Schools and districts looking to implement initiatives like Professional Learning Communities (PLC+) must realize there isn’t one recipe for success. Successful implementation must be viewed as a journey and not a destination. Leaders and coaches must ensure they support teachers and teams in their journey but also have a level of accountability. A core element of being a true Professional Learning Community is that the adults are learning from each other about their impact on student learning, and collaboratively develop expertise to increase student learning. PLC+ success should then be measured in the progress made in learning for both the adult and students. Irving Elementary School in Waterloo, Iowa is a great example of success in this area.
A PLC+ Success Journey—Irving Elementary
Irving Elementary is a PreK-5 school in Waterloo, Iowa that serves 387 students and 41 certified teachers. PLCs have been present for about 15 years, but Irving leaders felt they had stagnated in their collaborative efforts. Brianne Brown is an instructional coach and recently became certified in PLC+. She noted, “In many ways, we had a solid foundation before we began digging into PLC+. We had an existing PLC structure where we met consistently looking at data and we have a staff who shows relentless commitment to student achievement. However, teachers felt that our current PLC structure didn’t seem purposeful. Some felt we spent too much time admiring problems. We were missing the adult learning element and wanted to focus on engaging in PLCs in a way that transitioned into real impact in student achievement. It speaks to the caliber of teachers at Irving that they were the ones who were asking for a change in our system.”
Brianne, who has partnered with Irving’s leadership team to lead the PLC+ charge has been at Irving for 7 years and serves as an instructional coach for the school/district. She would say three things led to their success so far in their journey to recommend to other schools and districts: “In recent years, the staff at Irving has been committed to focusing on student achievement that includes a focus on high expectations, teacher and student clarity for learning, and examining data with an equity lens. We developed a strong common vision around student success and PLCs are the key to continuing to grow in our practice. PLC+ truly allowed our teachers time to work together and learn from each other.”
There are 3 actions that schools or districts can take for successful and deep PLC+ implementation:
1. DIG IN and Go all IN!
Schools or districts often take a soft approach when implementing professional learning. Professor John Hattie notes that for professional development (d = .62) to impact student learning teachers must be deeply engaged in the work and talk to each other about teaching and learning (Hattie, 2008).
For example, Brianne said, “We identified PLC+ as the framework that would allow us to connect our existing knowledge of PLCs with a process that would facilitate a much-needed adult learning piece that we were missing. Once we made the change, we jumped into the (PLC+) resources and began learning. The PLC+ cycles give teachers the chance to really utilize existing data and engage in deep dialogue around how students will learn the content and how we will select the most powerful teaching strategies. Because of this, teachers feel more confident implementing new strategies and approaches in their classrooms. PLC+ has allowed us to set aside a sacred time for our teachers to learn strategies to resolve common challenges and to collaborate.”
The conversations around teaching and learning began within grade level teams and are now happening throughout the building. Hayley Bakula, Irving’s 2nd grade PLC leader stated, “The learning we have done around PLC+ has given us a fresh perspective on how to structure our conversations around student learning to be more meaningful and impactful. We are truly working together to identify common challenges, peel back layers of learning progressions, and collaborate around how to move learning forward.”
2. Focus on what collective teacher efficacy really means
Many of us know by now the power of collective teacher efficacy (d= 1.39) and how it can propel adults in any school to have a tremendous impact on student achievement. We need to remember we cannot buy collective efficacy; we must earn it; we must develop it. There are four factors that impact self and collective efficacy:
- Experiences of Mastery
- Physiological contributors such as stress and anxiety and
- Social persuasion (Fisher, et al, 2019).
Irving leaders concentrated on making sure they were not just using collective efficacy as a buzzword. Instead, they maximized and built upon their existing expertise through modeling and created a safe environment to learn from each other.
“One of our first steps was to uncover and utilize the full potential of knowledge, experience, and talent our teachers bring to the table,” said Brianne. “We recognized strengths in ourselves and then the value of strengths in the others on our teams. When we first began our journey with PLC+ we introduced the concept of learning walks which were similar to peer observations Irving teachers had engaged in before. Teachers made it clear that they weren’t quite ready for those. Instead, we focused on individual and team strategy spotlights during PLC+ meetings throughout the first half of the year. Recently, we met with all K-5 teachers to discuss our progress with literacy achievement this year and teachers shared how learning from each other has impacted their practice. They requested to do more of that learning by engaging in peer observations.”
3. Give teachers permission to go slow so they can focus on common challenges
Within the PLC+ framework, teams are encouraged to examine opportunities to move the most important aspects of student learning forward. This creates a unifying opportunity for the adults to rally around and focus their learning. These are called common challenges.
When practitioners share and collectively identify common concerns, or sets of problems, it ignites both their efforts and their passions to deepen their knowledge and expertise by ongoing interaction toward a common goal (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002). Irving capitalized on the concept of common challenges to provide focus and drive buy-in, which resulted in deep levels of adult learning.
“Our old practice in PLCs was to bring a different piece of data to analyze every week,” Brown said. “Our teams would discuss instructional strategies to use but once they left the room, those strategies often didn’t translate into classroom actions as PLC teams were moving on to the next thing. PLC+ allowed our teachers to really dig in and examine our common challenges, provide time to truly learn what and how we will implement actions in our classrooms, which led to our teachers feeling more prepared and confident implementing those strategies.”
Recently, Irving identified a common challenge: their literacy Edify assessment results were not matching data teachers were collecting in the classroom around literacy standards. There was a discrepancy between evidence of learning students were showing during classroom discussions and authentic tasks and the data results. For example, students would be able to write about the main idea and supporting details of a text, but when given a multiple-choice question about which supporting detail supported the main idea in a passage, students found it difficult to choose a correct answer. In response to this common challenge, the building leadership team helped guide teachers in grades 3-5 to focus as a larger vertical PLC+ team analyzing multiple pieces of data. Irving teachers developed instructional actions and approaches that provided them a better understanding of academic vocabulary and more instructional opportunities to increase students’ critical thinking skills. This flexibility gave students the chance to demonstrate mastery in a variety of ways.
The same type of collaboration is happening in Irving’s lower grades as well. Chelsea Smith, Irving’s Kindergarten PLC Leader stated, “After identifying a common challenge around phonological awareness, our Kindergarten teachers brought our literacy strategists to engage in a PLC+ cycle of learning with us. We identified gaps in student learning and created a deeper understanding and sense of collective efficacy around these standards. We saw such a positive impact on data which reinforced our collective impact on student learning!”
Every school’s PLC+ journey will be different. Actions such as digging in deeply, focusing on truly developing collective efficacy by providing the conditions where teachers can learn from each other and thrive, and harnessing the power of common challenges is a great place to start!
Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37(2),
Fisher, D., Frey, N., Almarode, J., Flories, K., & Nagel, D. (2020a). PLC+: Better decisions and greater impact by design. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. M. (2002). A guide to managing knowledge: Cultivating communities of practice. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.