Making the Most of Professional Learning Communities

Guest post by Allison Staffin

A professional learning community (PLC) is more than just a time to prepare lessons, grade papers, and create learning materials—it is an opportunity to impact student learning. Based on the DuFour model for PLCs, it is essential to consider the differences between teaching and learning. PLCs lose credibility unless the educators who are part of them keep the fundamental concepts of Professional Learning Communities at the forefront of their thinking when it comes to educational reform.

PLCs have to participate in the hard conversations. This includes discussions on what learning looks like in your classroom, how to evaluate data to inform instruction, and determining the critical questions that guide PLC work, including those related directly to learning. These are the beacons that guide professional learning communities.PLCs

The Essentials
To make the most of PLCs, these five components are essential:

  • Shared beliefs, value, and vision—where all members of the learning community are focused on their own continued growth and that of their students.
  • Shared and supportive leadership where the principal is seen as the gatekeeper. The principal must support the work of the PLCs and provide ample opportunities for teachers to share their practice through talk and observation.
  • Collective learning and its application, allowing participants to work together to share what is learned about student learning and teaching.
  • Supportive conditions where members of the school community must support a culture of collaboration. There must be a mutual trust and respect between the participants in order to create a caring culture where personal connections are needed to overcome relational obstacles.
  • Opportunities for participants to share personal practice: examining each other’s pedagogical practice, assessment, and classroom management are regular aspects of PLC work. These components are not meant to be evaluative, but essential components to enable staff to grow professionally.

At High School West, our staff has found PLCs to be very powerful. We began small with eight cross-content groups and have grown to 30 content-driven PLCs that run weekly as a duty period. Staff members use this time to share data and identify what their students are doing well and where they need more support. These opportunities have enabled staff to examine their own practices as well as share their best strategies.

In our cross-content PLCs, for instance, we identified what we all do in common, developed a set of common expectations for all students, and made a commitment to institute these expectations from course to course. Our PLCs have also provided insight into our honors and AP programs. By working together in vertical teams that represent grades 9–12, staff members utilized backward design to anticipate what their students will need to be able to do in order to maintain honors and AP status.

Roadblocks and Solutions

In a comprehensive high school setting that is not set up based on student learning communities or houses, it is sometimes difficult to sustain professional learning communities. Often teachers find themselves in need of additional planning time, work, and grading sessions, where they often lose sight of the real strength of meeting in a PLC. Time to really collaborate, focus, and learn from one another continues our own professional growth, as well as the growth of our students.

The one thing that teachers ask for most is time. Time to collaborate, time to create, time to focus, and time to simply get things done. As we continue to carve out time, it is essential that we remember the purpose and strength of strong professional learning communities: student learning and teacher pedagogy. The beauty of education is the opportunity to reflect on our craft. And as we work to give the best that we can to ourselves and our students, it is essential that we consider the foundational elements of the work that we do.

Continual reflection of what is working well and what is not working is the basis for this reflection, and ultimately PLC conversations. Having organized time to work with colleagues to analyze data, evaluate materials, and examine practices can only benefit us. The use of peer observation, collaboration, and focused attention to specifics within our disciplines can only make us better and our students stronger.

Professional learning communities, if developed thoughtfully and thoroughly, will have a tremendous impact as we reflect on teaching versus learning.

How have PLCs worked in your building? What have been the strengths? What have been the obstacles? Tell us in the comments.

Allison Staffin is the assistant principal at Cherry Hill High School West in Cherry Hill, NJ, and is the 2016 New Jersey Assistant Principal of the Year.






  • Michael Thomas says:

    We’ve struggled with PLCs at our school. Some departments like English and Math have really benefited from PLCs and use their time to explore best practices, evaluate each other, analyze common assessments, and more. But other departments where only one teacher teaches the course, the PLC time has simply become extra work time to grade.

    Any recommendations on how to get all staff members to embrace PLCs, especially those who are on their own teaching island due to the nature of their course?

    • Anonymous says:

      Hi Michael,
      This is always a struggle for us, I have tried to capture some of the things we have done to engage as many of our staff, no matter if they are a singleton in their discipline or not, in PLC work. If you want any further details for any of the pieces that I have identified in my answer please let me know.

      We do explore opportunities to create cross content PLC groups for teachers who may be their own island. There are often commonalities between disciplines or levels that the staff can explore. I have provided my staff with specific data points to consider, scope and sequence to look at (including the Common Core appendices), and even the expectations we have for students in order to support each curriculum.

      Peer observations and collaboration have also provided support for staff members who teach a unique course. Providing them specific things to look for enables them to see that there are commonalities between what they teach and what others teach. Ultimately both are opportunities for professional dialogue that supports both teaching and learning and make for some energetic PLC meetings.

      You might also consider looking at what is similar among disciplines. We have had building wide focus on writing across disciplines. This provides teachers opportunities to calibrate rubrics that are used throughout the school for writing assignments and standardized testing.

      Vocabulary is also a place to focus for PLC work. In looking at the language of the various disciplines staff members from my English department have been able to work through strategies for teaching vocabulary as a means to engage in professional learning communities with other disciplines and singletons.

      PLC time has been very valuable to our math and English teachers, and has worked in other disciplines with some careful planning and dialogue that began around some of the suggestions above. Once the faculty sees the connections it makes it easier to dialogue and more engaging to follow the protocols established for effective PLCs.

  • Michael Thomas says:

    Thanks for the input. We want to be fair to all disciplines, but sometimes it feels like we are forcing PLCs on our singletons. We’ve done work with writing in the PLCs. Like your idea of vocabulary work.

    Though it is great, we struggle with getting teachers to observe each other. The logistics of finding other teachers to sub for a period while they observe others gets exhausting (we’re tight on our budget and cannot afford the cost of a real substitute).

    We’ve tossed around the idea of giving more PLC time to English and Math and some PLC time to the other disciplines. Any thoughts on this idea?

  • Allison Staffin says:

    We have faced each of your concerns. For the observation piece we build it into the PLC schedule. We suspend the PLC for the cycle (week) and have them do a peer observation and written reflection in lieu of the PLC meeting. This happens twice a year so it does not interfere with the regular cycle of the PLCs. We used to have it set up to give English and Math more PLC time, but have decreased it to make it more equitable for all disciplines and meet the needs of the building. I think you need to look at where your greatest needs are and build from there. I would imagine your staff is extremely happy to have what they can get to do this work.
    How frequently are you providing PLC time for your teachers?

  • Curt says:

    I too believe that PLC’s are much needed in schools to improve the teaching and learning process. We’ve actually spent time configuring our master schedule to reflect vertical and longitudinal teaming across the board.

    We believe teachers can no longer work in isolation and truly impact learning in a school. Collaboration is paramount; we’ve come to realize that sometimes the best professional development is usually on campus – right down the hall in another teacher’s classroom.

    To truly see PLC’s there must be a concerted effort amongst all to do what’s in the best interest for children and all have to truly be open and honest in building trust with all teachers to improve the teaching and learning process.

    We are not where we want to be yet – but we are making great strides to our ultimate goal.

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