There is overwhelming evidence in support of developing professional learning communities (PLCs) in schools to improve teacher collaboration that has a positive impact on student learning. Yet, for a number of schools that have embarked on a journey to embed PLCs, the process often stalls or collapses for a variety of reasons, despite good intentions.

To implement PLCs in schools, a number of things need to be in place, prior conditions, to enable the necessary changes in teacher behaviour that PLCs require to be successful and become a vital part of a school’s culture. Below are 5 essential understandings that schools need when commencing a PLC initiative:

Assemble a guiding coalition for PLCs.

Schools need to identify a team responsible for leading the development of PLCs. This team needs to be able to model the attributes of a PLC in their collaborative work, so that it sets the tone for others to follow. It should include members of the school leadership team in demonstrating a serious and ongoing commitment to establishing PLCs as part of a school’s culture. Furthermore, PLCs are not an initiative, or a project, they are a sustained way of collaborating in our schools, which become part of a school’s culture over time.

Read and read some more.

We can be too quick to dive into ‘doing PLCs’. It is important that a team reads extensively on the subject. A great way to do this is to undertake a book study, giving voices to all members of the team regarding their hopes and fears for moving towards clearer collaborative structures through the work of PLCs. One of the key benefits of reading together is that you can model elements of a PLC by conducting a book study. Furthermore, it is vital that the guiding coalition have a very clear understanding of what a PLC is and what it is not. Many schools claim to be ‘doing PLCs’ but when you see what they have in practice and compare that to what is written in much of the literature, they are completely different, as are the results for improving student learning.

Lose the term ‘PLC’, or be very strong in your definition.

This is a somewhat controversial suggestion but given the various experiences that teachers have had with PLCs and the different interpretations, losing the key term and acronym may be worthwhile. As schools change personnel, teachers bring different experiences to the table, which can very much muddy the waters of implementing PLCs as part of the culture. Comments from teachers may create confusion and resistance that schools do not require: Comments such as, “I did PLCs in my last school and they did not work,” or, “I did PLCs in my last school and this is what we did, it is so much easier than what you are asking for,” may adversely affect implementation. Therefore, through wider reading, it is necessary to gain a steadfast definition of what PLCs are and look like, so that there is clear direction, or avoid the term altogether if the negativity or misunderstanding associated with the term may hinder progress.

Change the culture in small groups before moving to a wider audience.

Small, incremental changes will lead to greater success in the long run, especially when re-shaping culture. Existing habits are hard to break, so careful planning is required. If leaders are identified for leading the work of PLCs, then give plenty of time for these PLC leaders to work together as a group and immerse themselves in the culture of a PLC before, setting them loose to begin with others. It is vital that PLC leaders first have the opportunity to see and feel what a PLC is like in practice, from working with protocols and norms, through to inquiring into student and teacher work and analyzing what needs to change to improve learning outcomes for students. Additionally, significant investment is imperative in coaching PLC leaders in having hard conversations with teachers who are resistant to the new way of working. If these hard conversations get passed back to the school leadership team, it undermines the process of creating PLCs capable of engaging in open and honest dialogue where the strengths of each teacher are valued.

Plan for regular time to be given to the work of PLCs.

This involves thinking beyond a few months or a year. As mentioned before, PLCs are a way of working, they are a culture, they are not initiatives or projects with start and end dates. The culture of PLCs has to be long-lasting. If a school is not invested in the long-term, then PLCs will not work and other so-called ‘priorities’ must not shunt aside the work of PLCs. When we speak of regular time, the commitment to PLCs must be frequent, with meetings at least bi-weekly. We are creatures of habit, if we do not have the chance to practice the behaviours that are so eagerly sought, then the culture cannot change. Culture is the acceptance of behavioural norms and a school’s culture is largely defined by the way in which teachers work together.

The implementation of PLCs in schools is serious work and there are no short cuts, as we are talking about shifting school culture. There are no quick wins and the work has to be deliberate, purposeful and remain front and center on any agenda for PLCs to be successful. We do not, just ‘get there’ with PLCs, as they are a way of working that needs to be constantly valued with a preference for teamwork, which does not come naturally for many of us. Creating PLC’s is hard, challenging work that has huge rewards for both teachers and students if schools pay attention to careful planning and perseverance.