Supportive Conditions

Professional learning communities require two types of conditions that support a professional learning community — structures and collegial relationships. Structures include a variety of conditions such as size of the school, proximity of staff to one another, communication systems, and time and space for staff to meet and to examine current practice. Time for staff to meet is a crucial physical structure of a PLC.

Developing collegial relationships among the staff as they interact productively toward a goal is the second supportive condition. Collegial relationships include respect, trust, norms of continuous critical inquiry and improvement, and positive, caring relationships among students, teachers, and administrators. Co-Developer stories resulted in three categories of supportive conditions:

  1. creating structures that promote and support change,
  2. developing collegial relationships, and
  3. developing external support and resources.

Creating Structures That Promote and Support PLC Creation

Co-Developers realized the need to have structures in place to promote and support the creation of a PLC. Co-Developers reported that grade-level teams, leadership councils, and other committee structures at some sites supported collective learning and decision making among the school staff.

I [Co-Developer] participated in two of the four class groupings, kindergarten and 4th grade. Each teacher came with an Academic Assessment Rubric completed on each of his or her students that covered every aspect [educational services, achievement data] of each child. . . . It was a lengthy process but when we were finished I felt that they had done an admirable job of placing every child in the best learning environment possible. I was impressed with the extent that every teacher on the grade level knew every child. (Co-Developer O)

In addition, regular and meaningful faculty meetings served as a vehicle to bring all the staff together to discuss issues of importance to student learning.

The faculty meeting helped draw the teachers together into a shared sense of decision making, purpose, and direction. The faculty began to discuss how all the "bits and pieces" were a unified whole which worked together to help the children. (Co-Developer N)

Communication is another type of structure that represents a supportive condition. Co-Developers reported ways in which principals established communication systems at their schools.

The principal had already instituted communication systems that help teachers know what is going on in the school and the larger educational community. For instance, she weekly publishes a Need-To-Know publication that alerts teachers to necessary tasks, recommended reading, and other information. Also there is a large white board in the hallway where teachers pass to get to their mailboxes and the coffeepot. On this board daily messages are posted by her and other staff members to inform staff of happenings. (Co-Developer E)

Making time available for teachers to reflect and study about student learning issues is a critical component of a PLC. Co-Developers reported that some schools had begun to address the time issue, and some had creatively "captured" time during the school day.

The faculty has sufficient time available to them for collective learning — 2 days per month. One day is for a state-required faculty senate meetings. . . . The other day is for professional development. The use of time is controlled and determined by the school, not the central office administration. . . . In addition, the nine teachers in the lower grades have opportunity to meet before lunch and the six teachers in the upper grades have a similar time immediately after. (Co-Developer I)

The school staff agreed to write a proposal for "banked time" in order to promote an infrastructure that would provide the time and place for the school's staff to meet regularly and frequently to collectively increase the school's capacity to support and insure student success. (Co-Developer P)

The importance of time was most frequently noted in schools that didn't have it for planning and shared decision making. One Co-Developer described how the faculty at her site had used snatches of time to cover an array of school issues. Later, she lamented that convincing the school board of the value of time for teacher collaboration was likely to be a challenge.

Negotiation of time is tricky because nobody in the decision-making roles of the school district feels that they have a way of providing time for teachers to work together. (Co-Developer Q)

My concerns were and are focused on what the reaction of the school board will be when requests are made for additional planning time or for time for teachers to work together. The School Board will likely not respond positively to that, and I will need to do a considerable amount of work to convince them. (Co-Developer Q)

Another Co-Developer reported that lack of time for teachers to meet and collaborate about new strategies and their continuing work was a serious issue that limited their professional growth.

The lack of time is deemed a condition that prohibits attempts to explore and expand. . . . This school year, the principal has initiated learning activities for the staff by providing professional articles to be read by the faculty members and to be discussed. Although there has been a fairly positive response to the articles, the dilemma occurs with constraints placed on the issue of time. (Co-Developer C)

At two sites, Co-Developers were helping schools to understand how to use available time effectively and to their advantage. Thus the issue at these schools was not the availability of time but rather the good and productive use of it.

The teachers did not know what to do with their learning community time. As primarily sequential thinkers, this ambiguity was causing some concern and resentment. They would tell me: "Why should I come and stare at my colleagues when I could be working on my lessons?" The structure for collective learning was there, but the framework in which to work was not. (Co-Developer E)

Developing Collegial Relationships

Supportive conditions that help school staff interact productively and positively with one another as professional colleagues contribute to developing collegial relationships. Personal qualities of the principal were identified as being an important aspect of building such relationships among the school staff. Co-Developers noted when principals were warm and encouraging in their interactions with teachers.

At the school, the principal had been leading the campus as a collaborative team for three years. . . . She assumed leadership from a principal who was also collaborative and innovative, and she has successfully continued that style with the support of teachers, students, and community. (Co-Developer G)

One Co-Developer reported on the principal's approaches to developing trusting relationships among teachers.

In terms of respect and trust, the principal believes that she is working to increase the level of both. Her tactics include dealing with the teachers in an open and honest manner. She believes that it is important to 'call it as she sees it.' She has found that since her pattern has been to address classroom observations in a very direct manner and to note exactly what she is observing, the faculty feels that she is fair in her observations and addresses everyone on an equal plane. She hopes that this openness leads to a level of increased trust. (Co-Developer C))

Another Co-Developer reported on her role in helping staffs develop teamwork, trust, and consensus on goals.

The principal wants me to do team building activities so that the groups can learn to trust each other and work in an atmosphere of cooperation and collaboration. (Co-Developer M)

Developing and Using External Support and Resources

Co-Developers were quick to note existing and potential resources that would support and advance their work at their school sites. One Co-Developer appealed to the superintendent to provide a half-day substitute for the lead teacher in the project to give the Co-Developer an opportunity to discuss the CCCII project with the teacher.

The two superintendent Co-Developers recognized that their positions provided them with quick and efficient access to resources. One saw her unique contribution as assisting the campus with data collection and in accessing other supportive conditions necessary to build a community of learners.

With the direct involvement of the superintendent, a number of bureaucratic obstacles to the decision-making process are removed. The usual "red tape" of the routine process of getting additional funds appropriated and encumbered is substantially cut. Teacher requests for opportunities for additional professional development are greeted with an immediate and usually positive response. (Co-Developer A)

Co-Developers also noted that some principals used their positions to access needed resources to support the school. One principal Co-Developer described herself as a creative, resourceful person that has been known to solicit funds from whatever source is available.

I have tapped into federal funds (legally), as well as private donations to fund activities for teachers and students. (Co-Developer K)

Another Co-Developer described the determination of the principal in acquiring needed resources for her school.

Her perseverance in overcoming obstacles to get what she wants is a trait that brings resources to this school that might not be there otherwise. (Co-Developer E)

While acquisition of needed resources in the form of materials and equipment is important to schools that are in the process of becoming professional learning communities, it is also important to build connections with those outside the school who can support its endeavors. Parents, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and community partnerships thus become powerful resources for school improvement. Rather than making a broad sweep of available resources, however, one principal made judicious decisions about resources she wanted to tap. The Co-Developer described this more discretionary approach to accessing resources used by the assistant principal.

She is particular about resources in the sense that she doesn't go after just anything and everything, but at the same time she is always open to new possibilities. She does attempt to target her energy and time to those resources that can be most helpful to the school. She thinks of everything—from the back-to-school partner to local politicians. She will talk to whomever she needs to in order to move the school forward. (Co-Developer Q)

Next Page: Shared Personal Practice

Published in Issues ...about Change Volume 8, Number 1, Launching Professional Learning Communities: Beginning Actions (2000)