Grissom column: Professional learning communities

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 28, 2008

Educators are notorious for speaking in a jargon all their own or in acronyms that sometimes puzzle those not in the educational arena.
A term that is being used consistently across the Rowan-Salisbury School System is “professional learning communities” or PLCs. Exactly what are professional learning communities and why have so many of our schools embarked on this method of communicating among themselves?
Peter Senge’s book, “The Fifth Discipline,” published in 1990, was popular in corporate America with its descriptions of learning organizations, which might increase an organization’s capacity and creativity. Over a year later, his writings moved into the educational environment. As educators learned more about Senge’s work, the term shifted to become professional learning communities.
Since the mid-1990s, Richard DuFour, Robert Eaker and Rebecca DuFour have championed a professional learning communities’ model for school improvement. They describe a professional learning community as educators committed to working collaboratively in ongoing processes of collective inquiry and action research in order to achieve better results for the students they serve.
Reaching higher
Professional learning communities are not just groups of educators getting together to talk about their students. Instead, a true professional learning community provides an actual process where teachers work together in groups to analyze their teaching practices, how and what their students are learning, and how they can improve their knowledge and strategies to lead their students to higher levels of academic achievement.
A group of eight to 12 educators committed to learning together formulate a professional learning community. DuFour emphasizes in his training sessions that a collection of teachers does not truly become a team until they must rely on one another and need one another to accomplish a goal that none could achieve individually. The group must become reflective and honest about their teaching practices and what they must do to make sure that all their students learn what they need to learn to be successful.
The following are typical questions that teachers may ask in their professional learning community meetings:
– What is it that we expect our students to learn?
– How will we know when the students have learned it?
– What happens to the students who already have learned it?
– What happens to the students who do not learn it?
– What do we need to do differently?
– Why is a student learning in one class but the same student is not learning in another class?
Ways to improve
These type of questions encourage teachers to move forward in:
– Developing common assessments
– Reteaching techniques
– Setting specific goals for individual student achievement
– Sharing ideas for improving their teaching skills
– Addressing the diverse needs of their students
A professional learning community sounds like an easy process to implement. However, teachers tend to isolate themselves in their classrooms, especially high school teachers, and often have very little time to talk to their neighbor, let alone get together with an entire group of teachers.
Teachers know they need to collaborate with their peers, but finding the time is always an issue.
Structured time needs to be provided for teachers to work together in a professional learning community. Sustaining a professional learning community takes time and commitment on the part of its members. Teachers in our district are embracing this new method of learning as more teachers become trained and use professional learning communities.
Several of our high school teachers have found that professional learning communities provide them with an opportunity to improve their teaching skills, while creating a climate for continuous improvement.
“The rise or fall of the professional learning community concept depends not on the merits of the concept itself, but on the most important element in the improvement of any school รณ the commitment and persistence of the educators within it.” (Rick DuFour).
As more and more teachers embrace professional learning communities as a means to strengthen their profession, their students will be the ones to benefit from their extra time and effort.
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Dr. Judy Grissom is superintendent of the Rowan-Salisbury School System.