Effectively changing the culture in your institution
Creating a great PLC environment within your school or district requires a fundamental shift in culture. The cultural ideals of a PLC are likely in direct opposition to the existing culture in your school or district. Culture clash can lead to a significant amount of stress and push-back from your teachers. Effectively navigating through this conflict into true collaboration depends on 10 fundamental cultural building blocks:
- Communication – The reason that your school or district is creating PLCs should be communicated throughout your entire community. Goals should be created with your entire school or district and communicated publicly to make them much more likely to be accomplished. Staff expectations should be clarified by creating a non-negotiable list. Replace “I” and “try” with “we” and “will” to commit to action and ensure that every person is responsible for accomplishing your community’s goals.
- Commitment – In order to successfully add PLCs to your school, you must fully commit to their implementation. Your school or district cannot pick and choose the parts that are the easiest or the most interesting. For many change initiatives, implementation that is moderate or occasional may be no better than not implementing the change in the first place.
- Participation and shared responsibility – Every staff member should feel like they are contributing to the success of your professional learning communities. This includes office staff, custodians, part time employees, and educational assistants. Each PLC must also have the ability to make decisions related to their work. Shared responsibility cannot be developed in a school in which the administrators control every decision. Facilitating collaboration in a PLC is very different from telling your teachers what to do.
- Shared accountability – Teachers must develop accountability to each other in order to achieve the best education for every student. They must take ownership for the results of their teaching and believe that their actions have a direct impact on their results. Consider having teachers in your school or district set SMART goals that align with the goals of your school or district. Encourage them to also develop common assessments, analyze their teaching performance and adjust their strategies for future lessons.
- Respect – Members of each PLC should establish norms where they make commitments to each other. They should avoid excluding each other, but know that it is okay to disagree with others. These rules should help to ensure respectful relationships within the PLC, helping to develop shared accountability.
- Solution orientation – Professional learning communities spend very little time on the problem, and instead spend as much time as possible on finding a suitable solution. PLCs are action oriented and don’t let outside factors hold them back from changing their behaviour.
- Honesty – Professional learning communities embrace an honest evaluation of every action, and will confront any behaviour that is not in line with their core purpose. Honesty is essential for building trust, which is at the core of all professional learning communities.
- Support – The culture of teacher isolation needs to be removed before professional learning communities will produce a large impact at your school. In order to accomplish the goals of PLC, no teacher can be left behind. Members of professional learning communities must find ways to support all teachers regardless of experience or expertise, while avoiding negative reinforcement, or punishment.
- Equity – Daily decisions regarding what to teach, how to assess, and how to support struggling students are often made in isolation. The quality of these decisions have a profound impact on student achievement. Making these decisions in isolation often results in an inequitable classroom experience for students from one classroom to the next, even within the same school. Professional learning communities ensure that equity is assured for every child, from curriculum and assessment, to intervention. Teams of teachers engage in processes to determine curricular essentials, align them throughout the school, develop common assessments, collectively analyze the data they produce, and they develop a system of intervention that guarantees all struggling students additional time and support.
- Celebration – Professional learning communities celebrate each success, no matter how small. Each gain is one step closer to accomplishing their shared goals, and success breeds more success!
Teaching others to collaborate
Professional learning communities require active participation and collaboration amongst all members. However, this collaboration does not always come easily. And what works for one PLC will not necessarily work for another. Each group must develop their own norms and protocols for sharing their teaching strategies with others. Instead of telling the group how the PLC should be run, ask everyone for input.
You may need to begin each PLC by facilitating yourself. Your role will be to ensure that the members of the PLC learn to ask questions that prevent putting others on the defensive. This provides your teachers with the knowledge that they are not being judged within the PLC. Consider circulating articles and books to form study groups outside the PLC.
When leaders create the conditions where educators support one another’s practice in PLCs, teachers feel more confident and develop a strong sense of self-efficacy. They believe in their ability to influence student learning and make a difference in student outcomes and achievement. This strengthens teachers’ commitment to working collaboratively with their peers and improving their instruction to meet students’ needs.
Knowing that they can bring any instructional challenges to their colleagues and receive help in addressing the concerns is very affirming for teachers. Equally important is having an opportunity to share and learn from colleagues’ successes with instructional practices that were discussed in a PLC meeting, and incorporating the strategies into their repertoire of teaching skills. Moreover, teachers use such collaborative opportunities to adjust instruction and improve teaching in the classroom.
All of this leads to teachers developing a sense of accountability for their work, as others in the PLC are holding them accountable. Having a team to rely on for support is crucial as teachers are presented with instructional challenges.
Creating an atmosphere of trust
Sharing information about techniques can be discomforting to educators accustomed to closing their doors. Don’t overlook the shifts necessary to help teachers move from a culture of isolation to a culture that promotes a true collaborative learning organization.
Trust can be defined as a willingness to be vulnerable to another based on the confidence that the other is benevolent, honest, open, reliable, and competent.
Start by sharing thoughts unrelated to teaching practices. Encourage teachers to form a book club, or a discussion group about a teaching topic. Sharing opinions in a trusting setting will help your teachers open up to discussing more. Encourage your teachers to pair up and observe each other’s classes. These visits are not meant to lead to judgment, but rather comfort in having others observe their teaching practices.
Administrator support is required to be clear that the goal of PLCs is collaboration and not competition. School leaders must model and maintain trusting relationships in all that they do and develop the conditions where teachers can be vulnerable with one another. This way, teachers will be more open to engaging in the kinds of professional conversations that get them to reflect deeply on their teaching. The goal should be to support the teachers, and hence students, throughout the entire process.
During the first meeting of each PLC, the group should work together to set ground rules. These should be general expectations that will help build an open and inquiry-oriented community, instead of narrow “rules”. Each group should develop their own rules, but consider the following to get the group started:
- Develop an ethic of sharing. There should be plenty of room for everyone. PLCs are not a zero-sum game where if one person gets time, energy, or commitment another loses it. Develop an ethic of commitment, as well, sharing your time, energy and resources for the good of the group. Everyone (including you) will benefit.
- It is OK to question. Asking why, asking for evidence (“how do you know that?”), and the like are not personal challenges. Questioning is the hallmark of an inquiry approach. There is no learning without wondering.
- Having others in your classroom is OK. Peer observation will give you a “second pair of eyes” to look at what you are doing. Peer observation will help verify your successes and provide feedback for practices that could be improved. Peer observation should be done in a nonjudgmental fashion.
- Do not say “I already do that” as a first response. For example, teachers often say they already share their learning targets with students, or give clear feedback, and the like. It is a matter of inquiry to what extent students do understand learning targets and feedback, and to what extent such practices can be improved or more tailored to specific student needs. The first response, to any topic, should be “Let’s see what we can find out about that.”
- Arriving at meetings on time and prepared
- Remain focused on the task at hand and avoid distractions
- Openly sharing successes and challenges
- Commit to using the learning from PLC meetings in their classrooms
The ground rules that each PLC decides upon should be used by teachers to monitor their own actions. School leaders should assist by regularly attending PLC meetings and conducting classroom walkthroughs to observe how decisions made in PLC meetings are implemented in the classroom.
During these classroom visits, school leaders should focus on gathering evidence that the teacher is using previously agreed upon instructional practices and that students have a clear understanding of what they are expected to learn and be able to do. The members of the PLC should immediately debrief after a classroom visit. They should work with school leaders to identify the things that were going well, as well as the areas for improvement based on their observations.
A report should be developed in collaboration with the school leadership team. This can be used to give teachers individual feedback, and to present a summary of observations made across the school. This report should recommend action steps to be implemented before a certain date. Once finalized, this report should be shared with the members of the PLC, with the assurance that the information will only be used to monitor progress made toward the effective implementation of PLCs and not as an evaluative tool.
When to involve outside help
During PLC discussion, complex situations may come up that can be difficult to resolve internally. A consultant with a broader perspective or a school administrator may be useful to invite to a PLC meeting to moderate the discussion and provide input. This consultant can also be used to train teachers to facilitate the PLCs.
The ultimate goal of a PLC
Remember that the ultimate goal of a PLC is learning! As each PLC works to improve their professional practice, teacher development will happen naturally, by giving each teacher a group of peers to turn to for advice.
Technology can often help PLC’s structure and aid the conversations, by aligning daily use of technology, the team can have productive conversations especially controversial topics such as assessments. Having healthy disagreements is a good thing, as this will drive the group discussion. Different approaches will work better in different situations, so even though there may be initial disagreement, each idea brought forward can be potentially useful later on.
Chapter FiveChoosing the Right Technology for Your School