When Roesland Elementary learned this month that it had earned an exclusive national honor for closing the achievement gap among students, one of the key factors principal Jennifer Woolever cited in the school’s success was the implementation of professional learning communities.
That’s not a surprise to many district teachers, who said the movement to empower teachers to collaborate on instruction methods has at many schools been both a boon to student achievement and a morale booster among staff.
Though the concept of professional learning communities has been around for decades, the movement has gained considerable momentum over the past dozen or so years. In Shawnee Mission, the district’s Leadership and Learning team under the direction of Associate Superintendent Michelle Hubbard and Elementary Services Directors Kevin Hansford and Pam Lewis began rolling the concept out three years ago.
Through PLCs, teachers spend dedicated time with each other at least once a week to review data on student mastery of the concepts being taught in the classroom, to share their experiences with different instruction methods, and to troubleshoot problem areas or devise interventions for students who are falling behind.
For example, the third grade teachers in one elementary school building would spend one of their planning periods during the week meeting together to review data on student progress on key concepts, like multiplication tables. There may be six or seven students among all the third grade sections in the building who are struggling with the concept. The teachers may decide to have those struggling students come together to spend some dedicated time with a member of the third grade team with a particular talent for communicating the specific concepts the students haven’t mastered.
It’s an approach that some teachers say not only provides students with more personalized instruction, but also makes teachers feel like they have a real support system in place.
Jessica Leichter is in her third year of teaching in the district, and is currently a second grade teacher at Brookwood. She said the implementation of PLCs at that school has been a great boost to both students and teachers.
“For a long time the approach was that you had a single teacher in the classroom, and they had to try to meet the needs of every student in there,” Leichter said. “And looking back on that approach, I think it’s kind of a shame. Teaching can feel really lonely if it’s just you in your classroom with your students and you close the door every day.”
With the PLC approach, she said, not only do teachers feel like they have built in support, but kids feel like they have more champions inside the building as well.
“Our PLC, for me, has been about built-in professional development,” Leichter said. “You may have someone on your teaching team who has been teaching way longer than you have, and you can learn so much from each of those teammates.”
For the kids, it means an expanded network of adult allies.
“Instead of kids feeling like they’ve only got one teacher who is thinking about them, they’re interacting with three or four different teachers at different points,” Leichter said. “So they become ‘our’ kids — the whole team’s. It shows the kids that every single one of us cares about their success.”
Teachers say PLCs work best when they’re teacher-led
Hubbard brought Hansford over to Shawnee Mission from the Turner School District, where Hubbard had been superintendent prior to accepting her position here. As principal at Turner Elementary, Hansford had overseen the initial roll out of a PLC approach there.
When he came to Shawnee Mission, spreading the movement here became a focus — particularly as the district was seeing its demographics shift with more underserved students enrolled than in previous decades.
“There had been some research showing that among the highest performing schools in the country in being able to close the achievement gap, many were using this PLC framework,” he said.
Hansford and Hubbard initially pitched the PLC idea to a handful of elementary building principals and sent them to a conference on PLCs to get more experience with the concept. Since then, the district has continued to send teachers to PLC conferences as a way to seed the implementation of the concept at all of the district’s buildings.
“We’ve found that the teachers are coming back with a lot of positive energy and a sense of belief,” Hansford said. “It seems to really get people to see the possibilities.”
That was Leichter’s experience. She attended a PLC conference in Des Moines this fall.
“It can be a little overwhelming to think of all the things that the district is asking teachers to do — there are a lot of initiatives underway,” Leichter said. “But this is really easy to get behind. The big take away is that PLCs are just teachers working together. Teaching is an absolutely critical job. And we cannot do it alone. The stakes are too high. You have to work with other people. You have to work together.”
Still, some buildings have seen the PLC concept embraced more tightly than others. Leichter said that at Brookwood, building leadership has given teachers wide berth to provide their own PLC direction. That she said, has been key to its success. At buildings where PLCs have not been as teacher-driven, there has been less buy in.
Linda Sieck, the SM East Spanish teacher who is the head of the National Education Association – Shawnee Mission, said that’s not surprising.
“For true PLCs, they’re supposed to be very teacher driven,” Sieck said. “Ultimately, at the buildings where they are flourishing, they’re teacher led. I think that’s the big thing. The more input and direction teachers have in PLCs, the more we’re going to buy in.”
Sieck said it’s crucial that teaching teams be given the time in their schedules to make PLCs truly work.
“I think they have the potential to really make a lot of positive changes for the success of our students,” she said. “But they have to be done right and the time has to continue to be given.”