Professional Learning

Strategies for Starting a Professional Learning Community in Education

7 Min Read
Group of teachers collaborating using tech WF1842700

Imagine that we teachers are sitting in a faculty meeting and receive the news that our test results came in very low. The principal asks, “Any ideas?” One member responds, “That’s okay. Let’s just keep doing things the same way we’ve been doing them, and it’s bound to be better this time.” We may not actually verbalize this in a meeting, but this notion may be apparent in our conscious words or actions as our work keeps us moving to the next, new initiative. We may have a structure for our professional learning community work, yet we don’t often take time to ask, “What will make this year better than last?” One way to plan for a successful year is starting a professional learning community (PLC).

What Is a Professional Learning Community in Education?

The definition of a professional learning community has been described by Rick DuFour as groups of educators who meet regularly to share expertise, analyze student work, plan instruction, and collaborate to improve teaching skills and the academic performance of students. Explore more about the definition and benefits of PLCs in education on Shaped.

How to Start a Professional Learning Community for Teachers and Educators

Whether developing a professional learning community for the first time or refreshing an already established PLC, the following professional learning community strategies can help to cultivate a collaborative and supportive team. The collective goal for members is to grow and thrive in their approach to teaching and to create a learning environment that allows students to achieve academic success.

1. Start with leadership.

In a broad sense, the whole school needs to operate as a professional learning community. In the 10 Mindframes for Leaders, Dr. John Hattie and Raymond Smith offer ways for us to check our own impact, check our attitudes about effective work, and then reflect on how we approach instruction and learning. Are we modeling our attitudes about teams and collaborative work in everything we do? That is what creates a learning culture. Leaders who are growing in their own efficacy are better able to promote true collaborative work. Only then can we ask others to follow our example.

2. Effective professional learning communities need to be collaborative teams.

For professional learning communities to be effective we must be clear about our purpose for having them. This can be the difference between teams thriving in collaborative communities or having a program weighed down by compliance checklists. My favorite definition of collaboration is co-laboring: everyone working together to support learning. To be effective and purposeful, teams need two principles as the foundation: practicing psychological safety and building collective efficacy.

Practice Psychological Safety

The principle of practicing psychological safety refers to Dr. Timothy Clark’s concept in The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety. Dr. Doug Reeves amplifies their importance in Fearless Schools. Key practices are very briefly introduced below.

  • Inclusion Safety: People must sense they are accepted in the team. The connection of team members becomes central to taking on the challenges of moving all learners forward.
  • Learning Safety: The first step to doing that is intentionally inviting each member to have a voice. This is an excellent place to make sure that authentic professional learning is being used to support fresh thinking. This may be something to discuss from what they’ve read or heard together.
  • Contributor Safety: The group members’ voices are not only heard, but respected. Mistakes are expected and accepted. Resilience comes as a part of learning from mistakes from both the adults and the students.
  • Challenger Safety: People are free to challenge practices (respect is key here), and new ideas are welcome. It is only at the fourth stage where creativity and innovation really happen.
Build Collective Efficacy

The additional principle of building collective efficacy, according to Jenni Donohoo in "Collective Teacher Efficacy," is the belief that a school/team see themselves impacting the achievement for ALL learners. Four factors are needed to implement this.

  • Mastery Experiences: Past success becomes the well of confidence for future actions.
  • Vicarious Learning: When something works, the feeling of success is contagious and team members realize, “We can do this!”
  • Social Persuasion: The work of the team is validated by the messages of external experts, administrators, instructional coaches, or respected leaders.
  • Affective States: Emotional climate and culture are positive and growing. This is present when teams remember the premise adapted from Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations: “The conversation is the relationship. One conversation at a time you are building, destroying or flatlining your relationship(s).”

3. Set up a structure that gives dedicated time and intentional support for professional learning communities.

There is no “one right approach” to how teacher teams are constructed. Try these approaches to constructing teams and organizing what they do.

  1. Consider having 3–5 teachers on each team. Most beneficial are those with common content work or grade level. If that’s not possible, have teachers from disparate groups identify and focus on what they have in common or to commit to a common theme (e.g., literacy).
  2. Identify norms and roles for each member. This promotes the principle of inclusion highlighted above from The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety. In "It’s Not Collective Efficacy If It’s Easy," Preston and Donahoo give practical direction about how teams must agree to constructively disagree to be most effective.
  3. Align all work students will be asked to the standards you have chosen as primary or priority standards. Rigorous Curriculum Design by Ainsworth and Donovan is a great resource to learn more about priority standards.
  4. Actively support teams to collect data/evidence before the meeting so the time in the meeting is used to analyze the evidence and design instructional action steps that will move student learning forward.
  5. Maximize authentic accountability and intentionally create templates for documentation that proactively uses aspirational rather than structural expectations. B.C. Preston and Jenni Donohoo write, “Mindfully organized teams are sensitive to what is actually happening rather than what is assumed to be happening.”

4. Use data that counts!

John Hattie in the foreword to PLC-Powered Data Teams, suggests that we need to ask, “Do we have the right data for the right question at the right moment, and have we interpreted appropriately?” We need to expand our thinking regarding evidence of learning. Quantitative data give us one important part of the picture. MAPS, STAAR, or other external measurements that your district or state use are valuable in giving us a trendline and a global picture.

However, remember that our purpose is to develop learners and to deepen content knowledge and skills. The focus on students and student work helps to keep us driven by why we do this work. The most important evidence is that which is collected in each classroom. Lyn Sharratt and Michael Fullan remind us in Putting Faces on the Data: What Great Leaders Do! that, “a critical aspect of school improvement is personalizing data for all students so that each student is treated like a real person.”

Qualitative data is important too. Listening to student voices is central to this data. Lauren Porosoff, Teach for Authentic Engagement, says, “Academic content should be a source of meaning, academic work a source of vitality and academic classes should e a source of community.” Educators in PLCs and students and teachers in the classroom should all be talking about the evidence of learning so they can celebrate progress and set new personal bests. This evidence is central to student achievement and is to be reported, trusted, and developed. Positive teacher collective efficacy, ranked as one of the highest effects of student achievement by John Hattie in Visible Learning: The Sequel, has a strong correlation to the effective use of professional judgement.

5. Practice transparency and create time to celebrate successes.

While we learn from mistakes, we also learn from our successes. School improvement and effective professional learning communities in education rely on taking time to celebrate. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer remind us in The Progress Principle that it is the small wins which light the sparks for the big wins.

The Result of Effective PLCs

No conductor makes music alone. Each of the instrumental sections must be in tune and on the same page to create a great symphony. When a school acts together as one larger, connected professional learning community—in turn made up of smaller, effective teacher PLCs—an effective and successful learning environment is bound to flourish.

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