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Sunday, February 24, 2013

John Meeks, the danger of professional learning communities (PLC)

By John Louis Meeks, Jr.
It only takes a public school system to turn the word 'community' into a bad word.

We are born into communities, we choose communities, and we support communities that foster our humanity and growth.

My running assumption is that communities are like families, but transcend the blood ties that we inherit.  In a community, we are all brothers and sisters who have the same vision and the same values - if not the manner in carrying them out.

You might ask why I believe that community is somehow an issue with the public school system.  I would answer in the affirmative.

There is a new movement in public education that is called "Professional Learning Communities."  It was created to connect teachers within a grade level or department to help them work well as a team.  This teamwork, I believe, is necessary.  I remember when I first began teaching in 2002 and felt like an island unto myself where I had to produce lessons and assignments independently of the veteran educators who could be of assistance to a rookie teacher.

The Professional Learning Communities (PLC) movement is the cure to this sense of disconnect among educators of all ability levels.  Department and grade levels collaborate in PLC meetings on a regular basis and they meet to find ways to make the grade for our students and our schools.

The pursuit of professional growth through using best practices and proven practices is most beneficial to educators as they make the best use of their time, talent and treasure for the common good.

I like to begin my criticism with an inventory of the good before I list the 'deltas' - or areas where I believe can be improved.  I have three deltas with regard to the darker side of the PLC movement:

1.) PLC = Professional Learning Conformity.  Many administrators use the PLC movement as a guise under which they can mandate conformity among their faculty.  The sharing of resources, in my opinion, should be up to the teachers who do the sharing.  When we have administrators demanding to know why lesson plans are not identical and demanding to know why teachers are not doing the exact same thing at any given moment, we are losing an important autonomy that we trust other professionals with when they do their work.

2.) Differentiation only applies to students.  Speaking of lack of autonomy, we are deluding ourselves when we demand that teachers behave like Cathy and Patty Lane the famous identical cousins on The Patty Duke Show who laughed alike, they walked alike and sometimes they even talked alike.  We are very mindful of the different ways that students learn.  We are equally stubborn in expecting teachers to set aside their talents to teach exactly the way their peers teach.  The problem with PLC, in my opinion, that the voting majority in any grade level or department can impose their will on the minority simply because they agree that their way is better.  As the old maxim goes, democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what is for dinner.

3.) When we meet, who will bring the cookies?  The nature of data and accountability is to meet regularly to count the beans.  The downside to the meetings and collaboration that they are supposed to foster is that many educators are required to meet for the sake of meeting.  In this age of electronic communication, we still have schools that demand that teachers schedule time for meetings as often as once a week to set aside their planning and working to help the school prove that they indeed are having meetings.  This, in my opinion, is the most wasteful aspect of PLCs.  We expect educators to step away from their actual work to organize meetings that may or may not have a purpose not for the sake of helping students but to show the bureaucrats that the school is pledging its ongoing fealty to the almighty PLC.
The best way to organize a community of teachers is to be faithful to the vision and mission of the PLC movement without forgetting the aspects of community that actually inspire us to belong and serve.
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8 comments:

  1. I transferred to a campus with the "PLC" mentality after eight reasonably successful years of teaching. I had been used to a system where we'd share ideas once a week, we'd be teaching the same SE, some of the materials we used were the same because they worked well for all of us. However, we were always free to review or extend as needed, and to use alternate texts if we felt they would work better with our particular students - as long as we were teaching the skill and could show results.

    On this new campus, I was immediately thrown into a world in which I not only no longer had an opinion, but was essentially prohibited from adding any personal touches to the lessons that were given to us by the department heads under the guise of "collaboration". It was same day, same story, same "foladable", same powerpoint for everyone in the department - and none of it was near the standard of quality that I had previously implemented in my classroom. A lot of it was disjointed, or shallow, or only loosely connected to the SE... but saying as much made me a huge target.

    On the first common assessment, I was "caught", as my students scored significantly higher in some areas than my colleagues - and instead of being questioned about my methods in some positive way, I was reprimanded, because they knew I was tweaking what they had been giving me. The team leader began a vicious campaign against me, interrogating me during meetings, accusing me of doing a poor job, etc. - and the administrators were right with her. They began visiting my classroom several times a week, e-mailing me about the words or bits of assignments that didn't seem to be consistent with my collegues...

    Additionally, we were required to use 4 out of 5 of our weekly planning periods (which are legally protected in my state from organized activities my the administration) to attend these "planning meetings" in which we were told what to do, how to do it, and interrogated as to whether we were in lock step.

    To make a long story short, I lasted 3 months, began having panic attacks, and was repremanded for it. This worsened the anxiety, and despite being under medical care, they panic attacks increased in frequency... The constant threat of visits, the interrogation, being told I was not doing well after years of being respected by former colleagues... it was all too much. I resigned for medical reasons, and I'm unsure if I'll ever teach again.

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    1. You are absolutely on target in your description of the heavy handed and coercive methods being used to control teachers under the guise of "PLC's" The mediocrity of instructional design. The ferocious need to kill innovative teaching. The righteous, misplaced energy spent by administrators to corral teachers into a pedagogical box. Thank you for speaking out and telling the truth.

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  2. Thanks. PLC and all the ridiculous nonsense at the middle school where I've taught for the past 19 years has completely sapped me of enthusiasm. I shall resign at the conclusion of this year. Who is John Galt.

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  3. Whats contained in this article is exactly what I experienced in my PLC at First Coast High School. The principal was very visibly upset to observe that my lesson plan had different example problems from another PLC member. He also showed his anger when I suggested that members of the PLC be allowed to input more, rather than having the math coach dictate everything. The problem was, the principal had an English degree and me - an Engineering degree. What does he really know about teaching math.

    Well, that Principal moved since, but I understand that he has something more important on his plate to worry about right now - a law suit brewing against him personally and the School Board. I am more worried about legal claims against the School Board because our tax dollars will be used to pay. As the adage goes,"You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time".

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  4. Can you give me some more details, I am very interested in the workings of first coast, I can keep anything you say private. cpgbonjovi@gmail.com

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  5. I am so happy that I am not alone in this struggle! I have recently relocated to a new state/school system that lives and breathes PLC. It is stifling for me and instructionally damaging for my students. The "lesson plans" that come out of our meetings, amount to nothing more than worksheets, and the assessments are equally shameful. I have been an educator for 13 years, and am considering leaving the profession because I am so disheartened. Does anyone have any suggestions on ways to work around a PLC?

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  6. My district is starting PLC and I am very hesitant being that I have been teaching for 18 years. As a history teacher, I have my favorite units that I like to take longer to teach and I have a high number of ENL students, I am concerned that the "cookie cutter" mentality of PLC will not allow me the flexibility for either. It seems as though the PLC model assumes that all students learn the same way and we know as educators that this is false. I believe this is another attempt by administrators to micro-manage what is being taught in their buildings and across the district. Students learned better, attendance was better and teachers stayed in the profession longer when we were allowed to teach and not be managed as some side show.

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  7. Yes, thank you for posting this! Our district has held numerous meetings for a year or two now to where we have heard the same generic theory about PLC's for 3-hours straight on some 3+ occasions. We were even required to write sub plans and leave school for a day to have a 3-hour session where we watched the same video that we were shown a year ago and had to discuss all the same things over again. On top of that, the video was very boring featuring mainly a lot of talking heads who talked generically about how to figure out when to meet, how to deal with conflicts and work together, etc. If we were to go about teaching our classes that way, the students would complain and no one would think we were a good teacher, yet the administrator introducing our presenter said she was the best PD facilitator ever.
    I am also very stressed by the PLC concept since it is hard for me to learn in groups. I hated group work in school because I need to process things on my own and all the other kids wanted to be in my group because I was "the smart kid", but it's really just because I did the work.
    There is definitely a time and place for collaboration and I have definitely drawn many, many helpful ideas and observations from veteran teachers, but now that I have many years of experience, I don't want to continually be "starting over" again and made to sketch everything out all over again in a PLC. The very definition of being a professional is someone who is able to make judgments. Thus I feel we are not being treated as such, but rather being micro-managed just so the higher-up's can prove to their higher-up's that their checklist is complete.
    One more thing is that when I have tried to ask my colleagues in my department what they do, one of them just shows me workbooks he uses, but doesn't really have anything else to show me. I myself quit using the workbook a few years ago because it was so terrible and had to write my own exercises. Meanwhile, I have spent hours making materials and have binders of it to show my colleagues. I am totally up for learning from others, but if they aren't going to show me anything, then how can we do it and, in the end, I know from student comments that one of the teachers isn't maybe using the best teaching methods. However, until I observe my colleagues teaching, how am I going to know?
    I think observation of one another should be the heart of PLC's, not meetings. Observation should be the heart of most of what we learn from in general. I have always gleaned the most from that. Anything else is abstract and theoretical for me and hard to wrap my mind around. Am I the only one with this struggle? No one else seems to resound when I bring up that we should do more observations of one another.

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