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Professional Learning Communities: What They Are & What They Are Not

Professional Learning Communities: What They Are & What They Are Not

Jeri Asaro

In education, as in many professions, the years become filled with the “next best thing,” and often, those ideas fade away over time or morph into something else. Since the turn of the 21st Century, the concept of Professional Learning Communities has been on the rise in United States and throughout the world. What is a Professional Learning Community? Is it the next best thing? What do you, as an educator, need to know?

If you are an advocate of change and growth, and see education as a learning profession for both teachers and students, then Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are positive additions to our world! Education is transforming quickly, and in a big way. From Block Scheduling to Tele-collaborative Projects, from Discovery Learning to Authentic Assessment there are always new theories to study. How can PLCs ease the pain of those continual updates? In the past, teaching was considered by many to be an isolating profession. When you wanted to learn something new, you were on your own to take a class or read-up on the topic. Turn-keying information most often occurred through memos and emails rather than face-to-face discussions. In the past, as teachers, we spent all of our days with students except for that brief lunch period, where we met with peers and talked about anything else — but school. You may still be experiencing this conventional form of teaching in your school district, but PLCs can change that situation for you. PLCs remove that isolation. You now have an audience with whom to share something new or develop a great idea. Offering opinions and thoughts, and open discussion help teachers take ownership of the latest and greatest idea. Whether in our schools or through professional organizations or online collaboration, we now have a chance to talk collectively, about our life’s work, with others who share the same goals and expectations — our colleagues.

The 2002 book for educators, Getting Started: Reculturing Schools to Become Professional Learning Communities™ by DuFour, DuFour, and Eaker, carried this idea to the forefront of educational initiatives. These experts on the topic define PLCs to be, "Educators, committed to working together, using processes of inquiry, problem-solving, and reflection become a professional learning community. A PLC is a team or group of educational professionals working interdependently to achieve a common goal for which members hold themselves mutually accountable. " Let me try to break this down for you.

What is a Professional Learning Community?

The PROFESSIONAL is you, the educator. Teachers are at the heart of PLCs. It is an initiative that allows teachers to have a say in what we do for students every day. In a school setting, a PLC can include anyone who can assist in the goal set by the teacher group, from administrators to custodians, from personal aides to guidance counselors. However, primarily — the professionals are the teachers. We are making the decisions and coordinating the plans. At a district or school level, the general goals may come down through the administration; however, the processes used to carry out the goals are designed by the teachers. Top-down directives are limited. No longer does the administration dictate the HOW. When working with a professional organization or an interactive website, the general goals and expectations are set by us. In all cases, we are the experts in our field, many of us with advanced training. We possess the specialized knowledge to do our job! Our job is to be the successful educators of our students. PLCs are the perfect way to push forward that goal.

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To prepare our students for the challenges of their future, we understand that we, as adults, also need to continue LEARNING. Remaining up-to-date in our craft and results-oriented in our goals means we need to have professional development time where we can join forces in getting our jobs done. Teachers as “life-long learners” is emphasized. Embedded and interactive professional development are part of the PLC mix. Not only are teachers continuing to learn, but our students’ learning will be improved by the new strategies, programs, and best practices we share with each other.

When PROFESSIONALS are LEARNING together and collaborating with each other on a regular basis, with common goals and purposes, they develop into a COMMUNITY (a systematic arrangement for a definite purpose — Oxford Dictionary). A community may include a facilitator, each member may take turns being the organizer, or each member may take an equal role. Often, PLCs occur as part of a school’s schedule, but they are also available through various organizations and can even be found online. A community may meet daily as part of the school’s schedule, or weekly at an afterschool meeting, or monthly using voluntary time, but a PLC will have scheduled meetings. These regular meetings have a specific focus or set of focuses. If meeting daily, the PLC will likely be multi-faceted, but if meeting monthly, the PLC may have only one focus, like Social and Emotional Learning or Data-driven Instruction. There are common PLC set-ups found in schools. At the high school level, PLCs are often based on the subject matter taught by the group of teachers. While, at the middle school level, PLCs may be a team of teachers which includes all core subjects, but whom share the same group of students. But, these schedule or subject driven PLCs are not the only way to get started. The idea is to find the commonality among the teachers in the group. The community shares a specific vision, often developed by the group. In a school setting, the vision is most often based on the school/district objectives. In all cases, the community decides on its own values, and sets their individual goals based on those values. It joins forces to achieve the goals, and most importantly, reflects upon and reports the findings when the job is completed.

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