The definition of a professional learning community (PLC) varies from district to state. For this strategy, we are defining a PLC as a faculty group organized for continuous improvement and professional learning around specific initiatives, goals, and teaching/learning structures that require ongoing data analysis such as RTI. The keys to a successful professional learning community are clarity of purpose and autonomy. Therefore, it is important to identify, engage, and empower key faculty members and define the goals of any PLC. This strategy outlines the work of a new, or ongoing, PLC.
Create a list of the school or district initiatives, organized by desired outcome, to circulate to the faculty, and ask them to rank them by their interest (see the Establishing Goals and Roles in the BetterLesson Lab for a PLC strategy for more information). You may also already have done an inventory of faculty strengths and interests; if so, you should use this information in addition to the faculty initiative interest rankings to create PLC groupings.
In determining the groups, provide choice whenever possible. If possible, encourage groups to create their own leadership structure. It is a solid practice to make the PLC creation process as transparent as possible. For example, you can give teachers the opportunity to choose or opt into specific PLCs during a faculty meeting.
Have PLC groups establish norms (to learn more about setting norms, consult the "Norms: The Secret Sauce to Productive Meetings" strategy in the BetterLesson Lab). If possible, give PLCs time to create norms and complete the following step during a faculty meeting so that the entire community is on hand to participate and support one another.
Have each PLC group review their assigned desired outcome or goal and indicators of growth and success.
Have each group backwards plan, setting sustainable and measurable targets that reflect both patience as well as ongoing planning and reflection.
Ensure that district/school leadership sets the structure and logistics for PLCs to operate and protects their working time. A weekly meeting structure is ideal, as well as a recurring schedule (i.e. once a month) to share PLC work with the entire faculty.
Implement the PLC meeting structure. As PLCs continue to meet, use best practices to support their efficacy. For example:
To create clear and specific agendas, consult the Creating a Distributed Leadership Model: Meet Demands by Sharing the Load strategy
To seek PLC feedback, consult the Seeking Authentic Feedback to Improve Practice strategy
To ensure progress is being made, encourage PLCs to use measurement and data analysis to stay on their tightly-focused outcome track.
Analyze the efficacy of the PLC purpose, structure, and impact, and adjust on a quarterly basis.
Coordination, communication and scheduling are key to the success of teams. A virtual meeting setting can become an exercise in frustration if it is viewed only as a vehicle for coordination, or as the only way to coordinate. For coordination and planning during distance learning, get a lot of thinking done first, using agendas, examples, and coordination between leaders to get started, and use precious meeting time to answer questions, co-craft solutions, set next steps and assign tasks. Make sure every meeting has a purpose, and err on the side of having more short meetings aligned to specific goals or tasks, than fewer larger and very long meetings tackling multiple topics. For nurturing and self care, build some human connections into meetings, such as a short icebreaker (Yucks and Yeahs!, Sunshine and Rain).
Slow down to speed up. Check your mindset before starting. Are your leaders only those with formal titles? Longest years of service? Or are your experts those who have an interest and capacity? This work takes a team! Using those who have knowledge, skills, and an interest in participating to divide the responsibilities is the sane and reasonable way to do this work.
Create a team dedicated to the switch to distance learning. Be transparent. The first time teachers hear about this team shouldn't be after a team is formed. Recruit but also ask. Key members include teacher leaders/department chairs, tech support, counselors, school librarians, regular and special teachers who have demonstrated an interest in leadership as well as skills in the integration of technology into the classroom and enthusiasm for supporting others. Try to do this with a human touch, a video rather than an email for example. Use some sort of simple survey tool, such as a Google Form, to gather information from teachers on interests and expertise related to distance learning. More information and models of survey questions are found in the Skills & Knowledge Inventory section of BetterLesson's Creating a Distributed Leadership Model: Meet Demands by Sharing the Load strategy linked below.
Have the team reflect on what is needed. Using the 4 Pillars, 8 Guiding Questions Questionnaire found in the resources below can help everyone remember all of the elements of an effective distance learning plan.
Have each team member write a vision for distance learning. This isn't a formal document. It is two to three sentences and is meant to address what you hope to put into place. Don't skip this step, it's important for establishing a shared commitment and common language to do this work. For example, "My vision for distance learning is a blend of face-to-face teaching and nurturing time, whole class, small group, and individual sessions and synchronous learning tasks, that give students some choices that reflect their learning strengths and interests, as well as opportunities to collaboratively work with classmates.
The team uses their individual visions to craft a shared vision to distribute to teachers and parents. Share it as an update, one of the ongoing messages you'll be sharing to keep stakeholders informed. It could be that members of the team will need to be changed over time, and you'll have an informed community to draw from. And consider this, you could create family liaisons! Yes, this feels like we are taking a lot of time and the need to get this done is urgent. But the alternative is worse, such as repeatedly starting and stopping as tools and ideas chosen without a process or vision are tried and abandoned.
Inventory the current reality. What is the student to device ratio? Are there students who do not have access to the internet? Do those students have access to smartphones? To data? How will students with multiple users and few devices manage?
Do some research. The resources below provide some high quality tips, suggestions, and tools. Keep in mind that some tools will start out free, and after users have invested time in using the tool will switch over to a paid subscription. There are so many excellent free tools, you can save the budget for the specialized tech tools that might be needed such as adaptive learning platforms that provide practice to students and data to teachers, and specialized tools for specific needs.
Divide the work and use surveys, phone calls, whatever it takes to find out the current reality for students. Create shared school based documents that all teachers will be able to access as they develop lessons.
And, look outside of the school to supplement the support students need. Can the public library lend devices, provide hotspots? Can major chain stores give the school system devices? Ask the internet and data providers for your area for free internet hookups and access, and data hotspots. Can essential businesses such as grocery stores and pharmacies keep some of those packets at their counters, where parents can pick them up? Can the schools and public library maintain their internet signal, even boost it, so that students who can get "there" by car can tap into the internet signal from the car, in order to do those parts of the work that are more engaging and interactive such as virtual class meetings, to watch videos, etc.
We suggest the team divide into narrowly focused working groups and set a list of tasks and responsibilities. Some ways to do this would be around grade bans, in particular to address the needs of K-2 or 3 which are unique in a distance learning setting. Additional working group ideas:
synchronous tools for teaching and collaborative student work
tech tools specific to curriculum currently in use
asynchronous tools that are engaging, as well as content related, for students
students with significant learning challenges, disabilities, and English Language Learners
As the working groups engage in their task, continue to use the 4 Pillars to insure equity, access, learning/nurturing needs, privacy requirements, and ease of use for both students and teachers, connections between tools (i.e., a school using Google might focus on those tools that utilize Google sign ins, young students benefit from ease of access such as the use of QR codes).
Go slow to go fast. Creating effective PLCs is not the work of a day or a week.
PLCs should not be only the work of school leadership. In order to have the faculty group act as a community, it must be treated as a community. A community operates collaboratively. It will require patience and honesty. It is sustained by the efforts of all, not just the leadership.
Take the time to investigate tech tools that support speedy collaboration and communication. These are not a substitute for face-to-face work, but they do provide the means to keep up the momentum in between PLC meeting times.
Set aside the time for PLCs to meet, and protect it no matter how tempting it is to use the time for something else. Unless it is an emergency, do not take time back from the community to meet ordinary, pressing, school-related demands.