Working teachers rarely have an opportunity to see their colleagues in action. They are either teaching or preparing for their next classes and observation time is minimal or nonexistent.
That’s a big reason why Gamble Rogers Middle School in northeastern Florida became a professional learning community.
“We had a lot of teachers who had a lot of strengths that were not necessarily being tapped into,” said instructional literacy coach Michelle Davis, who has spearheaded the school’s embrace of the PLC.
Heading into the fifth year of collaboration and focused learning that comes with PLCs, Davis can see the benefits. Educators were grouped in cross-curricular pairs so math and science teachers come together by grade, as do English language arts and social studies teachers. A schoolwide common vocabulary helps teachers of different subjects talk about cross-disciplinary concepts in the same way. It is clear to students now that they use the same formulas in math and science classes for different purposes, deepening their understanding.
Beyond these benefits to students, there are important schoolwide benefits of bringing educators together.
“Teachers’ strengths are being shared,” Davis said. “Teachers who never thought of doing something are trying it because they see something being successful in someone else’s class.”
Professional learning communities have grown in popularity as research continues to show that they can help school culture as well as student achievement. A review of 11 studies by University of Florida researchers, published in 2008, found measurable, positive impacts on teaching practice as well as student learning, as evidenced by performance on standardized tests.
In several schools studied, student proficiency on state tests went from 50% or fewer students passing to more than three-quarters following the transition to professional learning communities. At Gamble Rogers, tracking of student performance on district and state tests has shown steady improvement in the portion of students scoring in the highest proficiency categories.
Richard DuFour, a national expert on PLCs and other forms of collaboration, says professional learning communities have a profound impact on the structure and culture of schools, as well as the assumptions and practices of educators inside them.
“PLCs operate under the assumption that the key to improved learning for students is continuous job-embedded learning for educators,” DuFour and his co-authors write in "Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work."
At Gamble Rogers, early release days that were previously filled with faculty meetings and other work are now routinely saved for PLC group meetings. Davis, the assistant principal, and the principal rotate through PLC groups, ensuring one of them has a presence at every single meeting to answer questions and give necessary approvals for new classroom initiatives.
Going into its fifth year, the school’s PLC seems to be operating smoothly, but Davis says the development of the professional learning community was approached cautiously. So much about school improvement today is discussed in terms of teacher quality. Administrators didn’t want teachers to think the push for more collaboration was a result of their poor performance.
Instead, the PLC was framed as an opportunity to approach problems as a team. More hands, after all, generally make for less work. Teachers had the tendency to operate as islands before, all feeling solely responsible for their own students.
By the third year, Davis said teachers started approaching her and saying the school should never abandon PLCs. They were seeing student growth as a direct result of the collaboration, and they didn’t want to lose it. Starting with “baby steps” was an important aspect of the PLC’s eventual success.
Davis, who was a teacher in the district before moving into the instructional literacy coach position, says her colleagues at Gamble Rogers also seem happier and less stressed than they used to.
“Our school really has changed,” Davis said. “The culture has changed here and I think it has a lot to do with this collaboration.”