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Is Your Professional Learning Community a Farce?

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Many schools now use Professional Learning Communities for teacher collaboration, but whether they all truly fit that description is up for debate.


This week’s post was written by Chase Mielke. the teacher behind the video What Students Really Need to Hear. Learn more about Chase at the end of this post.

 

Let’s play a game. It’s called EduLingo Bingo. It’s simple: Before a staff meeting or PD, make a blank bingo chart. Then fill in the blanks with words you predict your admin or the presenter will say. Keep it on the down-low, though, if you want to keep your job.

I recommend words like:

  • RTI
  • growth
  • rigor
  • differentiation
  • Common Core
  • college readiness
  • bell-to-bell
  • technology/1-to-1/flipped classroom
  • student-centered
  • and my personal favorite, PLC

There’s a reason I like EduLingo Bingo: It brings forward the idea that sometimes we use a concept to the point of abuse, hearing it twisted and turned so often that it no longer holds meaning and relevance. No place do I see this more than the concept of “Professional Learning Communities,” which are usually not: A) led by the professionals, B) full of learning, or C) run as communities.

As someone who has suffered pseudo-PLCs for years, it’s time I voice my frustrations, as well as offer suggestions for administrators on how to get the best out of their teachers and, in turn, the best out of their schools. In doing so, I hope to not only express my own discontent, but the discontent of thousands of teachers across the nation.

1. It’s not a PLC if we have no control.

The bastardization of true PLCs is occurring because teacher voice is often removed from the community. To put it in classroom terms, too many administrators treat PLCs more as homework than project-based learning. If you want us to simply do your bidding, call it a committee, not a PLC.

I can’t express the frustration I feel when our department aligns on something we truly think is affecting our students, only to hear, “No, we need you to focus your time on X” (where X = crash course diet approach to fixing a test score “crisis”).

Instead, trust us. Ask us what we think—what we know—will enhance student learning. You may be surprised how much we understand our own challenges. You may be surprised how much we naturally use data to support our beliefs. If we can’t agree on one thing, then yes, we may need some guidance. But let our passions, our talents, our expertise drive the process. “Trust” doesn’t mean you have to ignore our progress or avoid checking in. It means that we are talented professionals who know how to find, learn, and share worthwhile resources. We just need the freedom and time to do so.

To really provide freedom, ask us questions rather than giving us demands. Notice these two examples:

A) “You’ve said often that your curriculum maps aren’t always aligned. What would you need to align them?”

The above question tells us a few things: You have been listening to our frustrations, you care about our viewpoints, you recognize that we need resources, and you trust us.

Now look at this one:

B) “I noticed that your curriculum maps aren’t aligned. I’d like you to spend your PLC time aligning them.”

The second example leads us to think you may be helicoptering (and judging) our teaching, you are controlling our time, our needs and views are not as valuable as your needs and views, and we must do what you asked—you weren’t fooling anyone with that dainty “I’d like you to.”

One of THE most powerful things you can do for a PLC—for your teachers’ motivation—is ask us questions. Ask us what we need. Ask us how. Ask us why. And then set us loose.

2. It’s not a PLC just because we are reading the same book.

I get it. I read a book that I LOVE and think: “This is so great EVERYONE and his or her 8th cousin needs to read it!” But in my classroom, I shouldn’t subject kids to required reading just because I love it (otherwise my kids would be reading a LOT about neuroscience). I must consider my students’ needs, interests, and abilities first.

The same is true of PLC group reading. If you assign me something that is irrelevant or impractical, I will do what many students do: skim it just enough to make sure I can survive. It’s not that I’m closed minded; it’s that I have SO many readings in which I already find passion and purpose.

We are teachers because we love learning. We already have an unfathomable amount of books we’d like to read that would help us. And ten teachers reading the same book will not be nearly as fruitful as ten teachers reading different books on a similar topic. Ask us what we want to read—what we have already read—and allow us to synthesize the details. It’s what we do already, so give us the opportunity, time, and freedom to do it more effectively.

3. It’s not a PLC just because we are sitting together in a group.

There’s a myth that, if you place people into a group, they will automatically function well as a group. But you’ve been in a classroom that doesn’t have rules and structure. So don’t assume that a group will become high-performing simply because it consists of multiple people sharing a space. Real communities have norms, agreements, and rules. Some are unspoken and unwritten (e.g., I shouldn’t pee in my neighbor’s back yard). Others are written (e.g., It’s a law that I can’t light up the ‘hood with fireworks at 2 a.m.). We need both. We need agreements about our expectations and we need rules to hold us accountable.

We can create these guidelines ourselves after some clear modeling.

Please note: We shouldn’t spend more time talking about agreements and rules than we do actually learning.

Please note further: Writing them down and hanging them on the wall doesn’t mean we are using them.

Empower us to check in often about the community and to make our own adjustments as needed.

4. It’s not a PLC just because we are talking about standards or test scores.

My personal pet peeve. Yes, we understand why test scores matter. Yes, we understand the importance of using data to drive instruction (and trust us, we already do this). But when you assign us test scores to “unpack” it feels like you are saying, “Hey, I don’t have time to do this, so will you do it for me?”

And the summative data we get from state tests often isn’t as helpful as the formative data we are collecting daily. I already know that my students are struggling with “making textual inferences on persuasive nonfiction.” I don’t need the one SAT question on standard R3.52.9-10.C3PO to tell me what’s wrong. I need my colleagues to help me find solutions to fix it.

We understand that state test scores have a far-reaching impact on our enrollment, our reputation, and our jobs. But in the process of “chasing” summative tests (many of which drastically change each year), we lose our focus on what matters. So think more formatively than summatively. Let us focus on our formative data to enhance quality student learning, not quality student testing.

5. It’s not a PLC if we never act.

PLCs are like a group scientific process, and the scientific process doesn’t work without an actual experiment. So much of our PLC time is spent talking about trying things rather than actually trying them. Give us the freedom, the opportunity, and most of all the safety to try new strategies we’ve discussed in our PLC. It’s been said before, “Students take risks when teachers take risks. Teachers take risks when administrators take risks.” Are you willing to risk with us?

 

So remember, we don’t always need a new book, a state-test data analysis, or a fancy packaged program to improve our abilities. We need time. We need trust. We need to be treated as professionals. If you do these three things, BINGO! You will have professionals engaged in learning through a supportive community: a true PLC. ♦

 

 

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Chase Mielke

Chase Mielke

Blogger at Affective Living
Chase Mielke is a knowledge junkie who happens to have a love affair with teaching. He is an instructional coach and high school English, Psychology, and Communication teacher in Plainwell, Michigan and facilitates educational training for The Quantum Learning Network. When he's not teaching, he fantasizes about old libraries and fresh Expo Markers.
Chase Mielke

Latest posts by Chase Mielke (see all)

Chase Mielke

Chase Mielke is a knowledge junkie who happens to have a love affair with teaching. He is an instructional coach and high school English, Psychology, and Communication teacher in Plainwell, Michigan and facilitates educational training for The Quantum Learning Network. When he's not teaching, he fantasizes about old libraries and fresh Expo Markers.

22 Comments

    • This post resonated with me in a BIG way. I have been in a bunch of PLC’S and every one was a time waster, or took autonomy from the teachers involved. I LOVE learning and in the name of all that is hy would just ONCE like to be in one where I grew more through the effort to collaborate than by working on my own. Thanks for affirming that what I was exposed to is not supposed to be the norm. Some days I feel like I live in the Truman Show for teachers. Smh. Thanks for giving me HOPE for something better!!

      • Wouldn’t that be nice…to do the kind of learning you’re really passionate about from within your PLC, rather than in addition to it? I hope to find models of best practices for PLCs, so administrators who may not be nurturing effective PLCs can start steering things in a healthier direction. Thanks for commenting, Tamara.

      • I totally get where you’re coming from. I often just tolerated collaboration, instead of really thriving as a result. I couldn’t wait to just get back to my own room and actually get something accomplished. If anyone is aware of some best practices for setting up and maintaining PLCs, please add a link to these comments!

  1. My school district started having PLCs around ten years ago. The PLCs started off focusing in on data and student learning but some of the meetings are now administration-driven. I think there’s so much potential in using PLCs. How do you see the role of PLCs and school administration?

    • Matt,

      I think a lot of administrators are working under the model they’re used to, where departments and teams carry out the initiatives from above. A name change doesn’t guarantee a change in approach. I think the key to real change in how PLCs operate is for administrators to see other models in action, to see it being done well in other districts. Sometimes you have to see it to really understand how it works. This video from the Teaching Channel shows a group of teachers using the Critical Friends approach. Watching it, I see true collaboration in action. More models like this, with a structured protocol in place, might convince administrators that real, substantive work CAN happen without micromanagement.

  2. Excellent article. Thank you for writing it. I think this is representative of the larger problem of a lack of seriousness with which people approach things. I’m often called cynical or a complainer, but I can’t help but notice that people don’t seem to really “get into” things with any depth. “I’m a member of a book club,” often means, “I get together with my friends once a month and gossip while the book sits on the table.” “I work out,” often means, “A couple times a month I go to the gym and walk on the treadmill for 20 minutes before talking with my friends.” “I’m a member of a PLC,” often means, “Once a month 4 of us (or at least those of us that show up) get together for an hour after school to gripe about our students and administration.” The idea of fully committing to something and following a process with some integrity seems like a forgotten approach.

    • Jason, that is one of the big reasons I started this blog, and why my tagline is “Teacher Nerds, Unite.” I have always gotten way too into things, which is very uncool. But for me it is one of the surest paths to joy. The best scenario is finding other like-minded people and spending lots of time with them!

  3. Great article! My biggest pet peeve is when we say “we’re going to our PLC meeting”, or “we’re having our PLC” You don’t HAVE a PLC- you ARE a PLC. I wish it wasn’t such an overused buzzword- because it can be such an amazing thing! There are schools out there that are true PLCs and many schools that are on the right path!

  4. One of the joys of teaching used to be creating curriculum with fellow grade-level or department members, then tweaking it if learners didn’t learn as predicted and sharing ideas. I miss those days! Usually those groups happened naturally, however, and were not “assigned.”

  5. Our PLCs aren’t really PLCs. They are groups picked by administration, and we only meet on conference days to do pre established activities that typically have the purpose of building connections between the different buildings and establishing district vision. The groups themselves have been positive for building within district relationships, but they aren’t really PLSs even though that is what we call them.

  6. Was interested in your post. Too few hours with teachers to waster them away with stuff we already know. When we teach we are told to differentiate, that means don’t teach all the children the same way, the same thing, so why when we have PLC do we all have to be doing the same thing, if that happens in the classroom then it is a disaster. However, we have had the opportunity with PLC to create our own inquiry into something that interests us, or something we want to know more about, or something that we are doing in the classroom. Much more effective.

    • You’re right, Rachel. Isn’t it crazy how far professional development lags behind best teaching practices? How often have we all sat in PD lectures that have no interactivity whatsoever, and the top-down structure of some PLCs is just another example of ignoring the research on what motivates people.

  7. Curious as to what happens when a line is found in the eduspeak bingo array? Participant stands up, says ” This is a ^%$%^&^%$ waste of my time” and leaves the room?

  8. My experience with PLC’s is 1-2 teachers (often less experienced), dominating the PLC. They dictate what we are going to teach each week and ignore the voices of the other members. The rest of the PLC, during the process, tends to look on with glazed eyes and the occasional nod…just enough to keep one from getting reprimanded (or written up) for “not participating”. The process is driving me out of teaching as I have zero autonomy and the “lessons” I’m forced to teach are actually causing my teaching to regress. Am I wrong, but I thought PLC’s were about looking at the standards, deciding at what level our students needed to attain those standards, developing formative and summarize assessments as a team, and then analyzing what our different student populations learned based on the assessments. However individual teachers got their students to achieve well on the assessments should be up to the teachers. Whatever lessons the teacher feels are appropriate should be up to the teacher. If a particular teacher’s students outperforms then we will want to share ideas and learn what that teacher did so we may adopt their lesson/idea. At two schools, however, I’ve only seen dictated lessons (often times questionable ones) and no real assessments or data analysis. Another issue is that, oftentimes, our PLC is dominated with an administrator talking the bulk of the time. All of this just seems very dysfunctional. I hear many of my colleagues disgruntled by this but they are afraid to say anything because they’ll be “spoken to” or singled out. There has been, by the way, a huge teacher turnover at both schools. There are very few teachers who have been there for more than three years. Is it just me who sees something wrong with this PLC process? I feel like I’m going crazy because this seems so dysfunctional to me yet people seem to just accept it. BTW, we can’t just go in our rooms and do our own thing because we’re checked up on and risk being written up if we go against the grain.

  9. Our district has a checklist for PLC meetings and if an administrator shows up and u aren’t following the checklist or discuss norms or God forbid discuss something else, u don’t get a smiley face. I’m serious. Adults getting smiley faces for sticking to the stupid agenda that must be emailed out in advance. Come on. We have more important things to do than this. Why can’t we just get together as colleagues and discuss our concerns? It has turned into a true farce. We hate them.

    • That sounds pretty awful, Brandi. Would anyone in your administration be open to a conversation about changing some of these practices? In the schools where I worked, teachers were often more likely to complain in small groups without ever approaching the administrators with suggestions for change. It was almost as if we assumed that they knew we didn’t like something, but they forced it on us anyway. Sometimes I wonder how much they actually knew, and whether we couldn’t have gotten more things changed if we spoke up more often.

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