Professional Learning Communities

One School on Its Way

R. John Waterhouse

As an elementary school principal, I embraced the Professional Learning Communities (PLC) concept as though it were a kindred spirit. Over the past two years, PLC has been a beacon of clarity and has refreshed teachers' feelings of purpose and efficacy in the midst of what has otherwise been a desolate environment.

Throughout my career as an educator, I have sought to create conditions and practices to systemically support teachers' efforts to improve student learning and professionalize teacher practice. The PLC framework seems to have brought most, if not all, of these conditions and practices together in a way that leads to transformational growth in teacher professionalism and recognizes this growth as an essential element of sustained improvement in student learning. Avondale teachers expressed similar thoughts about the direction our school was taking:

The professional learning community experience for me has been more positive than words can say. It is everything that has always felt like the right thing to do in regards to teaching but now I have been given the time, support and assistance to do it.—Nancy Gorgichuk, Grade 4 teacher

Prior to the arrival of the professional learning communities concept, Avondale Elementary had developed a school culture that was fertile ground for systemic change and professional growth. Collaborative decision making, open communication and cyclical school improvement processes were already in place. Two keystones of our school culture were the commitment to professional development and the time to work collaboratively. We now see how essential these keystones are to a school that intends to adopt the PLC model, and we are fortunate that these things were so developed before we formally moved towards becoming a PLC. With these things in place, the framework of a PLC was almost a natural progression that pulled everything together in a comprehensive and systemic approach to improve student learning.

So what changed by implementing a PLC? Well, we did for starters. Through shared experiences that included readings, discussions and formal professional-development activities, we came to understand that we would combine our mission, vision and values into a collective commitment. These commitments are now the guiding principles we use to ensure concordance between our espoused direction and our actions. It is not necessary to undertake the often lengthy process of revisiting or rewriting the school's mission statement. The indispensable foundation is to focus on learning, not teaching, and this requires that teachers believe that professional practice will be the key element in quality student learning.

The paradox in this approach is that, at first glance, the average teacher will likely consider it unrealistic and burdensome and will fear that teachers will be unfairly held accountable for things over which they have little control. The reality, however, is that PLC has proven to be liberating and professionally affirming. A Grade 2 teacher at Avondale expressed it this way:

For me, being involved in a professional learning community has resulted in a shift of focus with dramatic results. Quite simply, before embarking upon the PLC journey, I was concentrating my efforts on teaching and now I am much more concerned about student learning. Although it is difficult to separate the two, they are very different. I now think much more critically about what my students really need to learn and, frankly, how will I know that they have learned something? The really big step in the PLC model is the question of what to do if students have not learned a concept.—Sandy Bakos, Grade 2 teacher

Three questions, inspired by DuFour and Eaker (1998), have guided most of our activities to date:

  1. What do we expect students to learn?
  2. How will we know if students have learned it?
  3. What will we do if students have not learned it?

Although these questions seem so simple and every school could claim to have the answers, critically focusing on these questions with the goal of improving student learning taxes the best professional minds. This is especially true in light of time restraints, lack of resources, the pressure of curriculum expectations and getting results, and, of course, student variables.

Avalon teachers started to question the status quo and to think out of the box. They re-examined curriculum guides to decide which objectives, both specific and general, could be integrated across subject areas, which needed more instructional emphasis and which might not require formal instruction because they were covered in daily routines or informal instruction. Teachers then reviewed unit plans to ensure that time was spent on instruction that achieved expected outcomes as opposed to time spent on fun activities that possibly lacked the required focus. The critical examination of curriculum in light of what we expect students to learn resulted in a revision of many unit plans and a much clearer focus on learning outcomes. In many cases, activities were modified so that, in the end, more time became available to spend on what students need to learn. A teacher with over 20 years' experience teaching Grade 1 expressed it this way:

Our sharing and planning are more focused. What do we want kids to learn? How will we know if they have or have not learned it? What will we do if they have not? These three questions help to focus our planning so that we don't just end up with 101 cutesy things to do. The activities match the outcomes planned in our year plans.—Megan Mackey, Grade1 teacher

Another teacher with similar experience shared her feelings as follows:

I have to admit to having fallen into the trap of focusing on what I taught. I have felt renewed as I shifted to concentrating on what students learn. In order to do this, there had to be an emphasis on quality assessment. I am assessing much more often and the assessments my grade-level partner and I have developed are narrower and can be used to identify particular weaknesses within a concept. For example, a student may have had a satisfactory overall result in the fractions test but performed poorly when identifying a fraction as part of a set. These assessments allow us to more accurately diagnose student difficulties.—Connie Peters, Grade 2 teacher

We have already seen the improvement in student learning that is directly attributable to questioning past practice and approaching our professional practice using the PLC model.

With a much more professional approach to teaching, clarity of curriculum, focused planning, diagnostic assessment and intervention strategies, it is imperative that teachers have the time to work together collaboratively. Making time for collaboration is the single most important structural change that must happen if the PLC model is to be successful. However, I strongly urge administrators and school districts not to increase the length of the teacher's day or the school year to accommodate the need for collaborative time.

At Avondale Elementary, we looked comprehensively at everything we were doing and, in questioning the status quo, put everything on the table without violating collective agreements or teachers' trust. As we started looking at the timetable, we found that a few minor adjustments facilitated all our grade-level pairings that had common preparation time. For example, we backed physical education to music and library blocks. When inverted for the grade-level partner, the schedules matched up perfectly. Then we looked at weekly routines and found that we could make better use of teacher time and, by doing so, create more collaborative opportunities. For example, buddy reading programs did not always need two supervising teachers; weekly or bi-weekly library book exchanges did not require teacher instruction and could be conducted by other personnel. We also examined the intervention strategies we had been employing for students who were struggling. For years we had been using a resource-room model. By rethinking and adjusting past practice and habits, we were able to provide teachers with time to collaborate and devise intervention strategies for individual or small groups of students in addition to the preparation time they had always had. We were able to timetable all Grades 1–3 classes with uninterrupted instructional time every morning. Teachers now have the flexibility to teach subjects at the same time, team-teach and regroup students for instruction, intervention or remediation. We have been able to schedule the former resource-room teacher to different grade levels for specified times in the day or even for months of the year. This has given teachers far more flexibility in meeting students' learning needs. Our commitment is to examine everything we do at any time in light of the learning needs that the students present in a given year.

Much has been done; much remains to be done. As with any significant and sustainable change in the educational process, much depends on hard work and continued effort. We are heartened by the improvement in student learning that teachers are attributing to our PLC initiative and the affirmation that teachers are feeling as they continue to experience both professional and personal growth through the process. As one teacher noted:

Being part of the journey toward becoming a Professional Learning Community at Avondale School has been a personally rewarding, renewing and exciting experience. I feel more professional in my approach to students, curriculum, materials, my colleagues and the public. I know I am valued, valuable and validated, and that makes every school day a gift not a grind. We are on the road but we are not there yet. It is a developmental process that needs constant tending to refine what is working well to make it even better.
Professional Learning Communities require taking calculated risks based on research and best practices, then honing and trimming the edges to make them fit your school. Trust in your own abilities, trust your colleagues to support you, trust your desire to make a difference in the lives of children, then do it. I have found that striving for and demanding excellence of myself has become a way of "being" and it feels great!—Paula Anderson, librarian and Grade 6 teacher

When all the professional changes exemplified by our collective commitments are supported by structural changes such as creating collaboration time and flexibility for teachers, teachers attain at least some of the necessary conditions for professionalism. While we continue to be plagued with all of the woes of underfunding, moving along the PLC continuum has re-awakened a professionalism that has transformed us. We are already seeing the benefits to the student learning and in our growth as professional educators. We do not feel that we are there yet, but we certainly are on our way.

Reference

Dufour, R. and R. Eaker. Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement. Bloomington, Ind.: National Educational Service, 1998.

R. John Waterhouse is principal of Avondale Elementary School in Grande Prairie, Alberta.