Podcast: Do We Have Real Professional Learning Communities? - Steve Barkley

Podcast: Do We Have Real Professional Learning Communities?

Do We Have Real Professional Learning Communities?

Jeff Utecht, from Shifting Schools invites Steve to a conversation around the purpose and practice of professional learning communities. As you listen in, make your checklist of the indicators that are the strengths of your PLCs and identify any elements you’d like to change or strengthen. Are your PLC’s building teacher individual and collective efficacy and agency?

Listen to Steve’s episode with Jeff here.
Visit the Shifting Schools website.

Subscribe to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast on iTunes or visit BarkleyPD.com to find new episodes! 


Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. Instructional coaches and leaders create the environment that supports teachers to continually imagine, grow and achieve. They model an excitement for learning that teachers in turn model for students. This podcast is dedicated to promoting the important aspects of instructional leadership. Thanks for listening.

Steve: 00:28 Do we have real professional learning communities? Several months back, I joined Jeff Utecht, from Shifting Schools and we did a podcast swap. I facilitated Jeff on my podcast around a conversation that we titled, “Stop Worrying About Covering Stuff.” The link to that is in the lead-in to this podcast. Jeff then hosted me on his site for a conversation about professional learning communities. What follows is the discussion that Jeff and I had. Since the recording of that podcast, I’ve been doing a lot of work around the concept of teacher agency and teacher efficacy in order to create student agency and student efficacy. As you listen in, consider how you see the connections between what happens in a PLC and teachers’ sense of efficacy and agency.

Jeff: 01:38 I think my favorite part of this episode is Steve explaining the difference between PLCs and PWCs or professional learning communities and professional working communities. As you listen, I encourage you to be thinking about your own PLCs and how they are structured. Are they truly PLCs as Steve defines them or have they morphed into PWCs, which I have seen happen all too often. Thank you so much for being here and being part of the Shifting our Schools community. All the way from Switzerland via Zoom, I love technology that we can do this. Tell us a little bit about your background and kind of what your passion is today.

Steve: 02:25 Well, the core of my my work for the last 35 years has been in the area of coaching and the it grew out of my entry into teaching. So I actually had the opportunity to spend my entire senior year at university in a laboratory school teaching and they waved the teacher ed courses. Instead, the teacher ed profs came into the classroom where I was working and worked with me. And I started with grade four, master teacher, two student teachers, graduated term visiting professors for a whole year. And I graduated, I got my first job and I’m teaching in an open concept school in New Jersey, a hundred grade five and six kids in one big room.

Steve: 03:25 With four teachers and two paraprofessionals. And I was so excited about undergraduate program, I convinced the university to make the school that hired me a professional development center for the university. So now we had college seniors spending the year in my public school similar to the one I had in the lab school on campus.

Jeff: 03:48 Very cool.

Steve: 03:50 So I tell people, my work is around the term that teaching is a team sport and a public act. That thinking drives it. And so after
10 years of of teaching, I began to work in PD and I started traveling to other schools and was shocked to find that people were working in isolated boxes all on their own.

Jeff: 04:16 Yeah, you’re in these open concepts.

Steve: 04:20 I found out my experience was totally foreign there.

Steve: 04:24 And so it led me down the path of focusing first on peer coaching, that concept of teachers coaching teachers, then training mentors for working with beginning teachers, then teachers who were gonna be collabo teachers with universities with student teachers. Then I finally got into administrators taking a more coaching role in their work. And then when the instructional coaching concept hit, I jumped in there. So another phrase I use is there is no mountain top to teaching. You’ve come into a profession where you don’t have to worry about mastering it prior to retirement.

Jeff: 05:07 Yeah.

Steve: 05:07 I now stand as a pretty good picture of that because the retirement date has passed me by and I think the next three to five years are gonna be such an exciting time.

Jeff: 05:21 Yeah. Now you don’t wanna get out of it. You’re like, I just wanna stay in it! This is gonna be good!

Steve: 05:25 I’m in full pedal.

Jeff: 05:28 I say something similar. The phrase I like to use is there’s no such thing as a master teacher. There’s a reason why they call it the teaching practice. You’re just constantly practicing it. If you think you’ve mastered this, I think you’re in the wrong profession because this thing is just – your kids are different every year, things are changing every year.

Steve: 05:50 You’ve lost sight of where you could go.

Jeff: 05:52 Yeah, exactly.

Steve: 05:54 If you said you mastered it, it means that you don’t have that. When I’m training administrators, I suggest one of the questions ask a teacher at the start of every year is what are you looking to accomplish this year that you’ve never accomplished before? And if people don’t have a phrase for that, we know we’re, we’re missing a mark somewhere to help people to have that. That’s what’s gonna drive them.

Jeff: 06:16 I love that. Well I know when you, and I meant before this, and we were kind of figuring out what we were gonna talk about on the podcast. We both got talking about PLCs and we were like, ah, PLCs! So I’m really excited to kind of dig in with some of your work and you’ve got fantastic work and we’ll make sure that all the blog posts that we’re gonna talk about today and your blog and everything else is in the show notes as well. But I love this. Like, we were talking about this difference of like how PLCs are used today versus like the original concept, the original understanding, the original ideal of what a PLC was. And you came up with this thing saying that there’s a difference between PLCs and PWCs. Can you kind of explain that? What do you mean by that? What’s the difference that you’re seeing here?

Steve: 07:02 So PWC stands for professional working community. And so I describe that as a group of teachers who come together and cooperate in order to get work done more efficiently, get work done more quickly than doing this on your own. Let’s take a primary – we need centers for kids in the classroom. So the idea that you’re gonna move your centers to my room and I’m gonna move my centers to your room instead of us having to recreate these, that’s the kind of thing that would come out of professional working committee. And historically, that was called common planning time.

Jeff: 07:47 Right.

Steve: 07:48 So what happened in a lot of schools when they said you should have PLCs, they just took their common planning time, which was teachers focused on teaching and called it a PLC. So I suggest that that’s not a PLC. The PLC is professional learning community, meaning teachers are there to learn something. So go back to your thing about, that’s why it’s a practice. I’ve yet to collect student work and be satisfied with what I got.

Steve: 08:19 So the question that I posed to folks, when in a PLC, you sit down, you look at student work, you look at data and the question
you’re asking is what do the kids need us to learn?

Jeff: 08:33 I love that.

Steve: 08:36 Kids need us to learn something and maybe we need to learn something about motivations, maybe we need to learn something about the sequencing of learning activities, maybe we need to learn something deeper about our content. I don’t know what it is, but my assumption is if you knew how to cause the students to achieve what you wanted them to achieve, you would’ve done it.

Steve: 09:01 So the fact that you’ve carried out an instructional unit, you’ve worked with the kids, and you look at the results and you don’t like some of the results, then what do the kids need us to learn becomes the question. So my frustration grew that everything they were asking teachers to do when they had a chunk of time, ended up being labeled a PLC. So I was working with a district where I was coming back each month so during the month that I was gone, they had the instructional coaches went to the PLC time and they taught the teachers how to get the kids registered into the state’s exam online for the kids to do.

Steve: 09:49 And so when I came back a month later and found out that’s how they had spent their PLC time, I went to the administrators and I said, you know, I totally get it. You know, the gun was up against your head. The deadlines here, but you forgot to do one thing. And they said, what’s that? You forgot to put up the sign. And they said, what sign? I said, the sign that said PLCs canceled.
Steve: 10:18 Instructional coach on loan to the state department. The problem is because you didn’t put that sign up, I’ve got a whole group of people thinking what they just did for the last month was a PLC.

Steve: 10:32 Now we gotta backtrack through that.

Jeff: 10:33 Yeah. And I agree with you. And I think it’s been this kind of – I feel like it’s been kind of a small transition away from like, here’s what PLCs were. And I remember like the first time we set up PLCs, I remember I was teaching in Shanghai and they were very structured. The leaders of the PLCs had a whole binder of like activities and questions ask us and we were answering that and I love this – it’s gonna be the title of the podcast – what do students need us to learn? And somewhere we transitioned into this, they’re working groups. It’s our common planning time. And we haven’t had this conversation, so I don’t know what you can say, but do you see – is it beneficial or is it hindering when your PLC is also your working group? So for example, there’s four of us in the social studies department. We have common planning time and then we have PLC time, but because it’s the same people…

Steve: 11:37 It’s okay to be the same people. You gotta separate it in your head. So I actually work with some groups that when they make the agenda for their meeting, they actually put on the agenda PWC. Here’s the three things we gotta get done.

Jeff: 11:50 Okay.

Steve: 11:53 One school I worked with, I loved it. They had a oval table in a room where all the PLCs met and they actually used whiteboards on two different sides. So the facilitator would get up and work on the one side while they did the PWC. When they finished that part of the agenda, she’d actually walked over to the other wall. Everybody would swivel their chairs and so actually get into a mindset, now we’re shifting.

Steve: 12:20 The big problem with most of the elementary PLCs is they tackle too many things. So they don’t stay on something long enough to work it through the process. So the PWC agenda is gonna change week to week to week to week. The PLC agenda – you gotta stay on that for a chunk of time. So I’ve done some where we have a PLC agenda for the year.

Jeff: 12:46 Oh, wow. Just working on like the same thing.

Steve: 12:48 It’s a middle school looking at student writing.

Jeff: 12:50 Yeah. Just student writing. That’s for one focus.

Steve: 12:53 We’re gonna use our PLC time and we’re gonna come out of this year with understanding. That doesn’t mean we aren’t teaching the other things, but the other things we’re gonna deal with in the old way we always did. And the other part that’s real big there for me is goals. And so once you’re gonna do writing for a long period of time, now you’re gonna be able to set goals that you’re gonna say, our work as a PLC is to learn what it would take to move kids from here to here. So there’s gonna be trial and error, there’s gonna be missteps, there’s gonna be discovering that some things work for some kids but they didn’t work to others. Action research, probably a phrase that other people use.

Jeff: 13:41 Yeah. I love that. In a December 2nd, 2018 blog post, you talked about Resnicks four P’s and how they kind of need to be brought in into this idea of a PLC. Can you maybe talk about what those?

Steve: 14:00 Yeah. You gotta go back and note, those came from the group at MIT that was looking at lifelong kindergarten.

Jeff: 14:09 Right. Yeah. Out of the book.

Steve: 14:11 So the power of lifelong kindergarten is projects, peers, passion, and play. So in effect, as a classroom teacher, that’s what I’m looking to engage my engage my students in. So if you’re doing genius hour or you’re looking at, at at passion passion learning, the design where kids are getting autonomy to design programs, those are the four things you’re looking at. Well, when I read that, and I first was looking through the eye of the teacher for a classroom, and I have to tell you, this happens a whole lot to me – that in effect, the PLC should be an ideal model of
what it is you’re looking for to have happen in a classroom.

Jeff: 15:01 I 100% agree. I love that.

Steve: 15:04 So if our focus is on learning, whatever it is that should be present for students to learn, needs to be present for teachers to learn. So let’s take writing. That that’s our project, and we’re gonna go deep enough in that as a PLC. It’s it’s all about peers, which is why I’m real big on putting peer coaching into PLCs/ So if we’re struggling with a group of English writing, English learners and they’re writing, and we’ve got six teachers in this PLC, all who have some of those students, we should be in each other’s classrooms observing those students and gathering that data and bringing it back to our PLC. That’s where we’re going to be working from. And then when I say teaching is a team sport, I differentiate what most teachers actually haven’t experienced being on a team. What most of what schools call teams, I call franchises.

Steve: 16:09 People aren’t going to a meeting, they’re going to a franchise meeting. So you’re going to a meeting, you own biology, somebody else owns chemistry, and somebody else owns physics and you’re coming to a franchise meeting. Let’s change chips and strategies, but when you leave the meeting, the chemistry teacher isn’t taking any responsibility for kids’ performance in biology. So that’s not a team. So for me, if I’ve got five second grade teachers and they each have 20 kids, then each teachers responsible for 100 kids and the PLC time is where you work on causing that to happen. So the peers actually add a shared accountability for the for the outcome. I was in a school, it was January, I met with all the PLCs, the end of the day, I sat down with the principal and I said, what would you think about teachers changing their PLC goals for the year? And he looked at me like, how crazy could you be? It’s January. He said to me, why would you wanna do that? I said, because they aren’t interested in the ones that they have.

Jeff: 17:26 I’m looking at a bunch of unmotivated students. We gotta do something here.

Steve: 17:30 In August, you told them you needed a goal so they either decided what would be easy to track or what they thought was on your agenda. and now, you’re giving them an hour each week to go to this room and spend time with each other and they don’t have a passion for what they’re doing. So I actually started a phrase with PLCs. I call it goals before norms. Everybody’s big on putting norms together for how we’re gonna work together. And that’s important, but if you don’t have a goal, you don’t have a reason to join the group so why would you agree to go with norms? Get a group of high school teachers to sit down and say, you know what, we’re graduating kids, who’s reading comprehension is insufficient for university work and the work they’re gonna be asked to do.

Steve: 18:15 And it’s good enough to pass our exams, but if that bothers us as a group and if that’s something you’re losing sleep over, now you want to join a PLC. And then the last part is it should be playful. And the play could be – I’ve had some administrators tell me they pick their best PLCs out because they have some awesome fights. But the fights are because we’re disagreeing about the best way to get kids to the same place. That’s where passion is coming out.

Jeff: 18:50 I love that. You do a lot of work with instructional coaches. How important do you see instructional coaches being in on this PLC work or supporting schools?

Steve: 19:04 So I just I just did a a blog and a podcast on the instructional coach job description and I’m really at the point now, just deciding there shouldn’t be one. I found one online, a district head posted they had 27 descriptions of what instructional coaches do and the last one was anything else the principal comes up with.

Jeff: 19:31 Of course, yes.

Steve: 19:33 So instructional coaches should be, in my mind, they should be a resource to to PLCs. Meaning PLCs should be requesting instructional coaches’ assistantance from time to time. The problem, Jim Knight and I recorded a a podcast on this – years ago, we sent instructional coaches into teach teachers how to do PLCs and they never came out.

Jeff: 20:04 Yes. So true.

Steve: 20:05 So what happens now is if you have a boring PLC meeting, it’s the instructional coaches’ fault when it should be the fault of the five people in the department who are sitting around the table together. They have to take the ownership. Now, I think the instructional coaches, if PLCs are new or if people haven’t had real PLCs, then having somebody initially facilitate those and then teach us what it is and model for it. But in my mind, it’s gotta be with a plan to get out of there. As long as somebody, other than the people at the table are designing the agenda. It’s not a real PLC.

Jeff: 20:42 I love that. The people at the table have to be designing the agenda.

Steve: 20:46 Yep. And so one of my recommendations is, most PLC meetings should end with the agenda for the next meeting. You spend the last five minutes, planning the agenda for the next meeting.

Jeff: 20:57 What’s our next step.

Steve: 20:59 And the reason is, you’re generally gonna leave with homework, right? So we were wondering about the English language learners writing. So for next week, everybody give a writing task that you can collect in each of your content areas and bring those eight or nine English learner kids – you need to bring that to our next PLC. That’s where we’re gonna pick up. When a teacher walks in, they got an hour break in the middle of the day and they walk into the seat and pop down and they’re waiting for somebody there to jump in and guide.

Jeff: 21:30 Tell ’em what to do.

Steve: 21:32 Yeah. It’s not a PLC.

Steve: 21:34 You’d like that I wrote earlier, are administrators supporting or hijacking PLCs?

Jeff: 21:43 What do you see happening?

Steve: 21:44 Well, it’s hijacked every time, but for a good reason. So I wanna make sure I label that so it doesn’t sound derogatory of administrators, but principals are sitting in their office and something request comes down from central office –

Jeff: 21:59 From the franchise.

Steve: 22:00 We need this And the principals think, oh man, I just can’t dump this on teachers because I keep dumping stuff on them. So when would teachers have time to do this? Ah, their PLC time. And so suddenly, this stuff starts moving and we start coming into PLCs with work we need to get done for somebody else.

Jeff: 22:21 And now it’s a PWC.

Steve: 22:23 Bingo. Yeah. And maybe even a PWC that I’m not interested in.

Jeff: 22:28

Steve: 22:28 At least in the good PWC I’m doing my work and not somebody else’s work.

Jeff: 22:33 That’s true. It’s so good. So as we kind of get ready to wrap this up here, what is your vision for PLCs? What work do you, what work do you do in supporting schools and teams of kind of making this transition back out of PWCs and getting back focused on PLCs? What’s your vision? How should they be used in schools? Like, if I was a perfect school, what would that look like?

Steve: 23:04 To me, the PLC is just one version of the many teams that you wanna have working effectively in a school. So you in an elementary school you got this grade level team, which is important. But you also could be focused on a vertical team. I’m working with this district right now that’s looking at transition. I’ve got teachers teaching grade five who can’t tell me the names of people who teach grade six science at the middle school. Tells me pretty likely they aren’t communicating very much. So they’re talking to me about what do we gotta do for a transition?Well, first thing you gotta do for the transition is you gotta build a team that sets a goal. So what is it that we wanna achieve for kids as they transition between our schools? I mean, I don’t know if you saw it in the international schools that you’re in, but I’m surprised – I find there’s a wall between the grade five and grade six, even though we’re all in the same building.

Jeff: 24:19 I see it everywhere.

Steve: 24:21 So to me, the ultimate is creating opportunities for people to form teams with common goals and then providing them the support as a
team to develop that.

Jeff: 24:39 I love that.

Jeff: 24:41 I love that. And I just love, like, if I’m just trying to recap the things we talked about, I think this idea of, if you find yourself in a PLC and as you go into your next PLC, even after listening to this, it might be next week, are you and your PLC focused on this idea of what do students need us to learn? I love that. Like, what you’re sitting in your PLC, is that something that you can just have in the back of your head of like, okay, how are we structuring this and our goals? Because our students need us to learn something, our writing scores aren’t where they are, our math scores aren’t – we’re having classroom management issues, which we’re hearing a lot of right now after the pandemic.

Steve: 25:17 If you’re an administrator, it’s a great check on how effective your PLCs are being. Ask teachers, tell me one of the things you learned in your PLC, that’s an impacting your kids?

Jeff: 25:27 Oh, I love that. And then the second thing is just around this idea of inside your PLCs, this idea of, what we’re learning from lifelong kindergarten, the four P’s of projects. Are you working on something long term? I love that idea. Like a lot of times, I think we get this short term answer. Like, we want the quick fix. And in your PLC, it’s not about the quick fix. It’s about looking at writing for an entire year or something for an entire quarter or semester. Like there’s something here our students need us to learn. Let’s dig in and learn it. Am I working with peers? You know, peer coaching, you mentioned that, is there some passion and where do we get a chance to play? I love that as part of it. So that’s so great. Steve.

Steve: 26:06 I’m gonna take a quick link back – you came to my podcast and talked about the need to develop skills.

Jeff: 26:14 Yeah.

Steve: 26:15 I’m saying the same thing. Why does a teacher go to a PLC? It’s to develop skills. We don’t know what skills, we don’t know what content you’re gonna need as a teacher looking future out, but the greater set of skills that the teacher develops, just like what you said about the greater set of skills kids develop.

Jeff: 26:38 I love that. And I think, again, if you’re listening to this over at our Schools, you’re gonna wanna head over to Steve’s podcast, because you’re gonna be like, they’re saying the same things from a student angle and a PLC angle. But I think, as we come out of this pandemic, I think these are the types of conversations – I think we’re getting back to these focuses. I think one of the things that, maybe the pandemic helped us to see is that we’d gone down this professional working community and we’re like, wait a minute. We really need PLCs. And I think you’re right. Like, it was a slow shift of pressure coming from above and more just – it’s nobody’s fault. We just, we made the shift and I think this might be an opportunity for us to shift back. So that’s fantastic. Steve, if people wanna learn more about your work, your podcast, your blog is amazing. Every time I read a blog post, I’m just like, oh man, I gotta walk away and think for a bit. They’re just so powerful. So where can people find out more?

Steve: 27:42 You can find all of it at barkleypd.com.

Steve: 27:47 And if you’re big looking at PLCs, I’ve got a section on the website called hot topics. I’ve got everything about PLCs stuck in one spot. And I also got a tech team that does a pretty good search search engine for me. So you can take any set of words that we used and pop it in the search engine and you’ll likely find the blog or podcast where it was.

Jeff: 28:13 Awesome. Well, thank you so much and we’ll make sure all of this is in the show notes. We’ll have his website and specifically the blog posts that we kind of talked about today will be there as well. We’ll put a link over to the podcast so you can go over and subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud, it’s a great little podcast where you get to hear you get to hear more from Steve. Thanks so much for taking time outta your busy schedule.

Steve: 28:35 Thank you. And let’s let’s not let the calendar go too far down the road. I think we ought to come back and do this again.

Jeff: 28:41 Yeah, absolutely. That would be fun.

Steve: 28:43 Have a great day.

Steve: 28:45 I hope this conversation provided you with some reflection around the effectiveness of PLCs that you are leading or supporting at your schools and what might be the next steps for an increase in support teachers’. impact on maximizing student learning. A big thank you out to Jeff for joining me in that conversation. And again, I’d like to encourage you to go back and listen to my conversation with Jeff around covering stuff, because you’ll find a strong link in our conversations about what’s happening with students and what’s happening with teachers. I’d encourage you to drop me any questions or comments at barkleypd.com. Thanks for listening and onward.

Steve [Outro]: 29:40 Thank you for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.

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