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-by Tim Grivois-Shah, Ed.D., Director of Professional Learning and Community Engagement

The most powerful way to enhance the quality of teaching and learning in a school or district is to establish a transformation-centered professional learning community. And, the fastest way to ensure that a professional learning community decays into a stack of agendas, templates, and binders is to neglect the relationships at the center of our work.

Teachers from the Summer PLC Institute
The work of Professional Learning Community must first be about the people in the community.

While not always true, most teachers experience professional learning communities (PLCs) as a weekly team meeting to develop common instructional goals, agree on how to assess the goals, and to use whatever data emerges to sort students into groups. The assumption underlying this model of PLC is that the heart of a professional community is an accurate spreadsheet. It is not.

In case of directive to implement PLCs, open the box.

One way to establish PLCs is to purchase this box. Inside the box is a “package of self-guided professional development [that] includes all the tools educators need to transform their schools into successful PLCs.” 

I have read three of the titles in the box, and they are outstanding. I am confident that an educator who reads every title in the box will be equipped to implement many helpful strategies that may foster some level of collaboration and enhance academic achievement. One of the titles even addresses happiness as being important to teaching somehow. What the rest of the box communicates, though, is that 1) professional learning community happens by following a set of manuals and 2) the heart of a professional learning community is an accurate spreadsheet. 

The result of spreadsheet-centered PLCs, according to the Gates Foundation, is that “Teachers are not satisfied with professional development (PD) formats that local education agency leaders overwhelmingly want to spend more time on” and PLCs are where gap between what teachers wish they could avoid and school leaders dream of expanding is the widest.

Focus on teaching and learning.

Often, educators, trainers, and vendors within the PLC world spend copious resources and energy insisting that schools think more about ‘learning’ and less about ‘teaching,’ as though learning could happen without teachers’ expertise.

However, our experience at CITY Center for Collaborative Learning seems to mirror what teachers told the Gates Foundation: Teaching and learning happen side by side, through the relationship between teachers and students that grow while working together on whatever the instructional goals might be. To increase what students learn, enhance the quality of the relationships that truly form the heart of professional learning community.

Relationships first. Everything else is just a box with stuff in it.

The good news is that spreadsheet-centered PLCs are optional. Another option is a transformation-centered PLCs where the first priority is to attend to the people who lead the learning. 

Imagine a typical PLC meeting for a teacher. Now, imagine PLC meeting that began with delicious food and where all administrators, teachers, and staff held each other in positive regard. For a PLC meeting to be a place where professionals experience love and belonging, the work of a PLC must first be about building warm, trusting relationships between professionals. 

Most of my work, whether leading Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports training or helping teachers enhance Professional Learning Community meetings, is usually about increasing the amount of time we talk to one another. Professional learning communities that work understand that behind every data point beat the hearts of actual students and teachers coming together.