Authors: Austin Green, Shayla Read, Dr. Fran Rogers, and Dr. Jenny Lott Van Buren
Over the past few decades, professional development practices for teachers have shifted from teachers simply acquiring skills to reflecting on current practices and reforming the ways in which they teach to better meet student needs. A common model to support this shift is the Professional Learning Community (PLC). PLCs are meant to be an ongoing form of job-embedded professional development in which teachers collaborate in ongoing cycles of inquiry to achieve better results for students. An effective PLC starts with establishing a foundation of four pillars: mission, vision, values, and goals. For the purposes of this blog, we focus on the why and potential impact of each of these four pillars.
There is nothing worse than sitting in a “meeting” without an understanding of why you are there. Your mind begins to spiral out of control and your to-do list is growing, so you begin to plot your escape. You have learned about the three big ideas of PLCs, and recognize the potential power, but contemplate the relevance to your setting. You wonder how you are supposed to focus on learning, a collaborative culture, and a results-orientation when you have not engaged in any collective meaning-making? Your why is missing and nothing on this team is anywhere near collective in nature. Does this internal dialogue sound familiar? Many collaborative teams struggle with this ongoing type of frustration while PLC-ing, and identifying and resolving the source of this frustration is critical to any future success.
This is why laying a solid PLC foundation is a critical first step for collaborative teams. For most collaborative teams, this foundation does not exist, and the collective creation of a purpose, destination, behaviors, and checkpoints along the way are completely overlooked. Many collaborative teams jump right into doing the “work” of a PLC without a collective understanding of why each person is collectively committing to the work. The missing element of a solid PLC foundation paints the picture of exactly why PLCs can have a bad reputation. How can a collaborative team ever gain clarity without exploring and establishing this foundation? If clarity precedes competence, the missing link becomes quickly evident.
The Learning By Doing series provides incredible insight into the necessity of creating a solid foundation to establish a highly-functioning PLC. This foundation includes four pillars, the often Forgotten Four: Mission, Vision, Values, and Goals. Collaborative efforts around these four pillars have the power to provide clarity of purpose, a common focus, shared-ownership, and ultimately, better results for the students served. When teams address the Forgotten Four, members gain clarity about the why that should motivate all of the collaborative work of the PLC.
The first pillar of a PLC is a shared Mission aimed to identify why the PLC exists. Establishing a clearly articulated mission is an essential first step in establishing a solid foundation for the PLC. The shared mission should clearly identify and articulate a collective purpose. Knowing why the PLC exists makes the what more meaningful. When teams work collectively to develop a clear understanding of the why, the potential of the PLC is amplified and unified. A well-defined purpose sets the tone and provides direction for the work that will be accomplished as a team.
A unified purpose clarifies the team’s priorities so members can engage in the work that truly matters by changing teacher practice and impacting student achievement. When teams create a clear mission and identify why the PLC exists, this sharpened focus serves as the beacon motivating all decisions of the PLC. Once a clearly articulated mission is created, teams do not question the why of existence and know a precise, targeted direction. Beginning with a clear mission ensures that the remaining pillars of vision, values, and goals are headed in the right direction.
The next pillar of a PLC is a shared Vision. Many struggle to clearly define vision. Simply put, vision-casting moves beyond considering why the PLC exists to questioning what the PLC should become to meet its goals. However, just establishing a vision is not enough. Pseudo-PLCs may have a written vision statement, but staff members question its relevance and fail to use the statement to inform their decisions. The vision in effective PLCs becomes the measure of the team’s success. In The Light in the Heart, Roy T. Bennett challenges readers to “create a vision for the life you really want and then work relentlessly towards making it a reality.” True PLCs operate similarly. They routinely review the major principles of the PLC’s shared vision and use those principles to guide their daily efforts and decisions. Further, the team honestly assesses their reality and seeks effective strategies for closing the gap between their reality and the goals on which they are working.
When the PLC works to develop the shared vision, it is important that all voices are valued and all feedback considered before the vision is finalized. To frame and focus the discussion, consider questions such as these:
How will the vision we create or revise be able to guide our future work?
Can you see your role in in fulfilling this vision?
Are the components of the PLC vision in alignment with the school and district visions?
Once these questions are addressed and the vision is firmly established, PLC members gain clarity on the compelling future.
Once you know the Mission and the Vision of the PLC, you can begin to consider the third pillar, Values. Values exist to clarify exactly how the team must behave to achieve the PLC’s mission and vision. Clarifying these values, or collective commitments, is one of the most powerful, yet underutilized aspects of a PLC foundation. When collectively identifying these values is an afterthought, the results can be highly problematic and sometimes detrimental to the success of the team; this process is a must. Afterall, collective commitments serve as the promises team members create and honor in order to meet their shared vision for teaching and learning. When collective commitments are overlooked, teams miss out on the beauty of creating shared ownership and shifting the power of “I” to the power of “we”.
Clarifying collective commitments requires the contribution of each member’s voice, reflecting his/her core values and ways of being. We must remember and respect that each person enters the PLC with a set of experiences and understandings that are unique to that person. This is why calibration is a critical step. The calibration process allows an opportunity to meld individual experiences and understandings into a collective set of values, or clearly desired behaviors. When creating values, we must always honor independence while simultaneously striving for the interdependence necessary to achieve the team’s purpose and compelling future.
By creating collective commitments, the team reaches consensus regarding a unified set of group values that will support the team’s professional work. Once established, every team member is held accountable to the standard of each collective commitment. The next step is to create norms regarding how the team interacts and must behave to make the vision a reality. Norms provide team members psychological safety by establishing clear guidelines on how team members should act during each collaborative team meeting. In order to be effective, norms must be collaboratively developed, clearly defined, and action-oriented.
The final pillar, Goals, determines how the PLC will mark progress and emphasizes a focus on results. This step helps to clarify priorities, establish targets and timelines, and describe the actions necessary to achieve success. Therefore, it is critical that PLC teams establish and articulate clear goals for student learning and changes in teaching practices. Given the importance of this work, many PLC members wonder where to start when goal-setting. Perhaps your school or district has already established goals. If this is the case, it is important to realize that the achievement of these goals is dependent on whether or not your PLC community aligns its goals to the school or district goals. It may be beneficial to focus on a specific aspect of the larger, district- or school-wide goals. When writing your goals, think SMART (Specific, Strategic, Measurable, Attainable, Results-based, and Time-bound). A SMART discussion protocol may assist your group in developing an action plan. Once you have defined goals, establish dates for ongoing data review and update your action plan accordingly. Action plans should capture the three big ideas of a PLC: focus on learning, collective and collaborative efforts, and a result-orientation.
PLCs must get clear about the why, what, and the how of critical work in order to experience long-term success. Overlooking this step is an unwise decision, sure to reveal eventual problems. Establishing a solid PLC foundation helps to ensure that all team members have a joint understanding of why they exist, what they hope to accomplish, how they will behave to make those accomplishments, and how they will measure progress towards the accomplishments. Imagine the growth that will occur as teachers engage in collaborative and reflective work that focuses on changing instructional practices in order to accomplish common goals for student learning. This type of professional development is most impactful for student and teacher growth. Addressing the Forgotten Four lays the foundation and creates the avenue for collaborative work in support of student achievement.
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About the authors:
Austin Greene serves as Title I Elementary Math Academic Specialist for Greenville County Schools. Connect with Austin Greene on Twitter @AustinGreene5.
Shayla Read serves as Secondary ELA Academic Specialist for Greenville County Schools. Connect with Shayla Read on Twitter @shayla_read.
Dr. Fran Rogers serves as Middle Level Academic Specialist for Greenville County Schools. Connect with Dr. Fran Rogers on Twitter @franguinnrogers.
Dr. Jenny Lott Van Buren teaches mathematics at Powdersville High School in Anderson School District One. Connect with Dr. Van Buren on Twitter @vanburenEdD.