I recently had the opportunity to present to a group of lead teachers about the process of creating a professional learning community. These lead teachers (or IRTs—instructional resource teachers—as they are referred to in our county) are each responsible at their respective schools for making broad, building-level decisions about curriculum, assessment, and instruction, so I was excited to engage them in conversation. One of the areas of focus of the presentation was on common challenges that I have seen and read about in the PLC creation process, and these common challenges were clearly echoed by the IRTs. They were:
• Defining a compelling purpose
• Creating necessary organizational structures
• Identifying specific team tasks
• Dealing with team dynamics and teacher personalities
Let’s be honest: developing a professional learning community is hard work. It requires an initial investment of time for collaboration, it requires teachers to work with each other in new and sometimes complicated ways, and it requires tremendous patience. In order for a faculty to undertake this difficult work, they have to believe it its underlying purpose. This underlying purpose must be compelling, persuasive, and specific—it must address the foundational belief that all students can learn, it must convince teachers that a PLC can help them improve student learning, and it must relate to the individual mission and goals of a school. For administrators and teacher leaders attempting to define and “sell” this purpose, the task is not easy.
Another challenge in the PLC creation process relates to organizational structure; specifically, how can the structural characteristics of the organization support PLC development. Of these characteristics, the most important is time. School leaders must identify ways to give teacher teams significant blocks of time during the school day to collaborate—in fact, if leaders are not able to create a schedule that allows for significant, regular common planning, then embarking on the PLC process is likely a lost cause. In addition to time, however, are other important factors. How will teams be organized, e.g., by grade level, by discipline, by common interest? What resources will they need in their work? Will teams have assigned leaders, or are all members on equal footing? All of these questions must be answered, and those answers will have an effect on the success of PLC development.
Once the structural pieces are in place for teams to meet, those teams must be given a certain sense of direction. A simple “improve teaching and learning” is too vague—in order for teams to function effectively, especially at the beginning stages, they need specific tasks to focus their work and to support their developing skills in collaboration. Tasks typically fall into two categories: administrative and pedagogical. In terms of administrative tasks, will teams be required to develop agendas? Will they be required to keep meeting minutes? Will they formally report to administrators on their progress? On the pedagogical side, what should team meetings look like? Should they be planning lessons together? Should they be reviewing student work against set rubrics? Will they focus on one subject to begin with, or should they focus on multiple subjects at once? The substance of collegial conversations during team meetings is the real meat of PLC work, and without some direction those conversations can quickly devolve into unproductive wastes of teacher time.
Finally, the most difficult challenge of developing a PLC (at least in my experience) is group dynamics. What do you do when team members don’t get along, or when some teachers openly resist the PLC process? This is an especially difficult challenge for administrators. On the one hand, too much involvement in team dynamics can cripple the development of team community; that is, unless teams have the freedom and space to resolve their own internal issues, they will never learn to trust and respect each other. At the same time, vocal naysayers can poison the PLC process—faculty members will watch to see how administrators respond to rebellion, and timidity on the part of school leaders can send a message that collaboration isn’t truly required.
For those of you who are also involved in the PLC process, do these challenges ring true? Which ones have you found to be most significant, and have you identified any successful strategies to address them? Would you add other challenges to the list?