Thursday, January 8th, 2009...2:37 pm

What Makes a Great PLC?

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By Robin Fred
The Centers for Quality Teaching and Learning

Professional Learning Communities are all the rage in education.  But what makes a great Professional Learning  Community, and why is it important to foster one?  Almost 20 QTL instructors gathered in Raleigh for an annual  meeting are discussing that question, and their collective reflections on the subject are thought-provoking.

Professional learning communities, by their nature, should be supportive and lead to new ideas and sharing of information.  A PLC environment should creates a collegial culture for staff learning, and can help ensure that a  professional development initiative takes root and grows rather than dying on the vine.

One small group discussed the idea that PLCs can establish a sense of community that empowers teachers and encourages  stronger teaching and growth within schools.  They can enhance continuous learning and promote effective teaching  and learning.

Another group noted that the term PROFESSIONAL dictates continuous IMPROVEMENT that PROFOUNDLY impacts student learning and demands that teachers work together COLLABORATIVELY. PLCs should enable teachers to design and deliver engaging instruction, modified to teach conceptual understanding and lead to reflection upon this teaching/learning  process.

In many schools, professional development means teachers attend workshops and administrators hope they’ll return to  the classroom and apply what they learned.  But professional development should be so much more. QTL Instructional  Specialist Terri Jenkins says a key challenge for instructional leaders is sustaining the learning after the professional development is  over.

“Just like the teachers, I (as a professional development specialist) have control of two things: what I teach and  how I teach it,” Jenkins says.  “We have to look at what we can control.  What can we do that causes (participants) to be able to  go beyond AND to do it continuously.”

Jenkins says professional development leaders must be clear and consistent about terminology.  It’s critical to set a common vocabulary and a solid foundation for a Professional Learning  Community to build upon.

“It’s kind of like the children in our classrooms who fall through the cracks,” says QTL Instructor Pat Smith of Brunswick County.  In any group going through professional development, there will be individuals who ALMOST “get it” but need extra  support to actually make use of what they’ve learned. PLCs are a way that teacher leaders can take the concepts of  professional development, and encourage their peers to continue finding ways to implement those concepts to  increase student learning.

Franklin County QTL Instructors took a nice step toward this during Summer 2008 with a “QTL Reunion.”  They invited teachers who’ve been through QTL to attend a day of workshops - largely led by their peers who had learned new tricks and learned to use them effectively.

“One of the neat things was we had teachers volunteer to lead or co-lead the sessions,” says Lesley Coe.  “It was teachers demonstrating how they had used the technology in their classrooms and how that had changed after QTL.”

“Once it  was over we thought of a lot of things that would have made it work better,” Betsy Bryan adds. “But that’s part of the learning curve. Some technology failed and we had to improvise. But it was good for them to see that too.”

Another group observes that the PLC idea should permeate a school’s culture; the school should be “an ambitious  community of learners.”  But the process of implementing a PLC is not in itself what makes that happen.   Restructuring a school happens only when TEACHERS WORK at the CLASSROOM PROCESS.

Jane Milner Houde of Buncombe County says sustained professional development requires processing time. “It’s just like going to a conference.  How can you come back and apply all you learned at once?  You can’t.  It takes time to process that.”

Professional Learning Communities - managed effectively - can help ensure that happens.

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