Professional Learning Communities Under Construction

A learning community of professionals in a school represents a viable context in which teachers and administrators can share decision making, collaborate on their practice, and hone their skills to increase student learning. Transforming a school to engage staff in operating this way is neither simple nor easy. It requires significant alteration of both structural and normative aspects of schooling, for the purpose of improving teachers’ knowledge and skills so that student learning increases.

While research repeatedly underscores the need for more schools to function as learning communities (Newmann & Wehlage, 1995; Darling-Hammond, 1996; Hord, 1997; DuFour & Eaker, 1998; Reyes, Scribner, & Paredes Scribner, 1999; Thiessen & Anderson, 1999), what is not so clear are the specific actions taken to develop such a community within schools.

SEDL researchers have spent the last three years studying the evolution of professional learning communities in schools in order to identify such actions. Five schools were selected for study from across SEDL’s five-state region that approximated professional learning communities according to the five dimensions. The schools reflected urban, suburban, and rural settings and represented to a significant extent the diversity of the region that SEDL serves.

Data from each of SEDL’s professional learning community study sites were analyzed to identify similarities and differences in the approaches each school took to re-create itself as a community of continuous inquiry and improvement. Researchers were looking specifically at the development of actions and structures that enabled school staff to identify a shared vision, to learn together and make informed decisions collectively, and to collaborate with peers in critically examining the quality of student work.

Significant themes were found across the school sites. While some of these findings are not new to educational research, they are actions of significance among the schools in regard to their development as professional learning communities. The themes reflect the five most salient aspects of professional learning community development in schools where staff have found the means to transform the way they operate. The five themes include the role of the principal, a culture of collaboration, a commitment from all staff, the presence of a catalyst, and the use of a critical friend/change facilitator.

The Role of the Principal

First, principals played an extremely critical role in nurturing the development of professional learning communities by providing conditions and resources to support staff in their continuous learning.
Principals shared decision making with teachers on substantive issues and regarded them as leaders in school improvement efforts. They developed and facilitated organizational structures for teachers to participate in decision making, and they implemented systems for obtaining input from a broad spectrum of the professional staff on a regular basis.

In so doing, the principals kept the vision of what the school was striving to become alive and at the forefront of attention. At one school, the principal repeated the vision statement each day during morning announcements; at another, the principal used the vision to guide staff as they made decisions about staff development and the formation of focus groups. These principals were torchbearers of the vision for improving their schools.

Principals also viewed the professional staff as a resource for school improvement and took steps to increase its leadership capacity. They often encouraged teachers to assume leadership roles in the development of new programs and activities; involved teachers in decisions on issues such as departmentalization, schedules, faculty study topics, and staff development budgets; and provided data to inform decision making. While expanding the leadership capacity of individuals within the professional staff, they in fact expanded the capacity of the school to successfully address problems and their solutions.
High expectations were held and communicated by principals at each professional learning community site. Sub-par performance (in terms of student learning results) was not acceptable to the principals, and high expectations were modeled throughout the school day. Principals maintained a visible and knowledgeable presence in their schools, interacting with teachers. This enabled them to monitor school issues firsthand. They frequently visited classrooms and were often in the hallways, where they interacted informally with teachers and students. Each principal recognized and reinforced staff efforts by setting a tone of support and encouragement, by upholding teachers’ decisions and actions that were in the best interest of their students, and by praising staff frequently.

The conditions and resources to support professional staff in continuous learning and collaboration were provided by the principal. Each of the principals fostered partnerships with external entities so that their school staffs had professional contacts outside of the school and district. The external contacts varied from partnerships with area universities to E-mail correspondence between teachers and other professionals. Several of the principals brought quality professional development opportunities to the campus and allotted the time for teachers to debrief with others after visits to other schools.

Principals also encouraged collaboration among the professional staff by providing time for teachers to meet and discuss issues related to school improvement. In some cases, schedules were arranged to allow teacher teams to have the same planning period; in others, early release times were negotiated with the district by principals to allow the total staff to come together for planning and learning. Classroom configurations were rearranged at a few of the sites to bring teachers together in closer proximity. For example, at one school the principal moved special education classes from portable buildings to the main building in order to facilitate interactions between special education and regular education teachers.

Finally, principals promoted and encouraged communication among staff through written and oral daily announcements, staff newsletters, and postings on bulletin boards. In addition, some principals arranged to have minutes of meetings distributed to all teachers. Staff reported that they were well informed about school issues and believed that the communication structures fostered coordination of effort and unity of purpose.

A Culture of Collaboration

Staff from each of the schools reported that organizational structures existed to support them in their collaborative planning and learning together. The time provided to teachers on a regular basis, and in sufficient quantity, allowed them to discuss issues in both breadth and depth and to engage in meaningful and shared learning.

The organizational and physical structures that supported teacher collaboration varied. Grade-level meetings allowed teachers to plan instructional activities together and to discuss common issues. Teachers also met in cross-grade teams to collaborate within discipline areas, for example to discuss curriculum concerns. At one school, “design teams” were authorized to make school decisions on behalf of the total staff. Because time was allotted to these activities, teachers had regular and ongoing opportunities to problem-solve around critical issues, and to engage in whole-staff learning and reflection about their work. At each campus, teachers were committed to using the time they had in a productive way, and furthermore, they had a plan for doing so.

In professional learning communities, a spirit of professional respect and trust motivates teachers to work together on school improvement initiatives. Teachers view themselves and their colleagues as members of a team of professionals who can, by working in concert and in support of one another, address the challenges that face the school. Teachers collaborate on issues directly related to student learning. At two of the campuses, teachers worked together on curriculum concerns. Others reported faculty study topics and more generalized staff development on issues directly related to student learning. Teachers monitored the implementation of improvement initiatives and/or innovations on a regularly scheduled basis.

Professional staff in learning communities understand the importance of communication with one another, as well as with others outside the school. While formal communication strategies were employed—i.e. minutes of meetings, bulletin boards, weekly newsletters to staff, and so on—the informal communication that also occurred was equally valuable. Teachers valued casual exchanges with each other in unstructured settings and found that such interactions significantly reduced the isolation that they often feel and strengthened the professional and personal relationships across the staff. Staff also utilized various modes of communication with parents and community members. Newsletters, parent conferences, and telephone contacts were customary forms of communication. Teachers at one school reported making home visits to help them better understand the social and economic environments from which their students came.

In these professional learning communities, teachers supported one another’s improving professional practice. In most cases, teachers made informal visits to colleagues’ classrooms and engaged in group discussions. Teachers sought advice and opinions about effective approaches to working with students and about sharing instructional materials. One campus was even beginning to implement a more formalized system of collegial support, with a core group of teachers willing to act as “critical friends” for one another.
The professional trust and respect that pervaded the campuses strengthened the staffs’ unquestioned commitment to school improvement initiatives and allowed teachers to take risks in implementing new strategies. It created a culture in which teachers were willing to represent their peers in making decisions that affected the entire faculty and to critically evaluate the success of their improvement efforts. Teachers were often willing to meet after school hours to plan and complete tasks. At one school, teachers reported that they considered their professional colleagues as friends and often interacted with them on a personal level beyond the school day.

A Commitment from All Staff

Within these professional learning communities, teachers and administrators held themselves accountable to students, parents, community, and one another.

Principals held high expectations for their teachers by asking them to serve on decision-making teams and to acquire the information necessary for themselves and others to make sound instructional decisions. Teachers were expected to grow professionally; many developed professional growth plans and portfolios that reflected the goals of the school and their desire continually to improve instruction. Principals asked teachers to participate in grade-level and subject-area meetings, communicating with colleagues about teaching and learning decisions and practice. In effect, principals expected their staff to be leaders in every sense of the word, holding themselves responsible for making the best possible decisions for their students, and the teachers rose to the expectation.

Teachers, in turn, held the same expectations for themselves. Their focus on students, student learning, and student needs was clear to all who entered the school. Hard work was a norm at these sites, where staff regularly committed long hours to planning, both independently and collaboratively, for each day of teaching. Teachers responded to the call of decision making by contributing thoughtfully and purposefully to the decisions made for their campuses, holding up the school’s vision as a filter for all decisions, working together toward a common goal.

Immense value was placed on teachers’ learning for improvement in professional learning communities, evidenced by a dedication to regular planning times with grade-level or subject-level groups, where teachers discussed strategies, shared ideas, planned and solved problems. Teachers responded positively to opportunities for self-analysis, assessing and monitoring student progress to get continuously better at doing what was best for their students’ learning. The emphases on continuous learning and accountability to themselves and their students led to the incorporation of the school vision for teachers’ professional development. Staff voluntarily participated in, and in some cases created, opportunities for faculty studies and continuous learning for teaching and administrative staff. Interdependence among teachers was supported and contributed to a stronger, better-functioning staff. Teachers found solutions by learning and working together toward a common goal, realizing that learning and change take time and effort. Staff in professional learning communities dedicate themselves to such learning, where it becomes embedded in the values and norms schoolwide.

The Presence of a Catalyst

External factors can serve as significant catalysts in the development of professional learning communities. Whether it was the establishment of a partnership with a university or the reorganization of a school or district, external factors caused a change of focus to occur in four of the five schools in this study. Reorganizations allowed the principals of two of the schools in the study to hire a majority of their current staff, which leads to speculation that the principal looked specifically for teachers who would understand and support the school’s growth toward a professional learning community. The adoption of a new curriculum enhanced collaboration among staff at two of the schools, which ultimately fostered a more interactive, collegial community in their work toward school improvement.

In these situations, the importance of strong leadership within a school community was clearly evidenced. While the catalysts were not necessarily negative or dramatic, they effectively served as a means for identifying a new focus for teachers and administrators. In each event, the principal provided the insight and leadership to seize the catalyst as an opportunity for change. The events provided each principal an opportunity to alter the direction of the school significantly, and each principal accepted the terms of such a challenge with foresight and determination. Most important, the leadership in these schools was critical in creating the support and structures necessary for growth and development of the staff in this new direction.

The Use of Change Facilitators

Change facilitators encouraged, supported, and participated in strategies enabling school staffs to plan together or to talk with one another about their work. Working directly with teachers rather than only through or with the administration communicated that the change facilitator was willing to get at the center of the school change, by looking at what teachers do in their classrooms.

Offering processes to bring teachers together to discuss issues of concern, studying and learning alongside teachers about new practices, and modeling one’s own interest in learning by being directly involved with teachers communicates a message to school staff about the importance of their efforts in developing as a professional learning community.

Change facilitators were able to clarify how a staff’s actions supported the values to which they were committed. The people in this role also assisted administrators and staff in redirecting their focus upon what they believed to be possible, identifying resources that could help them achieve their goals, and reducing distractions that might get them off course.

Next Page: Final Thoughts

Published in Professional Learning Communities: An Ongoing Exploration