“If the goal is to increase student learning, one of the biggest mistakes education leaders can make is allowing teachers to work in isolation,” says Greg Kushnir in this All Things PLC article. “Traditional school cultures that leave a single teacher responsible for addressing all of the learning needs present in his or her classroom are a recipe for disaster.” Kushnir believes professional learning communities are the antidote, and he describes ten “cultural building blocks” that leaders must put in place for PLCs to be optimally effective:
- Clear communication – “Clarity precedes competence,” says Kushnir. “Too often school leaders make the mistake of organizing teachers into teams without spending the time to ensure that teachers understand the why, the how, and the what of a PLC culture.” Why professional learning communities? Because effective teacher teamwork is the key to getting all students to achieve at high levels. How do they work best? Teams with autonomy to make decisions about curriculum, assessment, intervention, and instruction develop intrinsic motivation because they have all of Daniel Pink’s key components: belonging, purpose, autonomy, and mastery. What does this look like? “All students,” says Kushnir, “not just the ones we like, the ones who are easy to teach, or the group of students who are currently successful. This has to be the driving force of the school’s work.” Some commitments that PLCs need to make for real impact:
- To collaborate at least an hour every week;
- To clarify the most important student learning outcomes;
- To create common interim and summative assessments;
- To collectively inquire and do action research;
- To use assessment data to guide next steps in instruction and intervention;
- To create systemic interventions that ensure extra time and support for all students.
How these commitments are expressed is important, says Kushnir: “The language of I and try must be replaced with we and will. The word try states an intention, not an action. The road to PLC failure is paved with good intentions. The word will is a commitment to action, and we means no one person is responsible for accomplishing our goals. Only through making collective commitments to actually change behavior will a culture develop in your school that actually increases student learning.”
- Commitment to the PLC process – Only by implementing the full professional learning community process will teams immerse themselves in “the difficult work of tackling the behaviors and practices that are getting in the way of continuous sustained improvement,” says Kushnir. “This is by no means easy work, and all schools that engage in the process can expect to encounter conflicts between what they are currently doing and what we know to be best practice.”
- Participation and shared responsibility – “Each member of your school community must understand how his or her work connects to the work of others and how important that work is to the success of the whole,” says Kushnir. That includes singleton teachers, educational assistants, office staff, custodians, and part-time employees. At the same time, school leaders need to refrain from micromanaging PLCs, giving them autonomy for day-to-day decisions. A leadership team should monitor the overall process and provide support and guidance as needed.
- Reciprocal accountability – “A team must develop a belief that if we are to accomplish our mission of learning for all, then we all have to work together,” says Kushnir. “In other words, I am counting on you and you are counting on me.” For this to happen, there must be a shared goal that serves as a constant reminder of the work in process and a way of checking in on whether the chosen approaches are working. Goals should include the specific area for improvement; the target date for completion; the desired level of student performance; and an assessment to see if the goal was accomplished.
- Relationships based on mutual respect – Some school leaders believe PLC members must like each other, but that’s unrealistic given the inevitable pushback and dissension that arise when educators confront long-established practices that aren’t producing results. “What matters,” says Kushnir, “is that each member of the team commits to achieving high levels of learning for all students, treats the other members with respect, and acts in a professional manner… [O]ne of the challenges to becoming a highly effective team is to develop a process for respectful disagreement, discussion, and decision making… Having a culture of respectful relationships means that each team member feels safe in acknowledging his or her weaknesses and mistakes and seeks the team’s help to improve.”
- Solution orientation – In an effective PLC, teachers “move past identifying the problem to relentlessly pursuing the solution,” says Kushnir. “Collectively finding solutions that help previously unsuccessful students is highly motivating and inspiring for teachers… Successfully working together to solve problems develops a belief that their work is making a difference and dramatically changes a staff’s outlook and attitude toward the art of the possible.” PLCs escape the frequent downside of teachers working in isolation – not being able to solve students’ learning problems, becoming frustrated, and blaming external factors for their students’ poor performance.
- Honesty – “Since the first step to solving any problem is to admit we have one, becoming a PLC means that schools must develop the capacity to find fault without blame,” says Kushnir. “Identifying areas for improvement must be embraced by teams as opportunities to learn how to improve their practice and help more students learn at high levels.” This is cushioned by making improvement, not perfection, the goal.
- Support – Teacher evaluation is not a high-value strategy for improving performance, says Kushnir. Carrot-and-stick, punish-and-reward management was developed for the low-level tasks of 19th-century factories, but it’s not well suited to the complex, creative work of classrooms. Teachers and PLCs will make mistakes, and “the path to improved student achievement will have peaks and valleys and a few bumps along the way,” he continues. What teachers need from their supervisors is understanding and support.
- Equity – Every day, teachers make decisions about instruction, assessment, and follow-up. When those decisions are made in isolation, a lot is left to chance variations in skill, knowledge, and repertoire. “While teachers are well meaning,” says Kushnir, “the result is an inequitable classroom experience for students from one classroom to the next within the same school.” High-functioning PLCs level the playing field for students by spreading effective practices and helping to eliminate pedagogy and materials that aren’t working.
- Celebration – “A gain, no matter how small, is still a gain,” concludes Kushnir. “PLCs recognize this fact, and as a result, they celebrate each success that moves them one step closer to accomplishing their shared goals. They understand that success breeds more success!”