It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic is still affecting everyone in education. While many communities return to a new kind of normal, educators will continue to navigate the pandemic’s repercussions for years to come. Schools and districts alike are under immense pressure to address its negative impacts on student achievement, student and educator mental health, teacher and student absenteeism, and overall school climate.
This is a huge task, one that often feels daunting for many educators. But it’s a task that can be accomplished by educators working together. Research tells us that the greatest potential for transforming student learning outcomes and combating teacher burnout lies within job-embedded professional learning, coaching, and collaboration. By coming together as a community — a professional learning community, to be precise — educators can build the kind of organizational culture that accelerates learning and cultivates positive learning environments.
When implemented effectively, professional learning communities in education can unlock the power of collaboration among school staff, and ultimately deliver long-term positive effects on student learning.
Table of Contents
- What PLCs in Education Are and Why They (Still) Matter
- The Importance of Professional Learning Communities
- Critical Considerations for PLCs
- Evolving PLCs for Current Needs
- Effective Professional Learning Communities Offer a Bright Future for Education
- How TORSH Talent Can Support Your Professional Learning Communities
What PLCs in Education Are and Why They (Still) Matter
While terms like “professional learning communities” (PLCs) or simply “learning communities” are probably familiar, their definitions and formats can vary wildly from organization to organization. For some educators, a PLC is a series of in-person meetings with colleagues in their department to analyze data from the latest formative assessments, share ideas for classroom management, discuss new instructional approaches, and collaborate on how to best support individual students. Others think of a PLC as a Facebook group or Twitter feed for educators from across the globe sharing professional experiences, from how to address challenging classroom behaviors to implementing the latest instructional approaches to teaching literacy.
Regardless of their structure or definition, the most impactful PLCs share three core principles:
- Their primary goal is to improve student learning outcomes.
- They embrace the idea that learning is a life-long process, one that applies to children and adults alike.
- They establish a culture of equitable collaboration and continuous improvement among members.
At their core, professional learning communities ask educators to do what teachers often ask of their students — collaborate, reflect, and learn to build their skills and achieve better outcomes. By applying creative and collaborative problem-solving methods to their own learning, teachers are better positioned to drive improvements in students’ academic, social, and emotional learning.
The Importance of Professional Learning Communities
So why is a PLC in education such a valuable tool to achieve the common goal of student success?
As Learning Sciences International reports, research has found a “significant correlation between student learning growth and school environments where positive teacher collaborations flourished.” Student achievement is the desired outcome — and PLCs drive these positive effects. More importantly, PLCs also bring positive results to the broader school community when it comes to equity. Learning Ally writes that “by pooling their collective knowledge, PLCs can more easily identify [and respond to] trends in learning outcomes in different groups of students.” This shared knowledge allows educators to close gaps in teaching practices or processes and ultimately ensure all students thrive.
Though PLCs are anchored on the goal of bettering student outcomes, they also support school staff to improve their expertise toward this end. So naturally, classroom teachers benefit tremendously from participating in a professional learning community. As ISTE summarizes, PLCs can help teachers:
- Directly improve their instructional practices
- Build stronger relationships with their colleagues
- Stay aware of new and emerging teaching methods or technologies
- Reflect on and practice new ideas for student learning
Further, PLCs offer teachers a network of emotional, intellectual, and professional support that uniquely understands their teaching responsibilities and the challenges of this job. This is especially powerful when a PLC extends beyond the walls of a classroom or school building. A teacher facing a difficult student situation can leverage their learning communities to source ideas or gain feedback on solutions they have in mind. By bringing together tacit knowledge and expertise between teachers, PLCs create a space for educators to grow professionally and design innovative learning strategies for every student. Such professional collaboration baked into PLCs has a positive effect on a teacher’s experience of teaching, too — a crucial benefit at a time when teacher satisfaction is running low across the country.
Now more than ever, educators have the immense opportunity to come together, share best practices, constructively challenge one another to iterate on teaching strategies, and encourage each other’s professional growth. A well-constructed PLC provides the structure, collaboration, and community to do just that.
Critical Considerations for PLCs
However, it takes more than analyzing formative assessment data or meeting regularly to create a PLC that truly impacts student learning. Building the collaborative practices that drive job-embedded professional learning is hard work — but well worth the effort and time necessary to do it well.
PLCs are most effective when their members demonstrate a genuine commitment to uphold their collective values, respect their established ground rules, and actively participate in their collaborative processes. Maintaining mutual trust across the entire team is essential, as trust underpins a professional learning community’s cohesion and collective responsibility to improve learning outcomes. Trust also creates an inclusive space in which innovation can flourish. Last, and perhaps most crucially, PLCs are affected by the overall organizational culture. And sometimes, that culture needs to shift dramatically to enable collaborative teams like PLCs to bring job-embedded learning to life for all school staff.
In the spirit of knowledge sharing, here are a few ways that organizations can prepare their teams for creating or improving PLCs:
- Identify the order of change a PLC might introduce. Organizations exploring PLCs may benefit greatly from first reflecting on whether PLCs introduce first-order or second-order changes to their team. This resource from EL Education offers an excellent summary of how these two degrees of change differ, along with guiding questions that school, district, and professional learning leaders can ask themselves to navigate both types of change.
- Reflect upon your organization’s readiness for PLCs. As with any major change, upfront preparation and planning are key for successful implementation. This comprehensive reflection activity from Inspired Instruction is designed to help school leaders determine if their community is ready to introduce PLCs into their culture. For school and district leaders specifically, take a look at our guide for transformational leadership to establish that broader organizational culture that encourages job-embedded learning and collaboration through PLCs.
Here’s the thing about professional learning communities — even if your organization is only just getting started, a PLC can still make a positive impact. Building a community of practice and continuous improvement is a marathon, not a sprint. Every step of the journey builds momentum toward realizing the benefits that PLCs can offer!
Evolving PLCs for Current Needs
As the world continues to navigate the “new normal,” educators have a chance to evolve their existing PLCs or build new ones for greater impact. Most PLCs share several characteristics regardless of how they are implemented within an organization or network. These characteristics stem from broader practices that make up impactful professional learning generally — meaning professional development in which participants experience a real and tangible change in their professional practices.
Here are just a few of these characteristics of great professional learning, analyzed by Learning Ally across multiple research studies:
- Job embedded
Do these factors sound familiar yet? They certainly should! These principles also make up the core of effective professional learning communities.
PLCs are intended to cultivate collaboration, self-reflection, and ongoing adaptive learning practices among their participants. They take teacher professional learning to the next level by “applying [principles of learning] specifically to educators’ goals, challenges, classroom experiences, and best practices… through ongoing reflection and action.”
With these core characteristics in mind, let’s explore how educators can evolve new and existing professional learning communities across three common formats — in-person PLCs, hybrid PLCs (combining in-person and virtual collaboration), and fully virtual PLCs.
In-person Professional Learning Communities
In-person meetings reflect the image that most often comes to mind when educators think of professional learning communities. An in-person PLC may include staff from the same building, a subset of a grade-level team, or even reading and math specialists within the same district or organization. Typically, an in-person PLC meets regularly (weekly, biweekly, or monthly) at a school-based location to collaborate on any number of topics centered around student learning.
In-person PLCs offer fantastic opportunities to build strong, trusting relationships among its members that can unlock innovation — when implemented well. Here are a few ways to amplify the impact of an in-person PLC:
- Establish clear guidelines for using in-person PLC meeting time. Time is an educator’s most precious resource, and the operational culture of a PLC must account for the use of time thoughtfully. Actively Learn suggests that PLC facilitators guide how participants can best use their time together, especially in the early days of a new PLC. Team leaders may find this facilitator’s guide useful to ensure they hold space for sharing expertise about a particular subject, examining the results of shared formative assessments, or revisiting district or organizational goals to complement the PLC’s primary focuses.
- Consider rotating PLC leadership roles. Managing a PLC involves similar leadership responsibilities to those managed by school and district leaders. They are charged with creating a safe, inclusive space in which collaborative teams can share knowledge, constructively challenge each other’s thinking, and ultimately encourage innovative approaches to drive student learning. By rotating members of the PLC into a leadership capacity, each participant has an equal opportunity to contribute to the PLC vision.
Take a look at this article published by Learning Sciences for more suggestions about facilitating or participating in an in-person PLC.
Hybrid Professional Learning Communities
Technology can be a handy tool to support in-person professional development and collaboration, and PLCs are no exception. When facilitated well, a combination of virtual and in-person collaborative practices within PLCs can benefit the entire school team. Online tools facilitate discussions and knowledge sharing that complement the kinds of conversations held face-to-face with team members in a PLC, leading to higher-quality collaboration in multiple spaces.
Take a look at these suggestions for creating or expanding upon hybrid PLCs in your organization:
- Create an asynchronous space for discussion that mirrors in-person collaborations. We often see teams using TORSH Talent create asynchronous discussion forums that complement live PLC meetings. Some forums include teachers within the same school, while others may include educators across multiple schools within a district or organization. This level of intraorganizational collaboration allows educators in a district or charter community to come together around particular topics or challenges. It’s a powerful way to expand educators’ connections and collaborations, deepening the job-embedded learning happening within an in-person PLC.
- Build a library of shared knowledge or resources to use during in-person meetings. Another huge advantage that technology offers to in-person PLCs is the ability to share information and resources. TORSH Talent provides PLCs with the ability to create virtual libraries. A grade-level team might upload curriculum pacing guides, self-paced courses, lesson plans, exemplars, and even recordings of effective classroom practices to share within their PLC. All of these artifacts add weight to the in-person conversations held in conjunction with these virtual collaborative processes.
By baking digital and in-person collaboration into the ongoing process of professional growth, PLCs take advantage of a larger network of experts and knowledge holders to improve student learning. For more suggestions about effective team learning practices in hybrid environments, take a look at this article from The People Space.
Virtual Professional Learning Communities
Of course, these days technology also enables any educator to tap into hundreds of virtual PLCs extending past the walls of their schools and even the boundaries of their country. Participating in virtual PLCs offer educators some of the benefits of a hybrid or in-person PLC. Topics can range from addressing middle school social-emotional development to managing an elementary school student’s reading challenges and much, much more. There is a professional learning community online for just about any educator!
However, not all virtual PLCs are created equal. While social media networks like Twitter open the doors for educators to share practices globally, intentionally structured, locally organized virtual PLCs can offer educators more targeted insights and alignment for continual improvement.
Here are a few ways your organization can bolster the impact of virtual PLCs specifically for classroom teachers:
- Offer instructional coaching through video conferencing. Teachers are no longer limited to seeking professional collaboration or feedback from team members in the school building. Virtual PLCs can target professional learning and support teachers within staffing or budgeting constraints. For example, instructional coaches at regional service agencies might use secure built-in video conferencing on the TORSH Talent platform, along with TORSH Talent virtual resource libraries and discussion forums, to facilitate individual teacher coaching. This one-on-one support can then be amplified by a virtual PLC that encourages teachers to share videos of their practice, when they feel comfortable, for feedback and recommendations from peers.
- Give teachers control over what they share in virtual PLCs. In the end, teachers are the primary drivers of virtual PLCs. Teachers must have the autonomy to determine how much they wish to share about their own learnings and feedback received from coaches or colleagues. By setting the expectation that teachers control what they share, virtual PLC team leaders help deepen mutual trust among its participants. That’s why TORSH Talent gives teachers both the ability to video record their instructional practices in the platform and the keys to determining who they share these artifacts with and when.
By centralizing expertise and collaboration across a broader community of educators, virtual PLCs demonstrate a powerful professional learning community model that can catalyze teacher growth and student learning. For more information about leveraging video conferencing in PLCs, read our recent article about the power of peer coaching through video.
Effective Professional Learning Communities Offer a Bright Future for Education
When orchestrated well, PLCs can help address the lingering effects of the pandemic in education. Educators have immense opportunities to evolve their PLC practices and fully realize the potential that this kind of job-embedded professional learning and collaboration offers. Educators who partner together find new and creative ways to support students and staff equitably and effectively. Schools that develop the cultural pillars of PLCs — mutual trust, collaboration, and a shared goal of improving student outcomes — build a more positive school climate. PLCs can help all of us in education emerge stronger and move forward into a brighter future for students, teachers, schools, and communities!
How TORSH Talent Can Support Your Professional Learning Communities
TORSH Talent supports all professional learning, coaching, and collaboration activities in one secure, FERPA-compliant platform. With tools such as time-stamped video feedback, discussion forums, virtual resource libraries, goal-setting and tracking tools, and more, TORSH Talent helps streamline hybrid and virtual PLC activities and make access to support easier for every educator. Explore how to amplify your professional learning programs with TORSH Talent.