3 Pillars of strong PLCs

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By Bobbie Dunn

“Good is great’s worst enemy.”

This was a statement that really grabbed my attention at a Professional Learning Community, or PLC, conference that I recently attended.  There are many “good” schools, but to make them great, we can’t be afraid to take some risks and try new things.

Eric Twadell, the facilitator of my conference, started as a teacher, but has worked his way to superintendent of the Adlai Stevenson School District, the school that began the PLC movement.  The school started out really weak, with poor test scores, so they knew they had to try something new.  By working together, taking risks, and learning from their mistakes, the school created a PLC, and saw incredible improvement–but what’s most important, is that that incredible improvement has lasted for over a decade.

I’ve been teaching for three years at St. Croix Falls Middle School, but have recently had to relocate to Stanley-Boyd, where they feel that they’re a good school, but are ready to make the push to be great.  They’ve got a lot of big ideas, with the PLC being the most prominent. So, as a new teacher, I was recently able to attend a PLC conference facilitated by Eric Twaddle to learn about some of the expectations of my new school.

The conference lasted two days, and I learned many facets of PLCs. However, the “Biggest Big Idea” that was given was,

“The guiding principle of a PLC is that the purpose of the school is to ensure high levels of learning for all students.”

To do this, the school’s attention and energy needs to focus on student learning.  Not on what we’re teaching, but what the students are truly learning.  The question that needs to be asked when making decisions is, “What is the impact on learning?”  How are the students benefiting from the changes, or from what is happening in the classroom?  These are big questions, and things that should really be discussed and worked on as a group. Once you have that group established, there are many different strategies or techniques that can be used to help have a positive answer to those questions.

Stop Doing Lists

One idea introduced at the conference was the “Stop Doing List.”  While all schools spend time discussing goals at the beginning of the year, Eric Twadell explained that time spent on strategic planning or goal-setting is actually negatively correlated to student achievement.  In other words, wasting time talking about the same goals of making students learn more takes away from time that could be spent on more specific and beneficial ideas.

Because of this, Twadell spoke about the “stop doing list,” and how companies that create these lists are 90 times more likely to succeed.  Instead of thinking about the things we want to accomplish, it’s important to take time to think about the things that are currently happening that are taking away from our students’ education.  For example, students that miss a test day are usually sent out in the hall the next day to take the test.  However, when a student is removed from the class to take a test, that student is losing the learning time that the other students are receiving.  Another example was interruptions via loud speakers.  By interrupting a class to send a student to the office, all students are distracted.  It takes 10-year-olds 10 minutes to get back on-task when their learning is interrupted.  Placing these sorts of things on the “stop doing” list, helps teachers keep students in the classroom, and focused on learning.

Descriptive Review

Clearly, it’s important to do more than just “stop doing” things – we obviously need to start doing things in order to help our students!  One initiative that Stanley-Boyd is planning on during PLC time is Descriptive Review, which is basically a way of “fine-tuning” a lesson.

The purpose of this activity is not to critique the teacher, but to think about someone’s lesson, and develop ideas about how to make the lesson better.

During Descriptive Review, one staff member, the “tunee,” shares a lesson.  The other staff members, the “tuners,” take notes, initially keeping all comments to themselves.  Next comes time for questions.  Tuners ask any clarifying questions needed to fully understand the lesson.  Then the tuners spend time discussing positives, things to think about, and possible ways to improve the lesson.  This is done without the tunee, though that person may listen.  Notes are taken and shared with the tunee, who then shares information, not in defense of the lesson, but what he/she will take away from the information received.

The purpose of this activity is not to critique the teacher, but to think about someone’s lesson, and develop ideas about how to make the lesson better.  This is a positive activity, not just because the tunee will get new ideas for the lesson, but also for the tuners, who were able to have strong dialogue on different techniques, tools, and ideas that could be used in anyone’s curriculum.


The key to all of the parts of successful PLCs is not just cooperation, not just coordination, but collaboration.  While many schools talk about collaborating, few truly collaborate by definition.  Most schools cooperate.  People simply work together and get along.  Many schools and teachers participate in coordination, where there’s a common goal, but everyone works on their own task to achieve the goal.  With collaboration, however, everyone works together – each person may start with a different task, but the information is shared; people review each other’s lessons, observe what’s happening, and communicate freely throughout the process.  There is trust that all people will do their part and help where necessary.  When a team is able to collaborate, teaching can make it to the next level; when we learn from each other, we can truly grow as teachers.

I truly hope collaboration happens, but I think it can be difficult, and can take a long period of time.  Regardless of the school, when you think about the typical group of teachers, it often consists of young, new teachers, and older, more experienced teachers.  There are those that try new things all of the time, and those that stick with what’s worked for years and years.  There are those that want to work as a group, and those that are fine staying in their classroom doing what they think is best.

I feel I’m one of the more open, willing-to-try-new-things kind of teachers, but I also feel that it’s hard to truly collaborate with those that prefer to do things as they’ve always done.  Some people aren’t as open to trusting those people that they don’t know well, or that seem so different from themselves.  I’m very hopeful that collaboration is an easy process for those teachers that I’m working with, and again, since I haven’t yet been there, I don’t know how this process will work.  I will do all that I can to collaborate, by sharing, working hard, and taking on my share of the work.

After attending the conference, I’m confident that PLCs do truly enhance the education of students.  We always encourage teamwork at the student level because we know it benefits students.  It’s about time we encourage teamwork at the teacher level, because it will benefit both the teachers and the students.  I can see that it’s a lot of change, but I think it’s change that needs to happen, and I’m hopeful that more teachers start to realize we need to become more student-focused and collaboration-focused.  We can become great, and we can get all students to learn at a high level!

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