Professional Learning Communities: A Kaleidoscope of Opportunities

A kaleidoscope contains mirrors and colored glass, pebbles, or beads whose reflections create complex patterns of frequently changing colors and shapes when rotated. The vibrant and intricate images, generated by separate entities working collaboratively, is similar to a highly functioning professional learning community (PLC). In such groups, professionals work collaboratively to enhance their practice in order to enact responsive pedagogy and address complicated sets of circumstances.

Yet, creating and sustaining an effective PLC is challenging. The nature of a school faculty is a combination of members who come and go along with others who change grade levels or content areas. These changes in faculty present challenges in trying to maintain a highly functioning PLC while also addressing the needs of young adolescents. However, these personnel changes present opportunities to learn from and consider new ideas and multiple perspectives.

My experiences working with one particular PLC at Ridgeview Charter School (RCS), an International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme School located outside of Atlanta, Georgia, provided insights into how this group of teachers formed and nurtured their community as well as the diverse types of experiences in which they participated to develop continually. Their experiences may benefit others who strive to develop and sustain this important type of community.

Supporting PLCs

The sixth grade teachers in this PLC believe that having structures, policies, time, and a designated room for meetings is instrumental to the success of their PLC. For example, PLC meeting times at RCS are scheduled within one-half of the double block of daily planning time. Each day of the week has a specific focus:

Mondays and Tuesdays: Parent and student conferencing with the entire team or individual teachers.

Wednesdays: Grade level time for the redelivery of important information or professional learning.

Thursdays: Grade level content area PLC meetings.

Fridays: Interdisciplinary team meeting times to discuss specific or general student concerns.

Assigning different focus topics throughout the week helps to ensure that a variety of interests and issues are regularly discussed and examined.

The designated PLC room is designed to facilitate discussions as well as encourage collaboration, discovery, and creativity. These ideals are promoted by equipping and stocking the room with an LCD projector, data reports, printer, computer, six large white boards, posters, tables, and even a healthy foods snack machine and Keurig coffee machine to provide professionals with easy access to necessary supplies.

Members of this PLC state that collaborating three times weekly during common planning time in a designated space enriches their teaching, which directly impacts their students’ development. One teacher, Yvonnia Henderson, stated that the most meaningful work comes from the “collaboration among teachers—the sharing of successes and areas for improvement as it relates to lesson plans and student performance; being reminded each week that you are not alone and there is support when needed.”

Developing and Fostering Community

Cultivating a PLC takes a great deal of time and effort. However, members of this PLC understand how their development is directly connected to their practice and the students with whom they work.

A fellowship has developed among PLC members as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, content, and goals. This camaraderie is also strengthened by their diverse backgrounds and multiple perspectives.

This community bond develops over time from combined efforts, voice, and ownership in their work. These relationships require attention and care; like any meaningful relationship, common understandings and norms must be established and revisited.

The five norms that guide the work of this PLC include: (1) Keep it positive; (2) Respect time; (3) Be respectful; (4) Use electronics respectfully and responsibly; and (5) Put students first.

Being a source of support for one another is an essential element because our work as educators can be challenging and complex. Helen Panos, a veteran teacher and first year PLC member, noted that the collaborative spirit and strong relationships of this group did “not all happen without challenges.” While Mary Kathleen Sweet expanded by adding, “Being able to collaborate with my coworkers has given me new ideas and new approaches to teaching, new strategies, and a built-in support system within the sixth grade and my content area. Everyone brings something unique to the table, and each member can learn a lot from each other.”

New Members

What happens when a new colleague becomes a member of an established PLC? How can PLCs continue to thrive and remain influential? It is helpful to revisit and discuss the previously established common understandings, norms, and goals of the PLC in order to help new members develop familiarity with practices and become contributing members of the PLC.

When a new member joined this PLC, the group continued its journey with the goals of ongoing professional development to help students succeed. They also committed to analyzing and using data to make informed decisions. New colleagues—whether new to the profession, the school, or the PLC—benefit from the support and mentoring of PLC colleagues.

Emilie Franz joined this sixth grade PLC after spending 17 years as an eighth grade teacher. Emilie expressed appreciation for her PLC colleagues in helping her learn about “the developmental differences between sixth and eighth grade students and the new content.”

Using Protocols to Enhance Professional Development

This PLC participates in a range of professional development experiences to enhance their practice and student learning. Group members use protocols to guide their work as they engage in a variety of experiences (e.g., peer observations, co-planning, analysis of student work). Protocols provide logical approaches that encourage critical conversations and reflective thinking. The School Reform Initiative website is a useful resource where you can access a variety of protocols:

Sustainability and Success

The shared experiences and work of the PLC helped members develop as teachers, learners, and leaders. The PLC at RCS attributes their success to: (1) the series of ongoing professional learning experiences in which they participate; (2) the support they receive from administrators; (3) the structures and policies of the school; and (4) the relationships with their dedicated colleagues.

Long-term success of a PLC requires a supportive school environment and educators who value professional learning and understand the connection between their development and student success.

As members of this PLC continue their efforts to improve their practice, they strive to transform and reinvent themselves to help students develop in positive, meaningful ways. By working together in purposeful efforts to improve their practice, these teachers are engaged in helping students develop in positive, meaningful ways.