The Ongoing Process of Creating a Thriving PLC at HBCS
By: Byron Terrell Williams
HARBOR BEACH -- This August, 22 HBCS staff attended the PLC at Work Conference in Detroit, Michigan. While there, teachers and administrators learned about a transformative process that has been proven to impact the way teachers teach and students learn. When we look back on our educational experience, we all have different responses based from our individual experience. Some of us look back and remember kind, hard-working teachers, friendly principals, encouraging and inspiring role-models and examples. The unfortunate reality is that some look back and remember traumatic experiences with teachers and administrators; they remember strict teachers, strong feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness. They remember adults that treated them as failures and menaces to society. With this reality in mind, it sets the stage for explaining why a professional learning community is critical to the success of every student.
What is a PLC?
In order to best understand what a PLC is, we must first address what it is not. A PLC is not a(n) program, verb, meeting, individual matter, or book club. A PLC cannot be purchased, and it is critical that in order for the term to retain its meaning, one must define and understand it accurately. A PLC is an ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve. In more simple terms, a PLC is to ensure that ALL students learn at high levels (grade level or higher) and that teachers engage in collaborative teams, working interdependently to achieve common goals while engaging in perpetual learning themselves, creating an environment of innovation and experimentation.
Photo caption: HBCS teachers collaborating during the 2017-2018 academic school year following the adoption of the PLC model.
If you are still struggling with the concept of a PLC, let me share an example of it at work. Mr. Smith began class, teaching the week’s area of focus. He could clearly see that some students were getting the lesson while some weren’t. Fortunately, after class he was able to sit down with his peer counterpart and explain that after giving an assessment of the class there were specific students that clearly did not understand the material. Mr. Smith has some options, (1) Continue teaching and tell the students who didn’t show proficiency to pull up their bootstraps and learn the material while he moves on to the next area of focus. (2) Ask his counterparts to collaborate, having one teacher take the group of students who learned the material and are ready for more and continue on the course. Then Mr. Smith can take those students from his class and his counterpart’s classes and focus on re-teaching the material for those that struggled with it the first time. This second option is an example of the ongoing process of a PLC. You have teachers collaboratively working together, then assessing student learning and creating a system of interventions and extensions to ensure students who struggled receive additional time and support for learning in a way that is timely, directive, diagnostic, and systematic, and students who demonstrate proficiency can extend their learning.
The PLC process is revolutionary in the field of education. It addresses the issue that prevents every student from receiving an education based on their varying individual needs. Superintendent Dr. Shawn Bishop said, “The PLC process is about recognizing that every child that enters our doors deserves a guarantee that he or she learns both academically and socially.” Dr. Bishop has been the literal “captain” of this process we Pirates are adopting. “It’s about approaching our students as if they are our own personal children. It is about how each of us must completely commit to working together as a team to guarantee that each child achieves past what he or she would have imagined possible,” said Bishop.
What drives a PLC?
According to Learning by Doing: “There are three big ideas that drive the work of the PLC process.” The three big ideas are: (1) a focus on learning, (2) a collaborative culture and collective responsibility and (3) a results orientation. There are four key questions of a PLC that ensure a genuine PLC process focus when the questions are the center of discussions throughout the PLC process. They are: (1) What do we want our students to learn? (2) How will we know they have learned it? (3) How will we respond when learning did not take place? And (4) How do we respond when learning has already occurred? Harbor Beach Community Schools (HBCS) staff attended the PLC at Work Institute Conference in Detroit, Michigan, August 6-8. They learned from top professionals who are “veterans of the PLC process.” Each “veteran” who presented at the conference has fully and successfully implemented the PLC process in their respective schools where they were administrators. These schools went on to be nationally recognized for the adaptation to the PLC process and the evidence-based improvement to their schools’ culture and effectiveness.
What does the adaptation of the PLC process mean for HBCS?
“Last summer we had a team of 16 [HBCS staff] voluntarily give up their summer and spent time away from their families to discover the PLC process, driving 16 hours to Madison, Wisconsin,” Dr. Bishop emphatically declared. This year will be the second year of HBCS continuing on the PLC journey. Bishop went on to say, “What impresses me the most about our school system is not just the learning that took place, [it] is the K-12 commitment to doing whatever it takes for our students.” The three-day conference consisted of internationally acclaimed professionals in the education field with a expansive knowledge and experience. Most of them were published authors and advocates of the PLC process. HBCS staff gained a wealth of knowledge from daily keynotes, breakout sessions, panel discussions and team time to discuss and plan. Equipped with much more than just theoretical practices, HBCS staff were endowed with evidence-based information showing the impact of the PLC process on schools over time through heart-wrenching, inspirational stories, and research.
The PLC process addresses everything in a school and/or district’s approach to teaching and learning from dress code and disciplinary practices to assessments and lesson planning. Mike Mattos – author, administrator, and advocate of the PLC process – during his keynote presentation, exhorted the audience to go back to their schools and review and revise school policies and challenged that if the school policy doesn’t affect whether we ensure that all students learn at high levels that we remove or change the policy. He charged educators not to allow our biases, such a “gum chewing or wearing hats” to distract from weightier matters such as if a student has learned the essentials in the class and is receiving the support necessary for learning to take place. He warned that some teachers who decide that they are going to “teach the student a lesson” may be the determining factor in affecting whether the student ends up in jail, on drugs or living in poverty.
For an area like Harbor Beach where traditions are very important, it is crucial to differentiate between tradition and school culture. Traditions are the beliefs and behaviors that are passed on from generation to generation, and culture describes the characteristics of a certain society or group at a point in time. Dr. Anthony Muhammad explained that there are toxic school cultures (meritocracy) and healthy school cultures (egalitarianism). In a toxic school culture, “Educators believe that student success is based on students’ level of concern, attentiveness, prior knowledge, and willingness to comply with the demands of the school, and they articulate that belief in overt and covert ways. Educators can create policies and procedures and adopt practices that support their belief in the impossibility of universal achievement.” Meritocracy is defined as a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement. Dr. Muhammad called for “a major shift in paradigm” regarding the invitation to learn versus the guarantee of learning in education. He then explained a healthy school culture is when “Educators have an unwavering belief in the ability of all of their students to achieve success, and they pass that belief on to others in overt and covert ways. Educators create policies and procedures and adopt practices that support their belief in the ability of every student.”
How can I help the PLC process moving forward?
Members of the Harbor Beach and surrounding communities may have wondered why HBCS has had an early release on Fridays since last year? With the PLC process, school administrators are encouraged to create time in the school’s master schedule for staff to collaborate, discuss the varying needs of each individual student, and most importantly act as a result of what was discussed and based off the findings from the assessments.
Moving forward, it is imperative that all members of HBCS continue collaborating and adapting lesson plans, interventions, and extensions when necessary. Michael Roberts, author and PLC advocate and presenter, said, “Perfection is not required. Relentlessness is [while] seeing PLCs through difficult times.” He shared how a successful PLC comes after faithfully failing, and they grow gradually over time. A PLC can run the risk of being “PLC lite or diet PLC.” This is when “educators rename their traditional faculty or department meetings as PLC meetings, engage in book studies that result in no action, or devote collaborative time to topics that have no effect on student achievement—all in the name of the PLC process.” He went on to say, “These activities fail to embrace the central tenets of the PLC process and will not lead to higher levels of learning for students or adults.” In our pursuit to becoming and thriving as a PLC, we must be relentless, hold one another accountable, mutually take responsibility for the learning of our students, and remain committed to the cause of learning for all students.
For more information on the PLC process go to allthingsplc.info.
The author Byron Terrell Williams is a native of Pontiac, Michigan and was a first-generation college student. In 2013 Williams became the first male in his family to graduate from a four-year college. Currently Williams serves at Harbor Beach Community Schools as the Education and Career Advisor and is passionate about advocating for youth and youth motivational speaking. Williams advocates that college was his ticket out of poverty.