Prerequisites – Culture, Trust, Structure and Communication
Professional learning communities (PLC) are an effective method of developing teachers’ and building leadership capacity. They have been around in education for some time (Click here for a series of links to literature on PLCs).
Muijs & Harris (2007), in their discussion of teacher leadership, prioritise a positive school culture and clear associated structures in schools proving to be successful in fostering learning communities.
High degrees of trust and good communication are also key prerequisites; on these foundations teachers have the freedom to both learn and lead.
However, guidance for facilitating, monitoring and evaluating the impact of an effective learning community has scarcely been offered. I shall attempt to do so below.
Getting started with your learning communities
Topics for your PLCs should be drawn primarily from your school improvement plan and be limited to those actions that leaders agree will have the most impact on pupil outcomes. However, a bottom up approach to school leadership should not be ignored and it may be difficult to resist tackling a prevalent issue that could be raised by any member of your staff .
The number of PLCs will depend on the number of staff involved and how many people you decide to have in each group. Communities should ideally consist of cross-subject teachers operating at all levels of the staffing hierarchy. I have found that the ideal numbers for a PLC are between 8 and 12 staff.
PLCs can involve outside experts and where this is possible it can really boost the quality of the learning for members of the group. The relatively high cost of securing an expert in the field that you are researching is easily offset by the impact on learning outcomes.
Expect your communities to meet twice per term and for a minimum period of 24 months. I propose that meeting time should be always one hour, as any less makes it difficult to keep to the suggested structure and any more becomes too great a demand on teacher time. Additional time will need to be made available for teachers to research, observe each other, reflect together and present their learning in some form.
My advice is to steal the time made available for performance management observations and use it for this more developmental purpose instead.
You will need to communicate clearly to your teachers that the topics that they are working on are crucial, not just for their own professional learning and the ongoing development of the school, but even more importantly for the outcomes of the pupils that they teach.
It is necessary, I have found, to explain to staff why you are taking this approach to their professional learning. In an undeveloped school culture, teachers may just see this as another meeting, sapping their time. Having a clear vision for professional learning to present to staff will be something that you might want to give some thought to. Here is an example for you to base your vision on.
We believe in the value of learning, not just for our pupils but for everyone at the school/academy. We understand that collaborative teacher development is at the centre of our professional self-efficacy which contributes to our well-being. We appreciate that through continuous learning, we will positively improve the learning experiences and outcomes for the children that we teach. We trust that colleagues will support each others’ professional development by taking shared responsibility for the quality of work produced in their Professional Learning Communities; sharing what they have learned with others.
Having a vision will give your CPD strategy both focus and direction (Averso, 2004). It is something to return to with staff if you feel standards are not being fully met.
Starting with the end in mind is a concept that I believe will lead to better outcomes. Staff should expect to take part in small scale research, lead at least one meeting, feedback what they have learned at every meeting, collaboratively plan lessons, observe and reflect on each others’ lessons, and present their learning in a formal way.
In Part 2, we will take a look at research informed structures for each of the meetings and how you can facilitate high quality collaboration.
Averso, R. S., (2004) A Phenomenological Study of Leadership: Developing a Shared School Vision, Norman: University of Oklahoma
Easton, L.B., (2015) ‘THE 5 HABITS OF EFFECTIVE PLCs’, Journal Of Staff Development, 36, 6, pp. 24-34
Muijs, D., & A. Harris., (2007) ‘Teacher Leadership in (In)action: Three Case Studies of Contrasting Schools’, Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 35 (1) pp. 111-134
Sinek, S., (2009) How Great Leaders Inspire Action [Video] http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action
Steffens, N, Mols, F, Haslam, S, & Okimoto, T., (2016). ‘True to what We stand for: Championing collective interests as a path to authentic leadership’, The Leadership Quarterly
Wiliam, D., (2016) Five Components of an Effective Teacher Learning Community, [Video] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYQK5Ghl4xk&feature=youtu.be