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Virginia Journal of Education


Seeing the Light—Together

How a Professional Learning Community is working for some educators in southwest Virginia.

By Pamela L. Mink

In 15 years of teaching, I’ve grown accustomed to the ever-changing world of education. I’ve seen a lot of ideas come and go, many of which offered big promises about improving student achievement. One thing I can tell you for certain: student achievement is directly linked to effective teaching. Teaching is an art; truly effective teaching is an art and a science. So, what does “effective teaching” really look like? How does it combine art and science? At our school, being (and becoming) more effective teachers begins and ends with a Professional Learning Community (PLC).

The thinking behind Professional Learning Communities is not a new concept: effective teachers have long understood the importance of collaboration and sharing. Exceptional teachers not only share what they do to help boost achievement, but are also always on the lookout for other ways to build student success. That’s one of the characteristics of excellent teachers. Knowing that, how does a Professional Learning Community change what we already do? What does it look like? How does it work? What makes it different than what we already do? Does a PLC show promise in effective teaching that will lead to improved student achievement? 

In order to answer those questions, we need an idea of what a Professional Learning Community should look like. I believe, given the rigor of Virginia’s Standards of Learning, PLC schools can bring a lot to the educational table. Educators who are part of a PLC can examine not only what and how they teach but, more importantly, how effective their practice is and ways to provide intervention if students are struggling.

The first step in a functioning PLC is a planning and collaboration meeting focused on four questions:

• What do we want our students to learn?

• How will we know they have learned it?

• How will we respond when learning has not occurred?

• How will we respond when learning has already occurred?
 

Using these four questions as a conversation starter, teachers at our school meet weekly to discuss exactly what we want our students to learn. Using pacing guides, the SOLs our students must master, textbooks, and our own experience, we plan out the focus of our instruction for the next week’s lessons in all core areas. Then the real fun—the collaboration—begins.

Coming together as a team, including special education teachers and reading intervention specialists, we determine the most important skills our students will need to learn. We discuss lesson ideas, pull necessary books, and share the responsibilities for the entire grade. Making a PLC work requires an understanding among team members that lessons can be taught according to an individual teacher’s style and still end with the desired outcome. This is where the art of teaching takes place: We’re not carbon copies of one another and a PLC allows teachers to be creative to meet individual student needs.

Our PLC gathers again at the end of the week’s lesson or unit to determine how we will assess our students’ learning. This is where the science of teaching comes into play: As a team, we discuss which assessment tools we’ll use, or pool our thinking to create our own. We always tailor our assessments in alignment with state-formatted testing, which uses Bloom’s Taxonomy of “higher level” thinking.

After giving and grading our assessments, we come together again to discuss overall student achievement, identify gaps in learning, and discuss needed interventions. This data drives our response to the “Intervention and Enrichment Block” that is part of our classroom time every day. We then take a look at the skills that students are struggling most with and decide whether we need to work with a few students or if it would be better to revisit those skills at a later time. 

Sharing all this information with the entire team and tutors keeps us all on the same page. Our attention is focused on the particular          skill(s) that the children need so we’re all working together to ensure optimal learning experiences. Even more, our special resource teachers (art, music and library) work to enhance student learning by including experiences that support what the teacher is doing in the classroom.  A Professional Learning Community uses every resource available to support student learning.

Administrators also have a vital role in the success of a Professional Learning Community. Their responsibility starts with scheduling. Without time to collaborate, a PLC would be useless.  Administrators must train and be trained in Professional Learning Communities and be involved in the collaboration as much as possible. At our school, administrators attend weekly grade level or PLC meetings and provide resources for teachers. They also organize and decipher data and pass conclusions drawn from that data from grade level to grade level. Administrators can help find weak areas and offer advice and resources to address needs. An effective PLC administrator listens carefully and acts based on data or teacher recommendations. 

A Professional Learning Community doesn’t end there. We’ve implemented a process of crossing over among grade levels to address issues that one grade level finds need additional emphasis in the previous grade. This is not a finger-pointing session, but rather a discussion of what needs to be in place from one grade to the next. As we all know, a student’s learning is a spiraling process that requires mastery of one concept to build on another. Using diagnostic tools such as STAR, PALS, SOL tests, benchmarks and common assessments, we analyze data and report to other grade levels what areas need to be addressed. Sometimes this collaboration happens in faculty meetings, where an administrator breaks down areas of weakness; sometimes the collaboration is informal and can occur while waiting for the copy machine.

The point is that a Professional Learning Community never stops.  All educators in a PLC understand the importance of collaboration and take on the responsibility of sharing and working together for the common good of the student, the school and the community at large.

Informal communities are sprouting online to support teacher collaboration and sharing. Websites such as Pinterest, Teachers Pay Teachers (www.teacherspayteachers.com), and TeacherDirect (www.teacherdirect.com), to name a few, are providing global opportunities for teachers to share ideas, worksheets, experience and opinions on effective learning. We no longer live in a world that isolates teachers and classrooms. Social media is here to stay and can be an extremely valuable resource for finding effective ways to enhance our students’ learning experience.

A Professional Learning Community is not a prescription for a diagnosed problem. It changes from year to year to meet changing student needs and differences in data analysis. A PLC provides the opportunity for success on a small level, which will build to bigger successes.

Virginia is currently the fourth most active PLC state in the U.S., and the trend continues to grow. To find out more about Professional Learning Communities, log on to allthingsplc.org. There you’ll find PLC tools and resources, evidence of how well a Professional Learning Community can work, PLC research and testimonials, the chance to communicate with other educators who are working in a PLC school, a blog written by PLC experts, and more.

Mink, a member of the Washington County Education Association, is a second grade teacher at Meadowview Elementary School.

The PLC Pay-Off
When a Professional Learning Community is functioning smoothly in a school, it can help staff members in a variety of ways, according to SEDL (formerly the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory), a Texas-based nonprofit education research organization. Here are some of the outcomes SEDL has observed for educators in PLCs:
• reduction of isolation of teachers;
• increased commitment to the mission and goals of the school and increased vigor in working to strengthen the mission;
• shared responsibility for the total development of students and collective responsibility for students' success;
• powerful learning that defines good teaching and classroom practice and that creates new knowledge and beliefs about teaching and learners;
• increased meaning and understanding of the content that teachers teach and the roles they play in helping all students achieve expectations;
• higher likelihood that teachers will be well informed, professionally renewed, and inspired to inspire students;
• more satisfaction, higher morale, and lower rates of absenteeism;
• commitment to making significant and lasting changes; and,
• higher likelihood of undertaking fundamental, systemic change.

 


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