How do you monitor professional learning communities? How do you know if they’re working in your school?

These two questions stump administrators, school districts, and departments of education whether they admit it or not. There are misconceptions about accountability around PLCs, implementation of the practice, and how to gauge progress in schools. The practice of using Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) in schools is just one of the many great ideas that have evolved into mandates from on high that can have a powerful impact when done right. But, their unfortunate fate is that they end up as a total mess in schools because of implementation with a lack of attention given to sustainability and desired outcomes. Here are two key misconceptions accompanied by ways to make PLCs right in your school or district; let’s get to simple so that PLCs can work:

1. PREDEFINED PURPOSE:

Many schools have policies in place for teacher participation in PLCs, minutes kept, lengthy forms, and required documentation. All wrong. As Michael Fullan writes, “you can’t mandate what matters.” This is not to say that you shouldn’t track evidence of PLCs, but accountability measures around communities of people learning together in a professional environment is simply ironic. It’s like making it mandatory to be jovial and collegial and then requiring documentation that staff are acting in such a way a certain number of minutes per week. PLCs only work if staff have a purpose. Here’s the tip: First, don’t require anymore than you need to ensure that ideas are being generated within the communities. If you absolutely need a form or minutes, keep it open-ended. I’ve seen forms that could take the entire PLC to fill out. Keep documentation simple. Second, create a real purpose. Is it common planning, use of formative data, review of standardized test scores, student progress monitoring, sharing of best practices…maybe it’s all of the above? The idea is that teachers know exactly what to do and what the outcome should be of each meeting, predefined. This way PLCs can be a natural, organic but focused teacher meeting time. Third, stay away. Administrators have no business at teacher driven PLCs unless they’re invited. This leads us to our next strategy.

2. MONITOR OUTCOMES:

Too often, we feel like we need to monitor PLC progress by being present at the PLC. If that’s your current thinking, ask yourself what the purpose of the PLC is, back to our first point. For example, if the purpose is aligned curriculum, then visit classrooms of teachers who attend the same PLCs back-to-back to see if the curriculum is aligned. If the purpose is common formative assessments, then look for common assessment during walkthroughs and observations. If the purpose is best practice sharing, then check for consistent use of certain practices within classrooms and pervasive use of those practices school wide. If you want to know if teachers are using data to drive instructional decision, well, then ask them face-to-face about how they’re making that real for planning purposes. You don’t need to attend a PLC to monitor their effectiveness. I was once given a PLC monitoring form to fill out as an observer of PLCs, like sitting in a cage at the zoo to see how the lemurs interact. That devalues teachers, it tells them that we don’t trust them, and, by the way, it won’t help your “professional learning communities.”

The bottom line is that if you want PLCs to work, keep them simple, set a clear purpose for each time teachers meet in PLCs, and monitor by looking for the intended outcomes, not by watching teachers meet. We want your feedback. Leave a comment.

If PLCs are a crazy mess in your school or district, contact us so that we can help get you to simple.

@tjvari

@josephjonessr

 

6 thoughts on “How do you monitor professional learning communities? How do you know if they’re working in your school?

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  1. We have a template that our staff uses for consistency within PLCs. For each meeting roles are assigned such as Facilitator, Agenda, Time-Keeper and Note-Taker. The Meeting focus relates to the following: Using Data, Collaborative Lesson Design and Planning, Looking at Student Work, Collaborative Professional Learning, Problem Solving and Decision Making. The agenda includes the items to be discussed and the time allotted for each. There is a field for action items and who will take the lead on such items. The template also allows for future agenda items to be addressed and parking lot items/questions. Staff submit agendas to admin and then after weekly PLC meetings after notes are added and items discussed, they are shared with grade level teams and admin, as well as any support staff who may have been a part of the meeting. During district principal and assistant principal meetings we collect and discuss data regarding the type of meetings teachers having and how much time is allocated to the various meeting foci. Analyzing the data regarding the focus of the meeting has given teachers a clear purpose and also always for time to cover and address a variety of issues and topics. The consistency has proven to be very beneficial and made the time our teachers spend in PLCs much more focused and goal oriented.

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  2. I think the PLC should be organic. We have an instructional calendar that lists what the focus of discussion should be and although some discussion require administrator oversight and input, that portion of the PLC should not consume more than 15 minutes of the meeting. Beyond the focus point, teachers need that time to plan together, analyze data, and collaborate. The PLC needs to be a safe place in which they do not need to feel like mandates are the purpose of meeting. Discussions need to evolve on their own and I feel that with this flexibility, as an administrator, you can see who is developing as a teacher leader. I do not attend all of the PLCs, period. We give the teachers the option of meeting in various locations within the building. Some choose to meet in a classroom associated with their grade level, while others like the change of scenery. Again, it is important to foster an environment in which the teachers can be most productive to focus on the goals of our students.

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  3. We have some teachers who attend, contribute to, and find value from PLC meetings. We have other teachers who simply find it a waste of time. As a classroom teacher I benefitted from collaborating with my colleagues who taught the same class. However, when I was required to attend meetings with teachers who did not teach the same content, I felt as though it was a waste of my time. So, I understand the struggle some of our teachers face. We have a lot of teachers who are the SOLE instructor of a respective course (all of our technical areas and some related/elective courses). I am sure they can find some common ground to discuss (classroom management or other pedagogical concerns), but sharing issues in regards to content is a mute point.

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  4. I feel that all PLC’s should be intentional and that all in attendance should be stakeholders with a common goal. I agree that monitoring outcomes is a much better and less intimidating way to access your building PLC’s.

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  5. I’ve seen PLCs in various buildings, districts, and states. In my experience, PLCs must be organized, deliberate, and accountable. Agendas must be created with a clear focus area, mutually agreeable Norms, Desired Outcomes (Content/What, Process/How, Who/Specific Presenter, Time/no more than 10-15 minutes), “To Do/Follow Ups”, and minutes from the previous meeting. I’ve been in meetings that tend to focus on a “one pager”, however I believe that having minutes available from the previous meeting is helpful in maintaining the course (even though they tend to bulk up the agenda).

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  6. We rearranged our entire bell schedule in our CR Countywide Programs this year so that we could accommodate weekly team meetings that would include the classroom teacher and paras, related service providers (OT, PT, Speech), Coordinators, and the supervising administrator. The meetings are very student-specific, focusing on instructional strategies, concerns, and decisions, and the team works together to create an action plan to target student needs. The action plan is what the team uses to monitor outcomes. We do provide a form for teams to add their notes and share via google drive. Because administrators are double- and triple-booked for team meetings, there is a section on the form devoted to “red flags for administration” so that teams can get answers to their questions as quickly as possible. Some teams have chosen to utilize their own forms, and those are accepted as long as the meetings remain very student-focused (in fact, we’ve had to ask some teams to utilize the forms so that the time wasn’t spent on planning extracurricular activities). While the team leader/classroom teacher, for the most part, defines the purpose and sets the agenda for each meeting, on occasion, the administrator may set an expectation on a topic that needs to be covered. I have found that when the classroom teacher determines which points need to be covered, we have more success with meeting the needs of the students.

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