The Intentional Professional Learning Community

Readers who are familiar with the professional culture in most public education environments will have had experiences in “professional learning communities.” These are typically small teams of teachers assigned to work together to improve their instruction through careful examination of data, review of instructional techniques and resources, and ultimately revision of instructional practices.  PLCs, as they are commonly referred to, can look different in different districts.  I’ve worked in schools where “PLC time” was simply a fancy term for “staff meeting,” perhaps with an added intentionality of solving a specific identified problem.  Sometimes it involved breaking up into groups, other times it did not.  In one district, PLC time was devoted to groups of teachers taking on the specific task of designing “learning expeditions,” even though nobody in my group knew exactly what expeditionary learning was or how to execute it.  

I have also worked in schools where PLC time was more effectively intentional, and more supported by administration.  Teams of teachers were given specific planning time to work together, usually in place of planning periods or after school but sometimes during academic class time, when substitute teachers would be called in to allow regular teachers to attend.  During this time, teachers were provided resources to look at assessment data, adjust curriculum content or flexible groupings of students, and develop a plan to meet learning needs.

One thing that each of my personal PLC experiences in different schools and school districts had in common, is that PLC time was never regularly scheduled during an exclusive set time meant to serve its one and only purpose.  In other words, PLC time always happened when something else would have typically been scheduled: a whole staff meeting, an academic period, a planning period, or a time usually reserved for some other purpose.  Whenever PLC time happened, something else was being sacrificed, which adds an element of stress to any effort intended to benefit a teacher’s practice and ultimately student learning.

For me as a professional educator taking part in a PLC, it was sometimes difficult to concentrate on tasks at hand when I knew that the meeting was actually upsetting the routine, and possibly creating extra challenges that would need to be remedied later on.  If the meeting is taking place during a class for which I had to provide plans to a substitute teacher, for example, I may have to re-teach the lesson later on or address problem behaviors that might have arisen in my absence.  Or, if the meeting is taking place during what otherwise would be my personal planning and prep time, then I have had to adjust accordingly, which means sacrificing something else in my schedule in order to squeeze in that necessary planning and prep work I am unable to do at the moment.  After school is the best case scenario, except that now it is the end of the day, everyone is spent from a standard marathon day of teaching back to back lessons, and some of us are thinking more about what we need for dinner tonight rather than what we are going to do to meet students’ needs.

Literature on effective professional learning communities points to the essential need to assure there is adequate time allotted to devote to the work.  To me, PLC is about collaboration and problem solving.  How is it not essential to get together with teaching colleagues on a regular basis and address or identify student learning needs that both are and are not being met?  It is one of the most important aspects of our role as professional educators.  But as we can see, there are issues with providing that adequate time.  The way a teacher’s day is structured, every option for scheduling PLC time presents a challenging sacrifice that risks reducing the effectiveness of the PLC time.  

Having my voice heard at a PLC was sometimes challenging, whether it was due to the distractions of a group of minds focused on the disruptions to the schedule, or other factors like people who simply like to talk too much.  Other times, I was able to say my piece and feel confident there would be satisfactory follow-up.   Having my voice heard was not a priority or a major concern with every PLC in which I participated. What mattered more was whether there were other things I felt I should be doing with my professional time.

And that’s where we need to be most mindful when we put these things into action. PLCs are initiated with the greatest of intentions, but when the literature says there needs to be adequate time allotted for this purpose, that means in a way that does not replace or postpone other scheduled and necessary tasks.   

Another complication with PLC work is when teachers are asked to reflect upon their practice and make adjustments to their instruction accordingly as connected to a professional goal that is tied to their performance evaluation.  Too often, the functionality of PLC time gives way to the anxiety of producing results.  When PLCs are assigned measureable goals, or are asked to assign themselves goals, there is sometimes a greater concern for producing data then there is for evaluating and learning from data.  It is one thing to initiate a PLC with training on how to access and utilize data for the purpose of adjusting and improving instruction.  It becomes something else entirely when teachers in that PLC are then asked to tie their work to a specific measureable goal and report on it at the end of the year.  “80% of all students will be proficient in ___ by the end of the year” becomes a very narrow and sometimes obsessive end result and can produce more fear and concern than positive outcomes.  

Teachers want to be knowledgeable of their students’ potential and limitations as they teach.  They want time to have those professional discussions with colleagues about how they can better serve their students and address their learning needs. But when much of that discussion should be around how to inspire and engage their students in their learning, the goal-focused agenda instead dictates more specific, inside-the-box tactics.  “Clearly, we need to reteach addition of fractions with unlike denominators,” becomes a conclusion after looking at test data, instead of, “What can we do to enrich their prerequisite foundational knowledge?” or, “What are some ways we can really make this math come alive for these students?”  Instead of feeling inspired and fired up to improve their practice, teachers walk away feeling somewhat defeated and not entirely confident their next steps will produce evidence of student growth.  

Professional learning communities are essential to provide a venue for deep reflection, collaboration and proactive response to observed areas of need.  We just need to eliminate the anxiety that comes with not having enough time to dive into data and reflections in a meaningful way, and also the fear that comes with the prospect of not meeting goals tied to performance evaluation.  When those elements are removed from the picture, PLCs will become far more functional.

The barrier to that degree of functionality is the typical teaching schedule that requires teachers to teach back-to-back lessons throughout the day, and teacher evaluations that are tied to student test data.  When adequate professional time to plan and prepare for lessons is distributed throughout the teaching day, time becomes a much less rare and precious commodity, and intentional professional learning communities can thrive.  And when test scores that can be affected by a plethora of factors unrelated to quality of instruction are removed from the performance evaluation equation, the data becomes one of many indicators of student performance rather than a false referendum on teacher effectiveness.  In other words, the data becomes more meaningful and more useful.

Long live the PLC, but let it someday thrive without such substantial limitations.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I am a math strategist in RSU 5 (Freeport, Pownal and Durham, Maine), and have been teaching for ten years. These days I help oversee the math curriculum in my district and I coach and support teachers (mostly K-6) in their math instruction. My interests in education extend far beyond math, though.. I have been a passionate writer and musician since I was a young child. I have a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a certificate in math leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife and dog in Bowdoinham.