10 Fundamental Cultural Building blocks of PLC_Greg Kushnir

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Greg Kushnir, PLC at WorkTM associate.

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As a Solution Tree associate for the last 7 years, I have had the privilege of working with many groups of educators as they try to develop their Professional Learning Community (PLC). One of the things I try to make abundantly clear is that to become a PLC they must re-culture their school. Whether they are positive, negative or somewhere in between, all schools have preexisting cultures. The problem most schools face when beginning their journey is that the cultural ideals of a PLC are often in direct violation of their existing culture. As in the real world; when cultures clash there is often conflict. Change means stress and, as a result, school leaders can expect a certain degree of push-back. Whether this push-back is able to derail a school’s PLC efforts is dependent on the skill of the leadership team in supporting the desired cultural shift. I believe the schools that successfully move from conflict to collaboration have leadership teams that pay attention to 10 fundamental cultural building blocks.

1) Communication:

  • There is a clear core purpose and it is communicated both verbally and through adult action;
  • A non-negotiable list is created to clarify staff expectations;
  • The language of “I” and “Try” is replaced with “We” and “Will”. The word “Will” is a commitment to action and “We” means no one person is responsible for accomplishing our goals;
  • Goals are created and publicly communicated. Publicly communicating goals makes them much more likely to be accomplished.

2) Commitment:

PLC schools don’t pick and choose. They commit to deep implementation of all PLC concepts. Doug Reeves put it this way, “We found that for many change initiatives, implementation that was moderate or occasional was no better than implementation that was completely absent.”

3) Participation and Shared Responsibility:

Professional Learning Communities find ways for all staff members to contribute toward the accomplishment of their stated goals. This means that office staff, custodians, part time employees, educational assistants and singleton teachers must all feel like their efforts are making a difference.

Collaborative teams must be allowed to make decisions related to their work. It is ill advised for school leaders to believe that shared responsibility can be developed in a school where the leaders control every decision. Helping to facilitate the work of collaborative teams is very different than telling them what to do.

4) Shared Accountability:

If a school is to close the achievement gap and actually accomplish the mission of high levels of learning for every student, the teachers must develop an accountability to each other. Teachers have to take ownership for the results they achieve and must come to believe that their actions can change the result. When teams set SMART goals that align with school goals, develop common assessments, analyse and learn from data and are afforded the freedom to to be action oriented, mutual accountability is assured.

5) Respect:

Professional Learning Communities establish norms whereby they make collective commitments to each other. They understand that dissension is not a dirty word but exclusion might be. The rules they establish for themselves ensure respectful relationships develop and as a result, contribute to developing shared accountability.

6) Solution Orientation:

A Professional Learning Community thinks differently, they move past identifying the problem to relentlessly pursuing the solution. They are action oriented and eliminate outside factors as a reason for not changing behaviour.

7) Honesty:

Professional learning communities embrace an honest evaluation of their current reality. They examine every action and will confront any behaviour that is not in line with their core purpose. Honesty builds trust which is an essential element of all professional learning communities.

8) Support:

Accomplishing something that has never been done (learning for all), means that we need to aggressively break down the culture of teacher isolationism. Professional Learning Communities realize that they can never accomplish their goals if they leave teachers behind. They understand that to establish a culture that continually improves teacher practice, they must find ways to support all teachers regardless of experience or expertise. Punishing people into improving doesn’t work.

9) Equity:

In every school, teachers make daily decisions regarding what to teach, how to assess and how to support struggling students. Even though we know that the quality of decisions made in these areas has a profound impact on student achievement, most schools allow teachers make these decisions in isolation. While usually well meaning, the result is an inequitable classroom experience for students from one classroom to the next within the same school. Professional learning communities leave nothing to chance, collectively they insure that equity is assured for every child in curriculum, assessment and intervention. Teams of teachers engage in processes to determine curricular essentials and align them throughout the school, they develop common assessments and collectively analysis the data they produce ,and they develop a system of intervention that guarantees all struggling students additional time and support.

10) Celebration:

A gain, no matter how small is still a gain. Professional learning communities recognize this fact and as a result, they celebrate each success that moves them one step closer to accomplishing their shared goals. They understand that success breeds more success!

A universal truth in becoming a professional learning community is that it doesn’t happen overnight. However, school leaders can shorten the journey and make the road much smoother by understanding the importance of paying attention to their school’s cultural development.