Building PLCs that work: Part I
January 02, 2020
So, you're thinking about starting a PLC at your school? Whether you're an administrator looking for innovative solutions, or a teacher looking to increase collaboration among your peers, this series will serve as your guide to starting your own PLC.
What is a PLC?
Broadly, professional learning communities (PLCs) exist to provide in-house professional development opportunities for teachers. The model itself has existed for several decades1; however, more than ever, schools and teachers are starting to see the benefits of choosing PLCs over traditional professional development opportunities.
While the term was popularized in the early 2000s, PLCs have taken on new life in recent years with the advent of several new technologies. Where PLCs were once limited to the geographic confines of a school or district, with new collaboration and communication tools, PLCs can reach across the globe and connect similarly-minded teachers in ways that weren't before possible.
Services like Slack2 and Microsoft Teams3 have transformed the way coworkers communicate and collaborate. These services are built around transparency, ease-of-use, and fun user interfaces with a great user experience. They have built-in features for file-sharing, video conferencing, and are designed to not only keep everyone on the same page, but have fun while doing it.
Because of these technical advances, PLCs can really take on any shape the members choose. For an in-house PLC, expect to have anywhere from seven to nine teachers together on a regular basis. We'll go into more detail later about what these meetings will look like, but - despite technology - teachers will need time together to collaborate. For PLCs that aren't limited by geography, the internet is your oyster! If you're a Microsoft school, we recommend getting set up with Teams (which is free with your subscription). If you're a Google school or are platform-agnostic, try Slack out. It's free, too and - for those that dabble in development - is easily customized with third-party features that integrate with tons of services or your own scripts!
Why a PLC?
Have you ever been to an education conference? One of those multi-day affairs with bad coffee, long lines, and that one speaker on that one topic you really want to see. The rest? You could take or leave. The benefit of PLCs is that the entire life-cycle of the group is built around whatever that one theme is that interests teachers. Instead of getting a 90-minute lecture from a speaker at a conference, teachers spend the entire year diving deep into what motivates them.
While it may not be everyone's favorite thing to admit, one of the primary considerations - especially for administrators - in seeking professional development is cost. For the sake of argument, let's pretend we have a PLC of eight teachers. For conference registration, flights, hotel rooms, meals, and transportation, the bill could easily be over $15,000. The cost of running a PLC for an entire year is around *$2,500\*.
Teachers who are a part of the PLC own the entire process. This investment in both the design of the PLC and its outcome is an important factor in holding members' attention and keeping them engaged for an entire year. The mantra "it's a marathon, not a sprint" should be ingrained in each and every member.
Often overlooked, one of the greatest benefits of a PLC is the modeling teachers are exhibiting for their students. While the occasional conference session is built as a "workshop" or attendees are given the opportunity to follow along with a presenter, PLCs are the embodiment of active learning. As a co-worker and fellow PLC member of mine says, "the person doing the work is the person doing the learning."
By this point, I hope you're excited and thinking of all the different areas you want to research and collaborate on next year. However, it's important to have a clear picture of what the road should resemble going forward. In the remainder of this article, we'll grasp the first few steps in the planning process.
Pick an observable, measurable area of research
Can you see it and make notes on it? Is there a way of collecting and sharing empirical data? Excellent, you've got a topic for your PLC. The old adage attributed to Abraham Lincoln about sharpening his axe for four of six hours applies here: take your time in laying the foundation and your group will function effectively all year.
Pick the right people
Will you ruffle some feathers? Yes. Will it be worth it? Again, yes. Selecting like-minded people who are not only capable, but also enjoy working together is a huge factor in the success of a PLC. Some guidelines to follow: first, consider any larger PD goals your school has. Is there anyone that needs to be a part of your PLC? If so, make sure they're not only included but also feel like they've been sought after.
Set your outcomes
What do you want the PLC to achieve? What deliverables are expected at Q1, S1, end-of-year? These benchmarks will serve as pacing guides and help keep your marathon on-pace. Bloom's taxonomy is a great tool to use here; not only is this appropriate modeling for our students - and other teachers in designing outcomes - but it also gives the PLC accountability to reach these targets.
Set your roles
In reality, this should probably be the first thing on this sub-list. However, it's at the end for a bit more dramatic effect: each PLC needs at least one facilitator (if you're reading this, guess what...). If you have two people willing to do the job, consider one the facilitator and one the "concierge." I like to frame the job of the facilitator as the bumpers on the gutters at a bowling alley: this person's job is simply to keep things on-track and redirect the group when necessary.
The concierge is responsible for all the logistics: subs for studio days, organizing meals, documents, and shared spaces for meetings.
Can one person do both of these? Yes; however, the concierge role has a considerable amount of work and should be given to someone who is supremely organized.
In part II of our PLC series, we'll look at how to structure the group, what a school-year will look like, and what you'll be doing together. Until next time!
This is the seminal text in organizing group-learning. If you're interested in learning more about PLCs and considering what approach to take, this is the text that started it all.
2 - Slack
Slack is a great piece of collaboration software. This post was originally written before the interruption due to COVID-19, but is relevant now more than ever!
3 - Microsoft Teams
Already in the Microsoft ecosystem? Forget Slack and go for Teams instead.