Embracing Change: The Shift from Professional Learning Communities to Professional Improvement Communities

"Let's move beyond learning to doing, transforming our practice and supporting achievement for ALL students. Together, we craft their success."

In my journey through the dynamic landscape of education, I've come to realize the essential nature of continuously evolving teacher practice to meet the ever-changing needs of our students. Reflecting on my own experiences, I've seen firsthand the pivotal role that Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) have played in fostering collaborative learning among educators, encouraging the exchange of ideas, and promoting collective growth. Yet, through both my successes and challenges, I've recognized the need to transition towards a more action-oriented approach.

Drawing from these experiences, I propose a shift from "learning" to "improvement" in our communities. This shift not only redefines our objectives but also amplifies [what should be] our commitment to not just acquiring knowledge but actively applying it. The establishment of Professional Improvement Communities (PICs) marks a significant step forward in our collective journey toward educational excellence and a move toward 100% student proficiency.

This idea of improvement intrinsically suggests action and application beyond the theoretical. It compels us, as educators, to move past the comfortable boundaries of familiar pedagogies and embrace innovative practices that may lie outside our comfort zones. For me, this transition underlines a critical evolution from merely learning new concepts to implementing changes that have a tangible impact on our teaching effectiveness and, consequently, student outcomes.

Moreover, this shift emphasizes the importance of accountability and the active role that each of us plays in the pursuit of excellence. By focusing on improvement, we adopt a mindset that is not satisfied with the status quo but is always looking toward the next milestone. It encourages us to set higher standards for ourselves and our colleagues, fostering an environment where constructive feedback and shared responsibilities move us forward.

Transitioning to Professional Improvement Communities also supports student learning through modeling a culture of continuous improvement in the classroom; we exemplify the skills and mindsets that students will need to thrive in the future. This ensures that our educational practices are not only reflective of current best practices but are also forward-thinking, preparing both teachers and students for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

The evolution from PLCs to PICs represents a profound shift in how we perceive and approach teacher development. This transition signifies a move towards a more active, intentional, and impactful form of professional growth, where the focus is squarely on implementing change to improve teacher practice and increase student success. By embracing this paradigm, we are not just changing a title; we are reaffirming our commitment to excellence, innovation, and, most importantly, our students' success. As we move forward, let us do so with the understanding that improvement is not just a goal but a continuous journey that demands our best efforts and unwavering dedication.

Why the shift?

I can think of three benefits from evolving to PICs:

⦿ Focus Change: When I think of traditional PLCs, I recall the adage, "After all is said and done, there is usually a lot more said than there is done." The "learning" label implies that we are learning new things. As we know, however, real shifts require us to implement changes to our perceptions, philosophies, and practices. With a focus on "improvement," we gather this idea that not only are we sticking our necks out as we try new things but that we circle back around after practicing and determine with our team, the effectiveness of the implementation. In essence, PICs offer a structure like the PDSA cycle. We plan, implement, and return & report. The cycle then starts anew.

⦿ Continuous Improvement: Changing the title, I believe, will also change the mindset of teams. They would be reminded consistently that their role is now centered on continually improving. We want our teachers to be competent, confident, and compassionate while at the same time remaining humble & teachable, recognizing that they can always improve their practice.

 ⦿ Collaborative Responsibility: "Professional Learning and Doing" helps teachers build individual efficacy. When we bring our data, struggles, and celebrations to a team, we gain the access and insight of our peers. This synergistic process helps build the "Collective Efficacy" of the team and the school. Teaching is one of the most isolated professions; working on improvement with a team allows teachers to access others' thinking and the cross-pollination of great ideas that others possess. 

How do we begin to make the shift?

⦿ Set Clear, Actionable Goals: Allow improvement teams to dig deep into their data and set goals for increased student achievement. Schmoker used to say, "What gets measured, gets done!" When we know we're going to be held accountable to change, the likelihood for change increases dramatically. With team accountability, teachers are less likely to blame external factors (or other educators) that negatively influence achievement and center more on the primary factor that will support student learning: improved teacher practice.

⦿ Increase Opportunities for Reflection: I've always felt that this is a snapshot of a teacher's day: 1) Spend the weekend getting ready for the week ahead, planning curriculum and activities; 2) Reviewing the lessons and objectives the night before instruction; 3) Come in early to gather the requisite materials and supplies; 4) Teach all day (and are fortunate when you can at least get a bite to eat and go to the restroom); 5) Clean up the classroom and go home. It's this cycle again and again. We afford teachers an opportunity to reflect with peers during weekly PIC meetings, but not much beyond that. To increase the opportunity for teacher reflection, leaders need to provide the necessary time. To be effective, a school with high collective efficacy reflects continuously on their practice (even during instruction). Leaders spend time in the classrooms and hold "water cooler" conversations with teachers all day by informally asking open-ended questions that require teacher reflection. Consider covering classes so teachers could occasionally witness their peers' instruction and immediately have a productive conversation. Increasing opportunities for teacher reflection should be one of the highest priorities for leaders on their site; schools that "learn" and "do" experience gains in student learning.

⦿ Allow for and Encourage Experimentation: Change takes time. It also takes a level of teacher vulnerability to try things that may fail horribly. Teachers who fear failure limit more than their own growth; they stifle the potential for real innovation in the classroom. True progress requires the courage to take risks and embrace the possibility of mistakes. The road to success is often lined by the skeletons of the failed efforts we've tried in the classroom along the way. Our students deserve educators who are willing to try just about anything to secure student success.

⦿ Utilize Data-Driven Decision Making: Student data should be the foundation of PICs. Some educators like to keep their results a secret. They may feel it represents own their teaching more than student learning. They are vulnerable. Schools need to move away from data as an "inspection item" and lean more into the idea that data is no more than a tool to help us understand our classroom pulse and the areas that need further time and remediation. 

⦿ Keep it Positive and Celebrate: There are always great things happening in the classrooms. I've seen so many masters of the craft in classrooms over the years. Excellent teaching is exhausting! We need to remind ourselves that this is a good and exciting work. We are literally making the world a better place. I used this mindset repeatedly throughout my career; it helped to fill my cup when I became overly exhausted and discouraged. Effective change leaders use positivity as a motivation strategy. When I am excited, others around me seem to be more excited. Finally, celebrate the successes in your classroom and at your school. Most appreciate acknowledgement of hard and smart work.

Learn, Do & Report

Reflect for a moment on your current practices in your PLCs. Consider what would be required for your team to move to PICs. How would meeting practices change? Expectations? Data gathering? Bring this blog post to your peers, discuss it, and make a commitment to change ONE THING in your PLC that helps transition to the shift from "learning" to "improvement."


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