Multiple Mirrors: Reflections on the Creation of Professional Learning Communities


Photo of children in a classroom

School improvement has been widely promoted and mandated in nearly every state in the Union. All too often, approaches to school change have most closely resembled the use of a microwave oven—put a program into a school, heat for four minutes, and voila’, call it school change. It comes as no surprise that school change efforts implemented in this fashion are short-lived, with disappointing results.

As a result of these failures, and the continuous research and study of school change, new understandings are guiding current efforts to make educational reform and improvement more meaningful and more enduring. These new understandings focus on the capacity of the school staff to reflect on its work, assess its effectiveness in terms of student gains, determine areas in need of improvement, and identify the staff learning that is needed for the school to increase its effectiveness in delivering high quality learning opportunities for students.

The professional learning community (PLC) is one model of this new understanding that school capacities must be grounded in the culture of the school and the normative behaviors of its staff. The PLC model for education reform evolved from Peter Senge’s (1990) model of corporate “learning organizations,” and from Susan Rosenholtz’ (1989) writing about teachers’ workplace environments. These authors postulated that when all the personnel of a work unit are involved in setting the vision and determining what the staff need to do to accomplish the vision, there would be continuous learning of the staff, and thereby continuous benefits to clients and constituents.

The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) learned about professional learning communities through the experience of a staff member who had been involved in such a workplace, and through a SEDL research study of a school that had operated as a community of professional learners. This school evidenced the attributes or characteristics that would be defined in a SEDL literature review as the five dimensions of a professional learning community: shared and supportive leadership, shared values and vision, collective learning and the application of that learning, supportive conditions (both structural and relational), and shared personal practice (see Hord, 1997).

Through its Strategies for Increasing School Success (SISS) Program, SEDL staff—affectionately called SISSters—solicited colleagues from across SEDL’s five-state service region (Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas) and beyond to come along on a project named Creating Communities of Continuous Inquiry and Improvement (CCCII), aimed at creating new PLCs in schools across the country. These individuals had earlier been associated with SEDL and its staff, and eagerly embraced the opportunity to become Co-Developers, partnered with schools in creating professional learning communities. Co-Developers included individuals from higher education, state departments of education, intermediate service agencies, superintendents and other central office personnel, and campus-based individuals.

Creating a professional learning community in a school is no easy task, as the reader will learn from the accounts of the Co-Developers in this book. Any school change requires abundant time, energy, and resourcefulness, along with large quantities of school leadership. The stories of the Co-Developers who share their reflections teach us a great deal about success in such a venture, as well as about failure. Jody Westbrook, who became our “resident expert” at project beginnings, three times began a school partnership for PLC, only to experience three times the partnership’s dissolution when the participating superintendent resigned. Her substantial experience in making these first steps toward PLC implementation, as well as the experiences she shared with her Co-Developer colleagues at trainings and conferences and through conversation, consultation, and consolation sharpened her eye for discerning significant foundational factors—the presence of which contributed to PLC success, and the absence of which often presaged difficulty or failure in PLC implementation. These factors include:

Trust—This element is a requirement among teachers, between teachers and administrators, between campus and district-level personnel, and between school personnel and Co-Developers. High levels of trust promoted risk-taking, honest communication, and deep commitments to school initiatives, including the PLC project. The absence of trust distracted personnel from issues of instruction to conflicts of personality and practice. Conscious efforts to build trust characterize many efforts to create professional learning

Teachers are heard—Schools in which the insight and input of teachers is solicited and utilized tended to move more easily into—or increase their practice of—the PLC dimensions of shared leadership and collective learning. Administrators who acted without the input of teachers tended toward autocratic styles of leadership; teachers who felt their knowledge was not honored, and their suggestions not welcomed tended to resist “top-down” directives of all ilks, including PLC.

Student centered—Although one might expect a focus on students to characterize any school, visits to a cross-section of the nation’s schools will quickly reveal the many ways teachers and administrators can be distracted from their students’ learning and well-being. The attention of administrators and teachers alike can be consumed by any number of issues, including: test scores, and their implications for funding, status, and consequences within a district; administrative turnover and political concerns; personality clashes; and issues of equity within and between schools. Schools where personnel asked aloud and frequently of programs, practices, and initiatives: “Is it better for kids?” tended to more easily and deeply take on PLC dimensions, and could more easily tailor the expression of those dimensions to the particular needs and culture of their school.

Concerns about “add-on” programs—The plethora of new initiatives, innovations, projects and reform efforts, combined with the hefty demands of teaching, have led many school personnel to a sense of “so much to do, so little time.” Rather than being a sign of resistance, questions about the additional responsibilities and time required of a PLC effort revealed a healthy skepticism about poorly planned or implemented efforts at reform. When these concerns could be addressed openly and completely, teachers and administrators were able to more fully commit to creating a professional learning community at their school.

In addition to these factors, the presence and practice of any of the five PLC dimensions—but perhaps most especially shared and supportive leadership—tended to bode well for the full development and complete implementation of the PLC model. The authors also feel a need to acknowledge and point out for readers the commitment to service that characterized so many of the schools and individuals highlighted in the volume. The education of our nation’s youth is truly a national service, which most of our educators take to heart.
The reflections and insights of eight Co-Developers follow—one in poem form, the others in stories. Co-Developers represented a wide range of educational professionals, with differing styles and interests that fueled their shared dedication to school improvement. The range of these stories—in both area of focus and style of presentation—represents the human diversity of our Co-Developer community, and, we believe will thus speak to a wide variety of readers.

We have designed this book with the intention of involving the reader deeply in these stories, through invitations to reflection that precede and follow each selection. We believe your efforts to answer these invitations will invest your reading with more meaning and increase your insight and understanding into the process of school change. It is our hope that you will be informed and illuminated, provoked and touched by the accounts of these individuals who invested abundant courage and personal resources in this effort. Their work to create communities of continuously learning professionals is intended to provide our school’s students with increased success in and enthusiasm for learning.

Next Page: The Road to Developing Communities of Professional Learners

Published in Multiple Mirrors: Reflections on the Creation of Professional Learning Communities