Many schools have made some early progress in creating basic working conditions that support collaboration among their staff members.
A new study published in the Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin delivers 4 “intermediate-slope” recommendations to help professional learning communities further refine their efforts to promote collaborative work.
The study is based on observations of two working Professional Learning Communities in a southeastern U.S. elementary school, interviews with 36 educators who participated in them and results from a survey of those educators. Researchers also analyzed the results of a survey conducted by the High Five Regional Partnership for High School Excellence in North Carolina.
The 2 researchers said the major impediments to collaboration among teachers in a PLC are:
- time constraints
- disagreements with other teachers on teaching methods and styles
- teacher independence and isolation
The elementary school at the center of the study was implementing the PLC model as defined by DuFour and DuFour (“The Power of Professional Learning Communities,” National Forum of Educational Administration and Supervision Journal, 2006), the researchers said, and had made some progress in developing a collaborative culture.
The PLCs were holding meetings on a consistent basis, and members spent less valuable meeting time on superficial issues such as field trips and fundraisers. Norms were put in place to structure the meetings and members worked to reach goals and complete assignments at each meeting.
Below are 4 recommendations for PLCs to help them further address roadblocks to collaborative work:
1. Keep PLC time sacred–Don’t have an open-door policy for outsiders who want to attend or address PLC meetings. Outsiders often come to PLC meetings with their own agenda and PLC members have committed to coming together to work toward their shared goals. They have not agreed to spend their time on other issues.
Protect PLC time so that it is reserved for high-priority collaborative work. Communicate this policy to all members of the administration and professional staff. When someone asks to be included on the PLC agenda, the PLC first needs to decide if what that person wants to discuss is relevant to the PLC’s goals. If what the person wants is only tangentially relevant, then s/he should be asked to schedule a separate meeting time with the PLC.
One option for accommodating such requests is to have a predetermined time for open meetings such as the first Wednesday of the month. This open meeting could also be a time that could be used for things like test administration training. Guests who are allowed to attend a PLC session should be made aware of the PLC norms for meetings; the PLC may want to impose a time limit on the guest’s remarks.
2. Put the priority on deep discussion–If something can be handled in a memo, put it in a memo. If it can be handled by email, do it by email. Put the priority on deep discussion about planning, instruction and assessment. Sometimes a task that needs to be completed by the PLC does not require that PLC members all sit around a table to discuss it. Save meeting time for matters of greatest substance rather than housekeeping matters or other issues that don’t require a lot of thought and discussion.
3. Communicate expectations to new faculty–In one of the 2 PLCs in the study, there was an ongoing concern that one of the members was not a team player and did not want to participate. In a school that is already using PLCs, administrators or the hiring team need to make sure new hires can buy into the process, the researchers write.
New faculty joining the PLC should be educated about the norms established by the PLC and should be willing to work with existing members to refine the norms. Also, training needs to be provided for new staff members even if they have already received PLC training in other schools because PLCs operate differently in different school environments.
4. Make time for shared planning during the school day–Researchers found that non-classroom teachers such as special ed teachers, speech/language pathologists, reading teachers, etc. wanted shared planning time during the school day with others in their PLC. Even if only on a monthly basis, time needs to be reserved so that non-classroom teachers can meet and talk with classroom teachers.
A few teachers were sharing ideas with one another outside of the regular meeting time. This meant that a support staff member and non-classroom teachers did not benefit from this exchange. After the group started implementing an agenda, the researchers report, more of these discussions took place during PLC meeting time.
The PLC model may not be right for everyone, the researchers report, but it made a difference in increasing collaboration at this school.
“Professional Learning Communities: Overcoming the Roadblocks,” by Nan Lujan and Barbara Day, The Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, Winter 2010.