The PLC Journey Starts With Community
“What is labeled as ‘fluff’ is more often the stuff of leadership and culture.”
—Terrence Deal, Kent Peterson, Shaping School Culture
While the word “community” may be last in “Professional Learning Community,” it should be the first priority when schools start on this journey.
Organizational leader Peter Block defines community as “the structure of belonging” (Block, 2018). He describes belonging in two ways:
- To be related to and a part of something. It is membership, the experience of being at home in the broadest sense of the phrase.”
To act as a creator and co-owner of that community.”
How can schools create a sense of belonging that reduces isolation and increases connectedness in the name of learning for all? In response, I offer tangible ideas that any school leader—principal, teacher, staff member—can implement for lasting impact.
Historically, gifts were considered a contribution, an offering of one’s possession to another. Euphemisms such as “the gift of time” speak to the deeper meaning of gift-giving: that we part with something in order to improve the lives of others. This act is essential for community building.
What school leaders might part with or contribute to the school can be inexpensive or even free. For example, 30 minutes of prep time certificates can be distributed to teachers. A school leader can then cover class while the teacher uses this time for other tasks. More typical gifts popular in our school include sticky notes, notebooks and pens, and, during the cold and flu season, sanitizer. Gifts show we care.
Family dinners are a staple in many cultures. Food is a community builder that goes beyond a simple meal. It is an event for coming together and sharing our lives and learning about others’ experiences. Food is a connection between home and school that can evoke feelings of togetherness and belonging.
In our school, we have monthly luncheons in our staff lounge to recognize staff birthdays. People bring in desserts in addition to the main course. This tradition offers everyone regular opportunities to come together and celebrate. Food lifts our collective moods and provides people the chance to socialize with others without all the stress that can come with our work.
When I talk with teachers outside of my school and I ask what they would most like from their leaders, a common response is, “Do they think I am doing a good job?”
The desire for recognition is especially needed in education. Our jobs are so complex that it is hard to tell if the direction we are heading with kids is the right one. Sometimes we don’t know our impact on a child until they have moved on to the next classroom. So, it is imperative that leaders recognize teachers’ efforts in moving everyone toward the school vision.
Getting into classrooms can be a great opportunity to appreciate their work. Verbal affirmations and short notes about what they did and why you found it impressive can go a long way in confirming for teachers how their work positively impacts student learning. To not recognize teachers’ efforts regularly can leave them wondering and worried about their performance. Why not tell them about the positive contributions we observe them making? They feel acknowledged and we feel good. It’s a win-win.
Our hallways and classrooms communicate as much about our beliefs and values as do our instructional practices and resources. For example, does the front entrance convey feelings of welcoming and inclusivity? If not, consider posting positive messages on the walls conveying what the school is all about. In our lobby, we have our Model PLC banner hanging proudly on the wall by the front doors.
The rest of the school should encourage the behaviors we desire to see in our work. For instance, if a school values collaboration and communication, then it makes sense to invest in tables, chairs and modern space utilization. Students and teachers can only achieve these specific goals if they have the opportunity in which to participate in social experiences.
Schoolwide schedules are often dictated by programs and mandates. Little teacher input is typically requested when developing a structure for our days. To build a sense of belonging, time has to be allocated for community to thrive.
Intentionality and creativity are key here. We may find that the challenge is not in the schedule itself but rather in how we frame our existing instructional time. While there are many ways to craft a schedule that works, one promising approach is to identify the school’s values and then address those first.
As an example, what periods of time are devoted to extended writing experiences? In this situation, maybe readers workshop should be combined with writing. These scheduling innovations can help us rethink how we allocate our limited time while improving academic achievement, i.e. connecting reading and writing.
When a community is strong, people are more likely to talk with one another. Teacher talk is critical for idea-sharing and implementation of promising practices. A strong community has developed criteria for how we conduct ourselves in an effective manner, such as norms and commitments. The school becomes safer for mistake making, a prerequisite for learning.
These rules of engagement, or what I have heard described as “the dance of conversation,” is a deliberate process. School leaders can model it by demonstrating professional talk for faculty. As an example, during classroom visits, principals can engage in dialogue with a teacher about what he or she did and why they chose this course of action. When teachers mentally run through their process and thinking, they can recognize how their actions led to student learning. In addition, through reflective dialogue they are more likely to identify opportunities for improvement in the future.
I understand and agree with the importance of conducting ourselves as professionals as well as collaborating effectively on behalf of our students. These actions are essential for building a PLC. Yet this work does not leave the starting line if a school does not first develop a school community that fosters a sense of belonging for all. If we expect professionalism, we need to treat each other as professionals. Learning can only occur when trust is high and our collective purpose is clear. That is why community should be our first priority when beginning this journey.
Block, P. (2018). Community: The Structure of Belonging (2nd Ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.