Our school district implemented the concept of the professional learning community (PLC) about 5 years ago. I would feel comfortable proposing that our initial implementation be part of a case study in how NOT to implement PLCs. There was very little vision, purpose, or leadership communicated to staff, and in the end, the effect was to create hour long blocks every Wednesday afternoon where groups of teachers got together to gripe and complain. At some levels, this block of time has evolved into an additional planning period (ostensibly one in which “curriculum” development is to take place), while in others it has become a “work period” in which state reports and data analysis are accomplished. This has been a major source of frustration for staff who see the need for collaborative vision and reform, but who feel helpless to lead.
As it happens, we implemented a 1-1 mobile learning initiative at our high school last school year, and as we worked with the principal to develop a vision for teaching and learning reform in that building, true professional learning communities began to emerge, almost spontaneously, and somewhat in spite of the current official PLC structure. Originally organized by subject areas, now we see collaborative efforts from teachers in cross-curricular areas forming groups to share experiences in using mobile technologies to teach. What binds them is not technology, curriculum or subject area, but vision, dedication to change and improvement, experimentation and a desire to collaborate. They form these groups to battle the isolation and loneliness they feel in trying to innovate and adapt on their own, and they seek support from each other as they share this quest. It’s been quite remarkable and instructional to see this development take place.
This movement is now translating down into our middle school, as they enter the first year of 1-1 mobile implementation. I would not say that the technology caused this change, but it has given common purpose to teachers, who now genuinely want to collaborate. There is a new feeling among staff that “We are all in this together.”
In both buildings, the leadership of the principal has been a key. Not in providing answers, but in supporting and encouraging experimentation, change, acceptance of failures, and the creation of a shared vision that comes from the staff, not from above. This is contrasted by the leadership provided at our elementary level, where the focus remains on implementing yet another reading program chosen by the administration in isolation, and dictated to the staff. At this level, teacher morale is low, isolation is the norm, and a sense of helplessness is pervasive. All considerations beyond the strict implementation of the reading program are secondary, including the use of any technology and learning in subjects outside of reading. The vision at this level is simple; bring reading test scores up by providing a system in which the teacher cannot “mess it up”.
As with our elementary reading program, technology by itself does not provide leadership, nor does it produce learning. But it does provide new avenues of teaching and learning, and with effective leadership, those avenues may be harnessed to produce collaborative efforts among teachers and can lead to the development of strong teacher leadership.
Robbins, P., & Alvy, H. (2004). The new principal's fieldbook: strategies for success. Alexandria: ASCD.
Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2006). A leader's legacy. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Son's, Inc.