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Keenen Vernon




As schools navigate into the 21st century, the focus must shift from helping

individual teachers become more effective in their isolated classrooms to creating a

community based on interdependence, shared knowledge, and mutual accountability.

Teachers need high quality professional development opportunities that motivate them

to incorporate new effective teaching strategies into their classrooms and achieve better

results for their students. Professional learning communities (PLCs) are increasingly

being recognized as a powerful strategy that can foster a collaborative culture within

schools. PLCs are focused on continuously improving learning for both the students and

adults. Schmoker (2005) in his study concluded that the use of PLCs is the best, least

expensive, most professionally rewarding way to schools because these communities

seek best practices for student learning and teaching. PLCs help educators develop

new knowledge, apply new skills, and engage in new practices. Strong PLCs are

committed to building collective capacity and setting goals that promote student learning

and focus on results (Dufour & Marzano, 2012). Those who lead the process of forming

PLCs must ensure that there is the right kind of professional environment that supports

high-performing collaborative teams. Leaders must accept responsibility for providing

educators with clarity, structures, resources, and ongoing support essential to their

success (Dufour et al., 2012). In this paper, we will explore the key strategies to building

the collaborative culture of a PLC through collective capacity, ongoing support, and

mutual accountability.

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The creation of meaningful teams is vital to the collaborative culture of a PLC.

Teachers are more likely to improve practice when their learning is curriculum based

and they work with colleagues who share the same learning goals for their students

(Little, 2006). When staff select teams based on friendships, or principals create

leftover teams of people who dont share the same students or subject area, they

undermine the collaborative team process (Dufour et al., 2012). Without a shared

commitment, groups will work individually and fail to collaborate. Collaboration is the

essential building block of PLCs. A collaborative team is a group of people working

interdependently to achieve common goals through mutual accountability (Dufour et al.,

2012). We learned through class discussions that teacher isolation is one of the

greatest barriers to building a successful PLC. Schools cant thrive when teachers are

working independently in their individual classrooms. Administrators should empower

their teams to learn together by building upon shared knowledge. Collaborative teams

must focus on addressing these critical questions of student learning: (1) what do we

want students to know?, (2) how will we know if they are learning?, (3) how will we

respond when students dont learn?, and (4) how will we enrich the learning for students

who are proficient? (Dufour et al., 2012).

In a PLC, highly effective teams are made up of staff who share the same

students, course, or grade-level, and are focused on improving student learning. Dufour

& Marzano (2012) suggested that the easiest and most logical PLC structures to

establish is by course-specific or grade-level teams. In order for teams to focus on the

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right work that needs to be done, they must see value of learning together to build

mutual understanding, and drawing conclusions from one another to enhance their

teaching and instruction. Teams need to set and share goals that are immediately

applicable to what theyre doing in the classroom (Gallimore, Saunders, & Goldenberg,

2009). Teams must share a commitment and responsibility to enhancing the learning of

their students. Stigler and Hiebert (2009) found in their study that grouping teachers by

the same subject area will improve instruction because in this environment, [teachers]

can explore different approaches, plan together, and revise strategies based on their

students learning needs. Collaborative teams are most efficacious when they can

establish meaningful connections, and translate their purpose into specific performance

goals for their students (Smith, 2015). Administrators should strive to create meaningful

team structures where teachers are surrounded by like-minded individuals and can

benefit from mutual collective inquiry.


Teams need consistent planning time for effective collaboration. Dufour &

Marzano (2012) argued that it is disingenenous for school administrators to stress the

importance of collaboration and do nothing to provide the proper time and resources.

Although there is an increasing funding crisis in American education making it nearly

impossible for schools to allocate time for teachers to collaborate, there are many ways

to provide time for collaborating without increasing costs. Nonetheless, school leaders

must disregard the notion that teachers engaged in meaningful collaboration are not

actually doing work. One study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and

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Development (OECD, 2010) concluded that American teachers spend far more hours

teaching in the classroom than their international counterparts. In order for American

teachers to be able to collaborate and engage in the right work to improve student

learning, administrators must ensure that they begin taking the necessary steps to

allocating time and resources for teams to work together.

There are many ways that school districts and principals can work together to

provide time for teachers to collaborate. Dufour & Marzano (2012) recommended

several readily accessible strategies that do not require schools to be closed, cost

money, or result in loss of instructional time. These include: creating common

preparation time, adjusting the start and end of the teacher workday, coordinating

shared classes, designating time for professional development to teams, and using

faculty time. For example, schools can build their master schedules to provide daily

periods for teachers to engage in collaborative lesson planning (Dufour, Eaker, & Many,

2006). Schools can also use time allocated to professional development or faculty

meetings for teachers to meet in their PLC teams. Furthermore, schools can coordinate

shared classes across grade levels or courses and combine students into one class for

instruction. While one teacher teaches students during a specific period, the other

teacher can focus on doing their collaborative teamwork (Dufour et al, 2006). Ultimately,

the goal for administrators is not finding time for teachers to work together, but making

time for collaboration.

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Teams are more effective when they have clarified expectations and supportive

team structures. Teams need to be able to translate their expectations into collective

commitments that guide their working relationships and holds members accountable

(Dufour et al., 2012). One way that school leaders can guide their teams in developing

shared goals and commitments is through transformational leadership. Leaders using

this style create an environment where every person feels empowered and can be

involved in the decision-making process. Transformational leaders inspire others to

create a vision that seeks to embody the organizations mission and core values. School

leaders should consider using transformational leadership to foster trust and

commitment amongst their PLC teams, and to encourage their teams to set goals that

help every student and staff member to be successful.

Teams must set one or more specific performance goals that they will achieve.

Unless teams are focusing on the right kind of goal, it is unlikely that they will will impact

the teaching and learning environment (Elmore, 2003). Teams should set norms, and

create SMART goals that are relentlessly focused on attaining evidence of student

learning. However, we learned from class discussions that not all goals need to be

SMART goals. Some goals should be interpersonally-related and geared towards

students social and emotional development. Its also important that goals are created

by the team and not for the team. Every member of the team should agree on the goals

and specific indicators that will guide their progress (Dufour et al., 2012). In order to

develop the capacity for educators to function as members of a collaborative team,

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leaders must ensure that each group member is committed to a common purpose and

have agreed upon clearly defined goals for which the group will hold itself accountable.


Leaders must help their collaborative PLC teams to set priorities and focus on

the right work that needs to accomplished. The biggest mistake in building the

collaborative culture of a PLC is assigning people to groups and encouraging them to

collaborate, but doing little to offer direction and support. Dufour & Marzano (2012) put it

nicely that hope may be a virtue but it is not an effective strategy to ensuring that

groups are working together as a team. Leaders must know how to guide adult learners

and use their motivation and interests to maximize teaching and learning strategies. The

role of the instructional leader, as a mentor/coach, should be to help their collaborative

teams to establish a clear purpose and make decisions that aim to improve professional

practice and student achievement. Adult learners learn best when they are in a

mentoring-type environment (Papa, 2011). In this environment, the instructional leader

can share their experiences, encourage risk taking, recognize the teams strengths, and

maintain a strong focus on improving instruction in a purposeful and non-threatening

way (Blase & Blase, 2000).

Gallimore (2009) suggested using a protocol that helps teams focus on the right

work. The right work of teams should focus on having the greatest impact on student

learning and the potential for groups to function as high-performing collaborative teams.

Teams should examine statewide assessment standards, district guidelines, and

curriculum, to determine what knowledge and skills will be most beneficial to their

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students (Dufour et al., 2012). Team should also develop a common pace for

implementing new strategies in their classroom and assessing student learning

outcomes so they can see what is working and what needs to be changed. This sort of

group flow gives teams enough time to assist each other, address obstacles, and

monitor their progress simultaneously. The collaborative process will benefit neither

students or teachers unless educators can engage in meaningful work collectively and

co-labor on their agreed upon objectives.


Teams should create a timeline for anticipated products (e.g. SMART goals,

team norms, goals, and assessments) in conjunction with school leaders. In other

words, teams should frequently check-in with their administrators to present their initial

outcomes, assessment results, and ongoing feedback (Dufour et al, 2012). Constant

communication is an important part of the PLC process. Principals should ensure that

they are meeting with groups regularly to see how the PLC is doing and what has been

discovered. For example, the principal could schedule a meeting once a quarter with

each PLC team to discuss fact finding and to offer guidance and support as needed.

Teams should also establish expectations for when they plan to create and present their

products. When groups understand the actual outputs that must be created, they

develop a greater sense of clarity regarding the nature of their work (Dufour et al,


Teams should also be given the freedom to create their own common

assessments, interpret data, and implement different strategies based on their

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decisions. More importantly, schools administrators must allow their PLC teams to come

up with ideas that may fail. By allowing teams to fail, leaders give them permission to

innovate. Administrators should also avoid assuming that teams dont have the skills to

create good assessments, or analyze data and report the results. Allowing teams to

participate in collaborative dialogue about these initiatives builds the capacity for

teachers and staff to function as high-performing teams (Dufour et al, 2012).


Moreover, teams must take the time to celebrate their incremental progress.

Effective PLCs sustain their momentum through ongoing recognition and appreciation

for the work they're doing to enhance their schools (Dufour et al. 2012). For example,

principals could set aside time in faculty meetings for PLC teams to share their

successes and be recognized for their efforts. Additionally, teams must call attention to

areas of concern especially to those team members who are not actively contributing to

the collaborative process. Leaders must have the courage to force team members to

contribute to their teamwork (Dufour et al, 2012). Particularly, the principal should be

willing to intervene and confront staff who are undermining the process. Understanding

the balance between celebration and confrontation is vital to the establishment of trust

and commitment in high-performing teams.


Instructional leaders must ensure that there is the right kind of environment to

develop professional learning communities. They must work with teachers to provide

the necessary structures, resources, and ongoing support needed to maintain highly

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effective collaborative teams. We learned that building shared knowledge, collective

inquiry, and mutual understanding is the key to building a collaborative culture amongst

PLCs. Leaders should regularly monitor the work of teams and provide direction and

support as needed so that teams can focus on gaining results in their professional

practice and student outcomes. Leaders must also remember to encourage their teams

to celebrate their successes and be willing to confront those who are not willing to

participate in the collaborative team process. Its important that administrators not only

participate in the ongoing PLC process but they provide every team with what it needs

to be successful.

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classroom leaders improve student achievement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree


Dufour, Eaker, & Many. (2006). Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional

Learning Communities at Work. Making Time for Collaboration . Retrieved from

Elmore, R. (2003). School reform from the inside out: Policy, practice, and performance.

Boston: Harvard Education Press.

Gallimore, R., Emerling, B., Saunders, W., & Goldenberg, C. (2009). Moving the

learning of teaching closer to practice: Teacher education implications of

school-based inquiry teams. Elementary School Journal, 109(5), 537-551

Smith, J. R. (2015). The Discipline of Teams. Retrieved April 21, 2017, from

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learning-centered school. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

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Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2010). Education at a

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Schmoker, M. (2006). Results now: How we can achieve unprecedented improvement

in teaching and learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and

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Stigler, J. & Hiebert, J. (2009). Closing the teaching gap. Phi Delta Kappan, 91(3),