeys and growth as educators. The truth is that the ways educators come to the PLC journey are as numerous as the individuals on the path. However, one common influence we all share at the beginning of the journey is a prevailing sense of hope—the expectation and desire for something different, something that can change things for the better.
I started my own PLC journey in a college classroom at the University of New Mexico during the first semester of my master’s degree in educational leadership. Rick DuFour and Bob Eaker’s pioneering book Professional Learning Communities at Work®: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement (1998) was our textbook. I was a teacher and instructional coach in a middle school at the time, but the ideas this book generated consumed me as I was beginning to prepare myself to become a school principal. As I thought about the PLC tenets presented in this book and in class discussions, I began to ask some questions:
- Could this kind of collaborative culture really happen in a school?
- Could we actually embrace and commit to a larger and higher vision of our purpose as educators?
- Could we really ensure all our students–even the most struggling–would learn at high levels?
- Could we stop the practice of putting the arbitrary “F” next to students’ names in a grade book and actually take actions to ensure learning instead?
- Could we change the way we work together and authentically collaborate around student work and best practices instead of operating in parallel existences supporting only the status quo?
I’m guessing there are many of you who are at that same questioning phase of the PLC journey. You are on the path, but questions still pop up like, “Is all this really going to work? Is the time and hard work that goes into systemic change really going to provide the results promised?” This is not uncommon. Let me introduce you to a group of educators who are in the initial stages of PLC implementation and share some of their reflections.
Perrin Elementary School in Benton, Arkansas, is a K–4 elementary school which began its PLC journey in response to a state grant initiative supporting the implementation of the PLC at Work® model in schools throughout their state. The school is led by Principal Stacye Shelnut and is filled with dedicated educators who step up to the plate daily and take on new learning as they begin to implement PLCs in their school.
Like many schools, Perrin Elementary was not new to PLCs. But this is their first year implementing PLCs with goals for full implementation. And honestly, their learning curve has been steep. Thinking of them trying to grasp both the mindsets and the actions that represent a high functioning PLC at Work school community conjures up the old adage of trying to get a drink of water from a fire hose.
Now that they are over half way through their first year, I recently asked the teachers to reflect. I asked two questions: “What have you found most challenging?” and “What have you found most rewarding at this point along the path?” While their answers varied, one theme began to stand out. The very things that were perhaps the most challenging and time consuming were now becoming the most rewarding.
For example, one grade level team of teachers indicated that identifying essential standards and taking the time to go deep into their meaning to determine learning targets and rigor seemed time consuming and overwhelming at times. Yet when asked what they found most rewarding, they responded by talking about their work with essential standards. They felt like they had a deeper and increased understanding of what is essential for their students to know when they leave their grade.
These are the shifts that begin to happen during the first years of PLC implementation. Although there is definitely a lot of wondering if it’s all going to be worth it, slowly but surely, educators begin seeing the value of all that they have accomplished. What starts with hope and trust begins to give way to success, certainty, and conviction.
There is a reason they call the work of implementing PLCs a marathon and not a sprint. It is hard work to change paradigms of thought about education, to buck the status quo and champion changes that challenge ways of doing things that have stood for years. And it is indeed time consuming to take on the process of identifying a guaranteed and viable curriculum, digging deep into the essential standards to know intimately what students must learn. It takes time to rethink assessments and how we evaluate what they tell us. And it takes courage to completely alter the systematic ways we respond when students do or don’t learn. Yet, these educators do it daily, and they do it well. They do it with hope and courage and with a determination to do what is best for their students. Bravo!
In fact, as I work with schools just beginning this journey, I’m continually amazed at their commitments to make a difference in the lives of their students and a difference in the lives of each other as dedicated educators. It is remarkable and absolutely needs to be celebrated. So, I would like to take time now to celebrate and acknowledge the work the schools I am working with this year who are in the beginning stages of their PLC journeys. They are listed here:
Perrin Elementary School—Benton, Arkansas
Palmer Elementary School—Reno, Nevada
Kate Smith Elementary School—Reno, Nevada
Adams Elementary School—St. Louis, Missouri
Rawhide Elementary School—Gillette, Wyoming
These schools continue to amaze and inspire me with their courage to take on change. I admire their love and commitment to their students and colleagues, as well as their passion and professionalism along the way. So, to the principals, instructional coaches, support staff, and teachers in the schools listed above I say, “Well done!” You are embarking on a journey that is life changing for all involved—the educators, the students, the parents, and your communities. Congratulations!
If you are new to the PLC journey and find yourself in that questioning phase—still unsure how it’s all going to pan out—I encourage you to check out the model PLC schools on this website. There are multiple schools with varying backgrounds that have shared their journeys and successes. I’m sure you can find several that have similar populations and can help paint a picture of what’s in store. I wish you safe travels!
Reference: DuFour R. & Eaker R (1998) Professional Learning Communities at Work®: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service