Administrators Supporting or Hijacking PLCs?

This is the title of a conference breakout session I have been asked to facilitate this summer. It’s a topic of importance to me as I have met many teachers who hold a confused definition of PLCs because of tasks that they have been asked (told) to complete during scheduled PLC meetings.

The following definition for PLC is found on a site created by the Great Schools Partnership: GLOSSARY OF EDUCATION REFORM:

A professional learning community, or PLC, is a group of educators that meets regularly, shares expertise, and works collaboratively to improve teaching skills and the academic performance of students. The term is also applied to schools or teaching faculties that use small-group collaboration as a form of professional development. Shirley Hord, an expert on school leadership, came up with perhaps the most efficient description of the strategy: “The three words explain the concept: Professionals coming together in a group—a community—to learn.”

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Here are questions I am planning to explore during the session with principals and central office staff:

What responsibility do administrators have for guaranteeing that PLC time is spent impacting teacher and student learning?

I have frequently suggested that one of the questions that administrators should ask teachers is, “What is a recent thing you have learned in your PLC work and how do you imagine it will impact your students learning?” If teachers are having difficulty responding to this question, a principal has an indication that PLC time might be being spent on a different agenda than teacher and student learning.
A first quick check that a principal should make is whether he/she has been using PLC time to accomplish other outcomes. I was recently working in a district where a new state test required teachers to receive training in the testing procedures. Instructional coaches were assigned to use PLC time to deliver the training. Principals often receive requests (tasks) from central office staff with short turnaround times. It’s common to see that PLC time in a schedule is the most convenient spot to “get the job done”.

Building level administrators should commit to protecting PLC time as much as possible. When PLC time must be used, communicate the message to teachers, “PLCs are cancelled.” This is critical to avoid confusion about what happens in PLCs.

What would you listen and look for when observing PLCs in action?

Whether reading the minutes from PLCs or observing them in action here are a few indicators that communicate the desired function of PLCs is happening:

More of the conversation is about learning than about teaching. Less conversation about pacing and scheduling and more about what student behaviors are desired and observed.

Student work and actual assessment papers are in front of the PLC team…more actual examples than “data numbers”.

Learning goals are established and progress against those goals is frequently on the agenda.

It is obvious that teachers are familiar with learners who are in each other’s classrooms.

Expertise and knowledge of each member of the PLC is being tapped to impact all learners.

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How does a principal communicate belief in the PLC process?

I think it is important that principals communicate what the outcome expectations are from PLC’s. If you envision PLCs as collaborative problem-solving teams, one would expect that they frequently create questions and ideas that challenge the status quo.

Consider the Definition of Collaborative Problem Solving for PISA 2015

Collaborative problem solving competency is the capacity of an individual to effectively engage in a process whereby two or more agents attempt to solve a problem by sharing the understanding and effort required to come to a solution and pooling their knowledge, skills and efforts to reach that solution.

Principals should be sharing an expectation that PLC’s identify problems, ( students are exhibiting limited interest in challenging science topics, English language learners are making very minimal writing progress, students are showing limited mastery of math skills from previous year’s study) and conduct extensive observation, study, and experimentation to identify solutions and opportunities for advanced student learning.

Establishing settings for PLC’s to share their learnings and existing struggles with school wide staff may provide a great way to communicate expectations.

Why should the district be arranging principal PLCs?
Principals need to learn through practice the cognitive and social skills of collaborative problem solving if they are to coach those skills with their staffs. Functioning as a member of a PLC is the best way to learn these skills.

In a presentation, Three Keys for Maximizing Leadership Impact, Michael Fullan makes the following statements which reinforce the value of principal PLCs.

#1 The most important role that a principal plays in impacting student achievement is to participate as a learner with the staff in moving the school forward.

#2 We want teachers to move from “my students to our students” and principals to become “system players,” being as interested in the success of other schools as they are of their school.

Professional Learning Communities can be a very productive process for positively impacting student success. Quality school based leadership dramatically increases the likelihood of reaping maximum benefits.

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Steve Barkley

For the past 30 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…

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