It’s like a unicorn. Or a clearly articulated Trump policy. I can’t seem to find convincing, real-world examples anywhere. A “High Functioning PLC” seems to be the sasquatch of the education world…or at least my education world.
For over a decade now, my district has been a “PLC” district. There is specific time carved out in the school week for each staff, usually about 45-50 minutes, that is explicitly dedicated to PLC. Throughout this time, PLC has evolved through various iterations, oscillating from highly micro-managed to an administrative laissez faire policy and back again. (And then back again…)
During this decade we’ve had the typical staff churn: people retire or move on, more families move into our community thus necessitating new hires for growth, and now a mere fraction of our “original” staff remains from those long-ago-days when PLC was first introduced.
We teachers have been trudging along, compliant but with more than a little uncertainly. We recognize there are tasks our PLC is “supposed to” do, but more often than not, those tasks felt at odds with the overall purpose of PLC: “Mutual professional development to positively impact student learning.” We move forward through time, completing our tasks and submitting them to our bosses, all the while feeling a little like we are either engaged in a dance or spinning our wheels. Too often, the PLC work doesn’t clearly translate into our classrooms.
In the last few years, I’ve scoured the internet and my networks of teacher connections to find examples of what a strong and high-functioning PLC is “supposed to” look like. Every teacher I speak with talks about PLC’s at best with an attitude of indifferent “take it or leave it” and at worst with an overwhelming rage at the waste of time and energy it seems to be. On the internet, I find contrived and awkwardly scripted videos that feel more like a painful role play or a stilted staff meeting. I find case stories that hover in the world of theory, never really giving me a clear picture of a real PLC. Or, I find stories of what someone coined “co-blabboration” instead of “collaboration,” with the former defined as “teachers just getting together to share practices.” (Which IMO would be awesome.)
I’ve already written about how difficult “collaboration” is for me, and how, quite frankly, I’d rather not be forced to do it with a contrived group for a contrived purpose. Our teacher-leader team in my district has been wrestling with PLC structures and systems as our “problem of practice” this year, and this is what I personally have found: PLC, as it is enacted in many places, does not exist to serve a clear need that cannot be addressed in other less messy or more efficient means. Rather, PLCs are task groups. Where do those tasks seem to come from? Well, to be honest, they seem to be coming from someone asking the question “What should our PLCs be doing?” The “L” of PLC seems to be completely forgotten.
A few weeks ago, I led a teacher-leadership workshop about the interpersonal dynamics of a PLC and how a teacher leader might use his/her understanding of adult learners, communication, systems, and change theory to interact more effectively with peers. It became clear within the first five minutes that the essential premise of PLC, Mutual professional development to positively impact student learning, was widely approved of…but that the premise was not emerging in system practices. PLCs had tasks to do, and while the value of those tasks sometimes ran the gamut, what PLCs didn’t have clarity around was how to work together for a purpose.
While it emerged to be true that what was missing was, in fact, a clear and meaningful purpose, these teacher-leaders also surfaced that they simply were not equipped with the tangible nor intangible resources needed to accomplish the work: The tangibles might be routines or protocols; the intangibles being the nuanced interpersonal skills to coach one another through conflict or past resistance.
In my sasquatch search for examples of “High Functioning PLCs,” I predictably have not found a Grant Unified Theory of PLC. I say predictably, because if we think about any complex process, highly effective applications of that process will have infinite manifestations. A highly functioning complex process will be nuanced, unique, and tailored to a context. That’s why it functions so well.
This, I believe, is the root of our problem. Our systems have been looking to emulate this undefined “High Functioning PLC” by trying to pour ourselves into a mold rather than make space for authentic innovation and leadership.
One of my colleagues yesterday (at PLC, during a discussion about how PLC wasn’t working) came up with this simple, but brilliant solution…No forms, no mandates, no special tasks. The only requirement placed upon a PLC must be that at the end of the year, they can offer a clear and convincing response to this question: “How did your PLC help you improve your teaching in order to make an impact on student learning?” It should be up to school leadership to offer the learning and resources around the tangibles and intangibles of how to do the work; it should be up to the team to decide what work to address, keeping essential question in mind.
How did your PLC help you improve your teaching in order to make an impact on student learning?
If an individual can answer this with enthusiasm, the PLC has done its job.
Photo Source: Miami University Libraries, Digital Collection – Ohio State Normal College Faculty Meeting, 1910.