Professional Learning Communities

On June 3, 2012, Al Boerema introduced the issue for discussion:

It is becoming clear that the development of professional learning communities (PLCs) is an essential element of school change and reform. Roland Barth’s article, “Relationships within the Schoolhouse” describes four kinds of relationships: parallel play, adversarial or competitive, congenial, and collegial (Educational Leadership, March 2006: 8–13). The fourth kind of relationship, collegial, is important for the development of professional learning communities. For Barth, the indicators of collegial relationships between staff members are: talking with one another about practice, sharing craft knowledge, observing one another engage in practice, and rooting for another’s success.

Talk about examples of professional learning communities in your school experience, as well as the challenges that stand in the way of moving forward to Barth’s collegial relationships.


On Tuesday, June 12, 2012, Rebecca De Smith responded:

Professional learning communities have certainly been on the educational radar for the past few years. Books have been written about them, educational magazines have endorsed them, and they have increasingly become models for professional development in schools. In my work as both talented and gifted (TAG) teacher and curriculum coordinator, I have experienced the benefits of collaboration with other teachers. Whether we are discussing the need to design an appropriate enrichment program for a student, or whether we are meeting to review and revise curriculum, the wisdom and information gained from colleagues is immense. Schools work better when teachers work together.

During the past two years in our school, professional learning communities have been part of our professional development plan. Two years ago, all teachers were asked to be part of a PLC to do action research with a focus on a specific educational topic. I met with other support services teachers to improve our paraprofessional program. Also, teachers who wanted to read and discuss a book related to education formed an optional PLC. Ten dedicated teachers met monthly, discussing, dreaming, and challenging each other to become more effective teachers. Because of the success of those groups, this past school year all teachers at our school were again asked to be part of a PLC, choosing a topic they were most interested in exploring. I was part of a group that read, discussed, imagined, and questioned our classroom practices and their effectiveness with students. Our readings and discussions encouraged each of us to make deliberate changes that would positively impact our students and their learning.

The benefits of a professional learning community are numerous—building relationships with colleagues, providing authentic professional dialogue, encouraging each other to try something new, and keeping each other accountable for making changes. From my experience, the key components for a successful PLC include commitment from group members, a focus for discussion or action, and structured time to meet. Each of these can also be a roadblock to success if not fully implemented.

Through my encounters with PLCs, I have gained respect for my colleagues, support in implementing new practices to become a more effective teacher, and joy in serving Christ and my students at Sioux Center Christian School.

Later that day, Mary Ashun added:

I’m always excited by PLCs, knowing full well their potential. As a teacher at King’s Christian Collegiate, the focus on professional development through a PLC was central to our lives, and I learned a lot from the talks, workshops, and conferences. As a new principal at a Christian school[RW1] , this is now a critical part of my success plan—develop a PLC that has structure, focus, and involves committed members of the community. I’m sure that teachers would love it; what I’m struggling with is how I do it without making them think it is “extra work,” or worrying whether they will be judged on what they share. I like those indicators Barth mentions and I wonder how I will arrange for teachers to visit one another’s classrooms to observe them in action. I can see how this will engender respect among staff.

We had an awards night at my school last night where teachers spent hours creating lists of students who deserved awards in Bible and other subjects, as well as leadership. The teachers had no idea that they were also going to be honored with a small gift of flowers; one teacher remarked the following morning that the children being awarded after the teachers were honored, was quite a statement . . . a sort of  “before the student came the teacher.” Is this perhaps an example of rooting for one another’s success? Talk to me at the end of the 2012–13 year. I will have had a chance to try to implement some of these ideas!

On August 5, 2012, Tim Leugs joined in:

Although I have not had much experience with official PLCs, I frequently encounter an informal approach to this in the teacher’s lounge. Taking time to share ideas that work and process methods is incredibly valuable to educators who are seeking to become more proficient teachers.

Although it is not mandated by many schools with which I am in contact, I do think that a teaching community could do well to take time for teachers to present their learning in graduate studies, continuing education, or conferences attended, and share other valuable pedagogic experiences. This can not only add to teachers’ continuing education (although admittedly it is significantly more informal than many professional development opportunities), but also to teachers’ regard for one another as fellow members of a learning community.

I also can see the benefits of peer observation while engaged in the art of teaching. I highly respect my colleagues at Legacy Christian School and recognize gifts in teaching that they have. Although I pass by their classrooms from time to time, I can see real benefits in taking time to watch them at work, learning new methods for instruction and student-teacher relationships, and also offering them encouragement in their daily work. This idea is somewhat daunting as I think about a colleague observing me, but I realize the value such an environment could provide.

On August 9, 2012, Christian Altena continued the discussion:

Greetings, everyone!

We at Chicago Christian have been engaged in developing professional learning communities more and more over the past few years. We’ve found the process to be both energizing and challenging.

Energizing: When we are as focused on improving individual student learning as we’ve been, recording student absences, tardies (lates, sorry Canadians), and dress code violations, the buzz is noticeable. It’s been exciting to see how this has begun to transform the school’s atmosphere—teachers’ expectations of their students are high, and the students know that they will be held accountable. When we are pulling in the same direction, giving each other encouragement and guidance, some mountains can be moved.

Challenging: There are significant obstacles that may have to be dealt with for a smoothly run PLC. Time must be carved out of the day for meetings, and teachers must not only buy in, but also open themselves up to some potential discomfort. Some teachers prefer the anonymity, privacy, and control of their classrooms. PLCs actively work to bring these hermit kingdoms into the larger community. Often we have our favorite activities and topics that we include in our curriculum, but may not be consistent with best practice. PLCs bring teachers together into teams whose goal is to identify and coordinate the most important learning goals, implement the most effective strategies for reaching those goals, and develop quality common assessments to evaluate student progress. At each of these steps, teachers must give up some of their autonomy; some may even feel threatened by the comparison with other teachers when the test results come in.

A properly functioning professional learning community can change a school profoundly and can be an important element in promoting teacher growth and effectiveness. If we can get past some of the hurdles and allow ourselves to be challenged, we can take advantage of the expertise that’s just down the hall. As Christians, we have a unique calling into community; PLCs can help extend this calling into our professional lives.


Later that day, Bruce Wergeland concluded the discussion:

“Next Friday, our entire staff is going to meet in the library and listen to a three-hour presentation on student assessment. Bring a chair and an open mind.”

The entire concept of professional development is a fascinating “animal” in the teaching profession because this aspect of the job has the uncanny ability of revealing the learner in every teacher. When the words, “professional development,” exit the mouth of a principal during a staff meeting, I often feel like I am back in high school, because the variety of responses from teachers is diverse and fascinating—ranging from excited to annoyed. The fact of the matter is that teachers are teachers for different reasons, and they all engage their profession in very different ways. Some seek out opportunities to explore new topics, strategies, and philosophies; some are simply satisfied to be the best teacher for their job description; others are simply . . . well . . . “riding an educational wave.” The challenge, as always, is to understand the weaknesses and interests of a collective staff.

A professional learning community is essential for every teacher, but like any classroom, it must recognize the diversity of its participants. Recently, a group of teachers at our school volunteered to participate in a book club after school. Seven teachers, from a total of seventy, were interested, and the group was formed. Although the club was wonderful for the participants, I wondered about the remaining sixty-three teachers who lacked the interest, time, or confidence to join us. My immediate reaction to this scenario was that the expectations of the book club were just not practical for busy teachers. Most teachers are not looking for a new teaching philosophy when they engage a learning community; they just want an idea that will infuse excitement or simplicity into their classroom learning, and this idea must be personal and practical. If this is true, then what should professional development look like for a Christian teacher?

Professional learning communities need to be personal, focused, and practical, and meet on a regular basis if they are going to be effective. In our middle school, we have grade level meetings (three to four teachers) that meet once each week for forty minutes. Often these meetings are able to demonstrate all of these suggested criteria, and the teachers leave with a sense of resolve, teamwork, and understanding. As soon as the numbers are too large—too many participants, too much time, or too many topics—the community begins to become ineffective. However, the most important aspect of this scenario is that teachers must have an opportunity to share their story and their lives. It is this element of a professional learning community that will engage the diverse collection of teachers on any staff. If a teacher does not have a voice in the community that is heard and understood, then their attachment to the community will not be permanent.

In the world of professional development, it is essential to know our audience; we must understand their diversity, needs, and desires as they teach together.

The panel consists of:

  • Christian Altena, who teaches at Chicago Christian High School in Palos Heights, Illinois.
  • Mary Ashun, who teaches in the education department at Redeemer University College.
  • Al Boerema, who teaches in the education department at Calvin College.
  • Rebecca De Smith, who is the Discovery Room coordinator and the curriculum coordinator at Sioux Center Christian School in Sioux Center, Iowa.
  • Tim Leugs, who teaches at Legacy Christian School in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
  • Bruce Wergeland, who teaches at Langley Christian Middle School in Langley, British Columbia.