On June 9-11, five classroom teachers and three administrators including myself attended Solution Tree's Professional Learning Communities at Work Institute in St. Charles, Missouri.  Without reservation this is the most beneficial conference I have ever attended for two reasons:

  • The entire team commented on the quality of the keynote speakers as well as the break-out sessions.  In general, the hallways were empty and the break-out rooms were full.   This speaks to the quality of the super-majority of the speakers.
  • I was amazed by the connectedness among all the keynotes and breakouts.  Too many times, I have experienced conferences that lack a cohesive theme.  This was clearly not the case.  All of the speakers made explicit connections to the "big ideas" of a professional learning community.  
Our district has a year under our belt exploring and beginning to implement the professional learning community philosophy.  Our progress varies by building and team, but all teachers are familiar with and have participated in at least one learning team focused on student learning during 2010-11.  The educators from our district attending the conference had read a chapter from Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work as well as a webinar by Rick and Becky Dufour on the idea.  Several of them had read Learning by Doing which was given to all attendees as part of registration.  

Here is a summary of our collaborative notes:

Context:  Educators work really hard.  No teacher comes to school thinking "How can I screw up kids' lives today?" 
Problem: "There is no way a single teacher has all the time, all the knowledge, and all the skills to meet the needs of every child."

We shouldn't be "doing" PLCs...it should be the way we operate.  This concept cannot be accomplished in a year or two or five - it is ongoing. 

We need to continue focus on learning (there was quite a bit of grading talk at this conference!)  Our teams should be spending their time continually answering these questions:

  1. What is it we expect kids to learn? (think: standards, alignment)
  2. How will we know when they have learned it? (common assessments, when appropriate)
  3. How will we respond when they don't learn? (systematic and directive (not voluntary) response by the staff in the building, not merely individuals - think: high school "seminar" time -- "Allowing students to choose to be irresponsible does not teach responsibility")
  4. How will we respond when kids already know it? (extensions, etc.)
We need to continue to be committed to a collaborative culture
Students should not be at the risk of an educational lottery.  A teachers' right to work individually should not trump the students' right to the collaborative expertise of teachers in the school. 

"The challenges of schooling are too great for individuals to shut themselves away behind closed classroom doors and try to resolve them alone.  A concerted collaborative effort is necessary when teachers and other colleagues work and learn collaboratively with a clear focus on the learning of students as well as themselves" - Stoll, Bolam, McMahaon, et. al 2006

Teams need to have scheduled time for collaboration on a regular basis with team norms, and should be pursuing specific and measurable goals. 

In other words, teams should be collaborating on the four questions above to stay focused on student learning.

Last, we need to continue assessing our effectiveness on the basis of results rather than intentions.
Teams should be continually setting SMART goals.  When goals are achieved, set a new one...a little bit higher.

Our team also created a list of action steps which we will be using throughout the year to continue our journey.  Many of the details are specific to our building and district's schedules, staff and resources.

I'm interested to hear from others who have attended this conference or who are currently embarking on the professional learning community philosophy.  What are your success stories and struggles?