Is Teacher Learning an Overlooked Component of PLCs?

High school teacher Paul Barnwell poses 5 questions every PLC needs to ask.

The worthwhile, monumental and ongoing challenge of ensuring that each of our students is learning has led to the widespread adoption of professional learning communities in schools. This is a good thing.

But I wonder if PLC design has too often ignored an essential aspect of teacher growth: real, authentic professional learning.

After all, the commonly accepted practice for most PLCs is for teams to work collaboratively in cycles of inquiry and action research in order to improve student learning. PLC teams collect data on student learning, then make adjustments, create interventions and hatch new instructional plans. When the collaboration is efficient, PLC cycles provide a focused method to dissect student work and hopefully improve results.

Given that U.S. teachers have significantly less time to collaborate with peers than teachers in more high-performing nations, it makes sense to try and be efficient with PLC time, and I do want to impact student learning in a meaningful way. Yet can student learning experiences be enhanced in thoughtful ways if PLC structures and activities don’t also promote — and give time for — teacher learning and intellectual growth?

I’m not sure.

I challenge teachers and administrators to ask themselves the following questions about how embedded collaboration time is currently utilized:

  • Are PLC protocols rigidly defined in your school? At what benefit and what cost?
  • Are PLCs in your school conducive to intellectual discovery and curiosity?
  • Do PLCs incorporate book studies, webinars and other forms of potential learning?
  • Do your PLCs encourage exploration and engagement with online professional learning networks or other platforms to connect passionate educators around your district, state and the world?
  • Does your PLC believe that teacher learning translates into student learning?

Some may argue that addressing — and acting — on the above questions detracts from focused work on student achievement. But this stance reflects a far too narrow vision of student and professional learning. If teachers aren’t encouraged, and given the time, to be learners themselves, we are hardly supporting the worthwhile goal of schools being exemplary learning communities for all, or, for that matter, cultivating teaching staffs that can constantly model for kids what it means to be a lifelong learner.

Every Tuesday after school, instead of regular faculty meetings, our school has mandated PLC meetings. Again, it’s a good thing that our principal recognizes the need and promise of collegial collaboration. Our PLCs are broken down by content area, and I’m part of the English III team. We function fairly well most of the time, using our time coordinating lesson pacing, breaking down common assessments and completing administrative tasks.

But when I go home and read, write, think, Tweet and collaborate in online spaces like our CTQ Collaboratory, I’m fulfilling the inexplicable vacuum of teacher learning in schools. It’s this intellectual and collaborative work I do in my livingroom in the evenings or at the local coffee shop on Saturday mornings that has impacted student learning in ways that traditional PLC structures never could, but it doesn’t have to be that way.