Teacher Professional Development


Professional Learning Communities School-based teacher learning communities have the potential to change the culture of the school (McLaughlin, 2003). In order for this approach to work, it has been suggested that teachers meeting together must establish common, concise standards to reach collaborative agreements as well as be allotted the time to effectively differentiate how to teach all children to curricular standards (Schmoker, 2006).

Regular collaborative planning sessions are focused to share and implement research-based teaching strategies using data-driven decision making. This transition demands the creation of professional learning communities and the development of new types of leaders who posses new kinds of leadership skills. McLaughlin and Talbert (2006) stated “School-based teacher learning communities are found at grade levels, within departments, or sometimes across a whole school” (p. 4).

This in turn increases teacher knowledge base and allows them to apply their knowledge in the classroom. Opportunities for teachers to construct knowledge, reflection, and problems solving are provided by participation in learning communities. “When teachers examine students’ work together, it helps them to consider how practice has been successful or fallen short of expectations” (p. 5). The researchers noted that rather than hide disappointment on student outcomes, learning communities motivate teachers to share information and change classroom instruction (McLaughlin and Talbert, 2006).

In making this transition, the methodologies are much less important than is the commitment to a new way of thinking on how to educate towards student success. This is related to teacher decision making on curriculum, effective teaching models, and appropriate assessment of at-risk students (Schmoker, 2006). DuFour (2004) reiterates this sentiment when he stated that to create a professional learning community, one must focus on learning rather than teaching (p. 1).

Foundations of a Professional Learning Community

DuFour et al. (2006) stated that the “foundation of a PLC rests upon the four pillars of mission, vision, values, and goals (p. 23). Teachers and administrators working together to consider the questions will build the foundation necessary for a Professional Learning Community. Without consideration on the questions to “establish common ground regarding their positions on the questions, any and all future efforts to improve the school will stand on shaky ground” (p.23).

The four pillars and the questions are on the importance of the mission pillar (DuFour et al., 2006) is to establish what is important and guides the decision making process in a Professional Learning Community. The vision pillar emphasizes the purpose and direction. The values pillar asks, “How must we behave to create the school that will achieve our purpose?” (p. 23). The final pillar, goals, “helps to close the gap between the current reality and where the staff hopes to take the school (the shared vision)” (p. 26).

DuFour et al. (2006) stated the importance of creating explicit team norms that could help members of a learning community to begin the challenge of “building shared knowledge regarding best practices and alternative strategies for implementing those practices” (p. 103). The following are the tips for creating the norms:

  1. Each team should create its own norms.
  2. Norms should be stated as commitments to act or behave in certain ways rather than as beliefs.
  3. Norms should be reviewed at the beginning and end of each meeting for at least 6 months.
  4. Teams should formally evaluate their effectiveness at least twice a year.
  5. Teams should focus on a few essential norms rather than creating an extensive laundry list.
  6. Violations of team norms must be address.( p. 106).

Characteristics of a Professional Learning Community

Eaker, DuFour, and DuFour (2002) stated in order to begin the process of school reculture, one must focus on “learning” rather than “teaching” with three key questions in mind: (a) What do we expect students to learn? (b) How will we know what they have learned? (c) How will we respond when students don’t learn? (p. 111).

DuFour (2004) discusses three big ideas and their core values in creating a professional learning community that can sustain the test of time. Throughout the years, educators have seen the rise and fall of many school reforms that have come and gone leaving educators looking and waiting for the next promising initiative. DuFour wrote that “to create a professional learning community, focus on learning rather than teaching, work collaboratively, and hold yourself accountable for results” (p.l).

DuFour’s first “big” idea is to ensure that teachers learn that the shift is a focus from teaching to a focus on learning and the profound impact this can have for schools. Every professional committed to answering what students should learn, how to know it, and the third question, how to respond, separates traditional schools from learning communities (DuFour, 2004).

Big idea number two involves educators working together to create a collaborative culture by analyzing and improving their skills. This idea has teacher teams systematically working together in an ongoing cycle of questions that focus on student learning. Through formative assessments, teams can assess students’ needs together and share strategies to raise the level of student achievement. This will create an ongoing cycle of questions and answers. Time must be made available for teachers to reflect and improve their practice and they also must be willing to work together. DuFour (2002) stated that if schools hold time and support as constants, the variable will be learning. In a professional learning community, one must hold learning as the constant and time and support as the variables for essential outcomes.

Big idea number three focuses on results. Establishing goals, teachers sharing knowledge and strategies, and analyzing student achievement will help the school achieve better results.

Teachers will now work with their team colleagues to reflect on areas of concern. Assessments are given every quarter, and results are broken down into the skills needed that require more attention (DuFour, 2004). The significance of this case study is to determine the impact of a professional learning community for teachers to move from isolation to collaboration in the teaching process. DuFour, Eaker and Dufour (2005) stated, “Isolation is the enemy of improvement” (p. 141).

The researchers also stated that professional collaborations with ongoing assessments are a promise to school improvement. Schmoker stated that “Unlike other professionals and despite near universal agreement on the importance of teaming, teachers do not work in teams” (p. 18).

Lifelong learning must be exhibited, modeled, and celebrated by school leaders to impact their students to become life long learners and role model this (DuFour, Eaker, and DuFour, 2005). Ghandhi stated: “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” Schmoker (2006) stated:

The key to be on the lookout for any legitimate effort or accomplishment that supports better teaching and learning:

  1. a willingness to work effectively in teams
  2. developing team norms and protocols
  3. a single effective, team meeting focused on instruction
  4. measurable success- or instructive failure- on an assessment of a single lesson or unit (p. 148).

In traditional schools, what to teach is decided independently by each teacher, teachers feel overwhelmed by curriculum, there is reliance on outside sources to identify what works, and administrators are viewed as the leadership role and teachers follow this role and implement strategies. In a professional learning community, teachers develop a plan through collaboration and agree upon the focus of curriculum as to what students should learn. Teachers seek out ‘best practices’ and collaborate on decisions. Teachers will have a leadership role with the administrator as the “leader of leaders” (Eaker, DuFour, and Eaker, 2002).

Schmoker (2006) revealed a recent study based on 1,500 classroom observations at a meeting of the national Conference on Standards and Assessment on April 7, 2005. The results were astounding:

  1. Classrooms in which there was evidence of a clear learning objective: 4%
  2. Classrooms in which high-yield strategies were being used: 0.2 %
  3. Classrooms in which there was evidence of higher-order thinking: 3 %
  4. Classrooms in which students were either writing or using rubrics: 0 %
  5. Classrooms in which fewer than one-half of students were paying attention: 85 %
  6. Classrooms in which students were using worksheets (a bad sign): 52%
  7. Classrooms in which noninstructional activities were occurring: 35 %. (Schmoker, 2006, p. 18).

The professional learning community has the potential to establish clear learning objectives. When teachers are designing the strategies and lessons, the non instructional activities will be kept to a minimum. The creation of a professional learning community would be a collaborative, systematic approach to identify and address student’s needs as it maximizes the use of all resources and staff in the school. It would give teachers professional developments and research based strategies they need to teach students with learning difficulties. According to DuFour, Eaker, and DuFour (2005) “Teachers do not learn best from outside experts or by attending conferences or implementing ‘programs’ installed by outsiders, teacher learn best from other teachers, in settings where they literally teach each other the art of teaching” (p, 141).

Eaker, DuFour, and DuFour (2002) stated it is helpful that a Professional Learning Community should be broken down into developmental stages along a continuum. The researcher has chosen the “Collaborative Culture: Teacher Working Together Continuum” (p. 120). This is divided into four stages and their descriptions are listed below.

  • Pre-initiation: Teachers work in isolation. There is little awareness of what or how colleagues are teaching.
  • Initiation: Teachers recognize a common curriculum that they are responsible for teaching, but there is little exchange of ideas regarding instructional materials, teaching strategies, or methods of assessment.
  • Developing: Teachers function in work groups that meet periodically to complete certain tasks such as reviewing intended outcomes and coordinating calendars.
  • Sustaining: Teachers function as a team. They work collaboratively to identify collective goals, develop strategies to achieve those goals, gather relevant data, and learn from one another. Unlike a work group, they are characterized by common goals and their inter-dependent efforts to achieve those goals, (p. 120-121) DuFour et al. (2006) stated that it is important to assess the current reality of one’s place in the Professional Learning Community journey. Individual assessments should be made before making comparisons with the group. Participants should be encouraged to share conclusions and discuss the current status of their school and come to a compromise and establish “common ground” p. 33).

DuFour, Ed. D. Superintendent of Adlai Stevenson High School District 125 in Lincolnshire, Illinois has received the state’s highest award: the Distinguished Scholar Practitioner Award of the University of Illinois. He has authored 5 books and more than 50 professional articles on Professional Learning Communities. Adlai Stevenson High School “has been selected as one of America’s best high schools on twelve separate occasions and has won four coveted Blue Ribbon Awards of Excellence from the United States Department of Education” (DuFour, et al, 2004 p. xi). Teachers at this school were given, as DuFour (2002) stated “five rare gifts” (p. 51)

. The gifts were systematic support to help struggling students, a clear focus on student learning, insightful feedback, colleagues’ help for development of their professional capacity, and time to work together and collaborate. These teachers met every week working and learning from one another. Each team of teachers shared lesson plans and agreed that the same concepts and skills would be taught at the same time with common rubrics to assess progress.

A common critique of professional development is that it typically does not translate into significant changes/improvements in classroom practices (Guskey, 2000; Hawley & Valli, 1999; Joyce & Showers, 2000). Without follow up, practice, and opportunities to reflect, new materials and innovations become “furniture:” untouched binders on bookshelves, resource kits and displays forgotten in storage rooms.

Beyond the level of the individual classroom, Zmuda, Kuklis and Kline (2004) argue that, while many individual educators are committed to their own professional growth, their efforts are too fragmented and inconsistent to yield any significant changes in the larger school community. Cibulka and Nakayama (2000) believe that most PD (professional development) is chosen for teachers, and does not foster their skills as self-directed learners. These “top down” directives do not employ known principles of adult learning (Gordon, 2004), nor do they cultivate a sense of ownership or “buy in” from participants. In fact, teachers may tune out or burn out when bombarded, year in and year out with change initiatives (Fullan, 2001).

Case studies of professional learning communities and similar collaborative professional development models suggest that they are a superior alternative to traditional teacher professional development fair: a feasible and helpful means of furthering teacher learning, and in turn student learning (Scribner, Cockrell, Cockrell & Valentine, 1999). First, they model the sort of learning that teachers believe to be most effective for students. Teachers are asked to gather and examine evidence, reflect critically on their environment and teaching habits, inquire into educational problems, and work together to find solutions.

These are the sorts of skills lauded for the new knowledge worker, and it is felt to be paramount that these learning skills are cultivated to prepare students for a knowledge-driven labor market and an increasingly complex society (Darling-Hammond, 1997; Hargreaves, 2003). Teacher learning and student learning are closely connected (Gordon, 2004); thus by practicing inquiry-oriented skills in their professional development activities, teachers are more likely to apply the same pedagogical strategies with their students, and to model these skills effectively (Cibulka & Nakayama, 2000).

Additionally, collaborative professional development provides opportunities for teachers to work together to develop common resources and assessments, as well as common priorities and understandings concerning curriculum. This constructivist approach to curriculum development and understanding cultivates a sense of ownership and empowerment (Mitchell & Sackney, 2000) and, under the right conditions, may counter the mandated use of “teacher proof curriculum (Bushnell, 2003). If it is as simple as “two heads are better than one,” teachers’ collective efforts should generate superior teaching tools and practices.

Applied in a more standardized manner across a district or school may be argued to provide students with more equitable classroom experiences and opportunities. Further, collective planning and lesson development helps to address the practical problem of overwhelming time pressure as teachers share proven resources and strategies instead of “reinventing the wheel” within their own classrooms.

Furthermore, professional learning communities may be a source of morale for those who have felt isolated and alone in their teaching. Experiences with professional learning communities are uplifting teachers through collegiality, and the sense of belonging that comes when a school shares a common language, culture or vision. A trusting collaborative environment motivates school staff, encourages reflective practice, and makes the risk-taking required for innovation less threatening (Hargreaves, 2003; Mitchell & Sackney, 2000).

Barriers for Professional Learning Communities

Money, time, teacher unions, and principals that have poor leadership qualities are the fundamental barriers for the success of building and sustaining a professional learning community as stated by DuFour, Eaker, and DuFour (2005), with the specific areas of contention being lack of clarity on the values, intentions, and beliefs of a professional learning community. The researchers also stated the dependence on outside sources for their problems would lead to “a sense of resignation that robs educators of the energy that is essential to continuous improvement of teaching, learning, and relationship in schools” (p. 162).

Schmoker (2004) stated “It is stunning that for all this evidence and consensus of expert opinion, such collaboration-our most effective tool for improving instruction-remains exceedingly, dismayingly rare” (p. 432). Terms such as learning communities and lesson study are being heard, more each day, but “it is a rare school that has established regular times for teachers to create, test, and refine their lessons and strategies together” (p. 432).

After having examined professional learning communities and their implications with regards to the public education system, it is prudent to state that there is nothing remarkable or new about the idea, it has been existence for quite some time and has taken on several forms. The exploration undertaken in this paper explained some of the elements of these communities and makes implications with regards to its potential for success utilizing the vast body of literature and the action research available on the subject. Evident throughout this exploration is the notion that in both theory and practice, professional learning communities have something to offer for teachers and schools if they are willing to engage fully in both its promise and perils.


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