Putting PLCs into Practice

As education continues to evolve, so must our practices as we lead learning communities. Here’s how one school tweaked its process to evaluate—and improve—its teacher-led professional learning communities.

Topics: Early Career Principals, Teacher Effectiveness

The principal role has become very dynamic over the past four years—especially for new school leaders. Through the pandemic, we’ve learned to navigate school leadership using previous knowledge and pivoting to meet new and emerging needs. We’ve had to continue practices that were sound while also moving work forward into the unknown of schooling. It’s been quite a journey.

The focus now is on the new normal, with practices focused on the need to impact student learning and improve school practices. Schools have been charged with filling in gaps in learning and being innovative and steadfast toward improving student achievement. And one practice that remains for achieving this is the work of professional learning communities (PLCs)—groups of faculty and staff who work together to ensure positive student outcomes.

 Year 1: Implementing a PLC

At an elementary school in the suburbs of a major city in southeast U.S., during the first school year after the return to face-to-face learning, we made several attempts to improve PLC practices. This is how we approached the process this first year—and what we learned from it.

  1. Connect with the district. We took advantage of the school district’s professional learning offerings, which were specifically designed for teacher leaders of PLC work. As the teacher leaders at the school all had a different amount of experience with participating and leading PLC work, this idea seemed to be promising. It would serve as a means to level-set knowledge, while using the resources and meeting expectations of the school district. Both school leaders and teacher leaders were trained on effective PLC practices. Over the course of three months, teacher leaders collaborated and learned from the Professional Learning department and began to implement relevant practices.
  2. Divide and conquer. Throughout that school year, the entire administrative team focused its energy on supporting PLC teams through a divide-and-conquer approach. We all attended PLC meetings and provided support as needed. This sometimes meant examining student work together, participating in a data protocol, or planning upcoming units.
  3. Assess progress. We also provided substitute teachers to free up entire teams for half-day planning opportunities. This provided teams with the time to plan upcoming units in reading or math. They also were able to complete much of the PLC cycle in advance of the next unit, which included discussing the standards, vocabulary, and even misconceptions. Teams also used planning time to take an end-of-unit assessment. This was done to backward design and prepare teachers for the types of assessment questions that students should have familiarity with. During these sessions, teachers also plotted out the number of days and weeks that would be spent on each standard throughout the unit to stay on track with the district’s assessment calendar.

We made progress that first year. We noticed an increase in teams using agendas appropriately and better collaborative efforts overall. However, there was room to grow. The growth areas included getting all teams to a level of consistency. Due to the differing levels of leadership experience, knowledge, and team dynamics, not all teams were as high-functioning as they needed to be. With a need to turn focus on student achievement and outcomes, we developed a path forward to continue the work into the next school year.

Year 2: Tweaking the PLC Process

This school year began with clearer understandings of overall expectations and the necessary practices for PLCs to work. With the challenges that face many schools already, we were set to continue the work that we started to strive for greater PLC work and success. One of the biggest challenges facing schools since the pandemic is staffing. Maintaining consistency with new team members and leaders proved difficult.

After gathering some feedback and brainstorming with the administrative team, we decided to tweak the process and do some things differently than we had before. Here’s how.

  1. Implement shared leadership. We designated specific leadership roles within each team. With this change, one leader would focus solely on leading PLC work, while the other leader would lead all other administrative duties for the team. Due to the amount of burnout associated with leading a team, this idea seemed to help with the division of duties and responsibilities.
  2. Create templates. We also improved the PLC process for teachers by creating a single PLC agenda template each team used. The template clearly outlined meeting expectations to achieve consistency among teams. We created a space where teams could pose questions and concerns for administrators, who then discussed the items and provided responses.
  3. Streamline file-sharing. We’ve provided a single place to hold all agendas to serve as resource for teams. It enabled teams to access previous agendas to examine earlier work and to determine the work of future sessions. It also served as a means of accountability. Team members can view assigned tasks and action items from previous meetings, and administration can also view the work of the team.

Most of the processes for this school year were extensions of the foundation that was put in place the previous school year. Much like teachers’ actions and practices can improve with feedback, we determined similar goals for PLC teams.

How to Improve Your PLC

How’d we do this? We started with following questions that led us to determine what would be most helpful to continue improving PLC work at the school:

  1. From a PLC team’s perspective, what are the characteristics of an effective PLC team?
  2. What specific supports are needed to improve PLC teams?
  3. What type of feedback for PLC teams can help improve practices?

To gather the necessary data, we used the following five methods:

  1. Interview. We conducted interviews with three PLC team leaders to determine PLC team leaders’ understanding of PLC teams and to determine the types of needs they have of their team.
  2. Observe. Using a co-constructed observation instrument, school instructional leaders observe PLC team meetings and collect observational data.
  3. Provide feedback. Via in-person meetings, the attending admin member provides feedback based on notes and considerations from PLC team meeting observation.
  4. Observe again to determine any changes in PLC work based on the feedback, as well as continued support of needs.
  5. Conduct post-interviews to reflect on the process.

Like any learning process this work is not nearly complete, but it is encouraging to witness the evolution of the work that is so important to student achievement. Our PLCs have proven valuable and effective for improving teacher practices and student outcomes. We plan to continue this process until all PLC teams at the school are operating at their best ability and student achievement soars as a result.

Hardray Dumas is principal of Hillside Elementary School in Roswell, Georgia.

 Kristina Brezicha is an associate professor of educational leadership at George State University.