The Reflective Principal: Thanks to Our PLC, I Can RIP

By Carolyn Carter Miller
Principal, March/April 2013

After reading myriad books and articles about professional learning com­munities (PLCs) over the years, it dawned on me recently that I’ve never read anything about one valid reason to invest the time and energy to establish PLCs in your schools: Retirement!

I retired this spring after serving 19 years as principal of my tiny elementa­ry school. At some point, we all come to the realization that our work at our current assignment is done, and we are ready to move on to our next challenge. Though I was nervous that the school would come crashing down after my departure, it’s doing well. Now, the strength of our PLC journey has become unmistakably evident, validating my years of work.

Divided School
In 1993, I assumed the principal­ship of the smallest school in a large suburban school system. There was so much division at the school, I felt like I was moving between two separate worlds. The school was neatly divided between the bus riders and the walkers. The bus riders came from the most affluent area in the county. Most of these students had attended nursery schools and pre­schools, had an abundance of books in their homes, and went on great vacations every summer, often out of the country. These children were assigned to the best teachers in the school, and the teachers felt account­able to their very visible parents that these children were challenged and successful in school. The walkers, on the other hand, came from an apart­ment complex, Section 8 subsidized rental houses, and single-level cottage homes. In many of these homes, English was not the primary language, and activities that support school suc­cess were limited. The least effective teachers in the school taught these students. Unfortunately, because the parents of these students generally did not question the teachers about grades or learning expectations, these teachers had become comfortable with poor teaching.

The school culture supported the idea that students came to us as suc­cesses or failures, and we had little to do with student achievement. Some grade levels only had one teacher working in isolation. Classroom assignments were often based on teacher friendships and failed to sup­port collaboration and teaming.

PLC Built on Shared Vision
My first challenge was to get everyone to accept a shared vision: nothing less than high levels of learning for all. Only then could we begin the neces­sary steps to inspire teachers to work as part of a collaborative team with common goals and shared values about students and learning. We attacked the problem by forming verti­cal teams and multi-age classes. Once this was accomplished, we were ready to begin the journey to become an authentic, functioning PLC.

From the beginning of our jour­ney, we used the four essential PLC questions to guide our work: What do we expect our students to learn? How will we know they are learning? How will we respond when they don’t learn? How will we respond if they already know it?

We unpacked standards and wrote our schoolwide power standards. Thereby, as grade-level teams, we agreed unequivocally about what we wanted our students to learn. Over the years, we moved from power stan­dards to curriculum maps and pacing guides. Since collaboration became a norm and not a choice, every teacher knew what every student in their grade level was expected to learn and be able to do.

Today, teachers use common assess­ments as one tool to evaluate whether their students have learned. These for­mative assessments are administered several times a quarter, and results are analyzed as a team. Teachers use five-minute quizzes and checks at the end of lessons to get immediate feedback about who “got it” and who did not. Report card grades reflect how well students have met the stan­dards and do not include classroom participation, homework completion, extra credit, or other information that could skew the evaluation. Homework assignments are used to practice, enrich, and assess student understand­ing of what is being taught, and to help pinpoint areas of confusion.

What do we do when students haven’t learned or already know what is being taught? Intervention and enrichment are the answers. Time for intervention and enrichment has been built into the daily schedule. In our “all hands on deck” approach, spe­cialists provide interesting extension and enrichment, which affords the classroom teachers time to work with students having difficulties. Our pyra­mid of intervention identifies those students who need more time than the daily whole school intervention block, and they receive additional sup­port, usually with the reading or math specialists. These students often need remediation to address learning gaps before the intervention has any value.

A Solid Foundation
I recently met with the new principal, who excitedly shared what he has observed about how well the school functions as a PLC. He attended team meetings, read team notes, and reviewed their planning docu­ments. He listened to teachers discuss students by name and need. He watched as the students interacted with the teachers and other adults they encountered with respect and the energy that comes when students know they are cared for and that expectations for them are high. I left that meeting knowing that he will have his own vision but that he will also continue to build on the solid PLC foundation we have put in place over the past 19 years.

After taking time for personal reflection, I am proud of where we are on the PLC continuum and I know the school will thrive. Most importantly, the students will continue to achieve at high levels. Now I can really enjoy my retirement, and, in a sense, I can “rest in peace” after a job well done.

Carolyn Carter Miller is a retired Fairfax County, Virginia, principal.


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