In teacher education and development, much of the focus is on classroom practices, toolkits, strategies, curriculum mapping, and so on. Less of the focus shines light on teachers themselves as communicators, even though they communicate daily with their students, administrators, colleagues, parents, and community members. (See Wong-Fillmore and Snow, 2000, for a discussion of the many roles of teachers). As a teacher educator, one skill that I feel we assume future and current teachers have is the ability to effectively collaborate.
Along these lines, a current trend in many schools is the creation of Professional Learning Communities (PLC). Some think that PLC is another program or curriculum idea, or a name for grade-level teams that share planning time, or even the larger school or institution. However, a more active, dynamic definition frames the PLC as an “ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve” (DuFour, DuFour,Eaker, & Many, 2006).
Provini (2012) calls PLCs “the most powerful professional development and change strategy available.” And while many PLC-type structures exist for in-service teachers, teacher educators still have the responsibility of providing teachers with opportunities to develop the skills they need to collaborate with the direction, focus, and authenticity they need to solve real-word issues in the classroom. Some key elements below will aid both current and future teachers in their roles as active, engaged members of PLCs.
Conduct “ice breaker” activities that build trust before beginning PLC-related activities, or even at the start of every PLC session. Just like they work for your students, these icebreakers can reduce stress, help individuals find common ground, eliminate tension, or even help people learn each others’ names and interests (personal or professional). These ice-breakers can also address shared values or behaviors that are necessary for PLC success.
Create scenarios that require problem-solving instead of using PLC time for traditional lesson planning or teacher-related business. A key feature of PLC settings is the opportunity to study an issue or problem, select a course of action, plan how that action will look/occur, implement the plan, analyze how well the plan went (or didn’t go), and adjust for future implementation (Provini, 2012). For in-service teachers, this is a little easier to do because real life presents many issues that need to be discussed. For preservice teachers, teacher educators might consider creating scenarios via text or video. Using scenarios with context pose a much more active process than traditional lesson planning or curriculum development, and positions teachers as active problem-solvers.
Group teachers by interest, content- and/or grade-level to mix up your participants. Many times teachers work in a grade- or proficiency-level team to tackle the scenarios mentioned above, but if you have one group of teachers interested in improving grammar instruction, and another interested in reading comprehension, let them work together across grade or content areas. This applies to the university level, too—instead of allowing students to work only with friends, structure collaborative groups with a purpose.
Shared time is necessary for teachers to engage in discussion and problem-solving. PLC time is not necessarily a time to discuss individual students, grading, or daily planning, but instead a time to consider larger issues surrounding professional development, greater student outcomes, and critical examination of what is working well and what could be improved. While some schools that use a PLC model might select a book to read to provoke thought and provide information, it’s important that the PLC activity doesn’t stop there. Teacher educators might also consider providing participants with a set of sentence starters or questions to keep conversation going in an academic, critically reflective fashion.
How does your school or institution use PLCs? Add comments or ideas for success in the comments section below!
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. (2006). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work (pp. 2–4). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Provini, C. (2012). Best practices for professional learning communities. Retrieved from http://www.educationworld.com/a_admin/best-practices-for-professional-learning-communities.shtml#sthash.6OoRcuiL.dpuf
Fillmore, L. W., & Snow, C. E. (2000). What teachers need to know about language (opinion paper). Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.