What is a professional learning community in educational leadership? A professional learning community is an organized group of educators that shares expertise and works together to improve their individual and collective capabilities. Educational leaders serve as a focal point of professional learning communities, and at the same time use them to mentor and develop their teams.
The term professional learning community is like many others that you will learn about in educational leadership degree programs. It’s a term the describes a situation that exists naturally in almost every school: a group of educators who work together collaboratively to improve their individual and collective skills.
Other academia-oriented terms for the phenomena include:
The fact that these collectives form naturally doesn’t make them any less important or valuable, however. For an educational leader, fostering a strong PLC in your school is an important step. To mentor and encourage mutual support among teachers and staff, a PLC is an invaluable tool.
How Do Educational Leaders Use Professional Learning Communities?
In some senses, it’s leadership itself that makes a professional learning community. As the focal point that brings individual educators together, a principal or teacher leader has the hard work of connecting with everyone.
The leader brings the shared goals of the group into focus. They bring individuals with key knowledge into the limelight to help share valuable practices or information. They create the spaces and times for the PLC to gather. And they help everyone in the group envision their own personal learning goals and strengths.
Like communities of all sorts, PLCs are porous and ever-changing to meet new challenges and bring in new blood.
The PLC meets two big to-do items on the list of standard organizational leadership practices:
That’s something for everyone wrapped up in one package. The PLC empowers individuals to achieve their own learning and professional goals with the group’s help. And it creates a stronger and more effective teaching staff to meet the needs of the organization.
A PLC Offers Inclusive Opportunities for Expanding Knowledge Sharing
Of course, PLCs don’t need to be restricted only to teachers. Many of the best PLC groups include not just classroom teachers, but also a variety of specialists with unique training and information to share:
And from within the teaching ranks themselves, teacher leaders and faculty mentors are often the core of a professional learning community. With additional insight that comes from years of experience and graduate degrees, they have plenty to offer more junior teachers. With formal roles and certification for the position, they also have the leadership skills to bring a PLC up to speed.
There’s no special requirement that each school have only one PLC—or even that a PLC needs to be restricted to a single school. Some can cover staff from an entire district, or even from multiple different districts.
It’s most common for PLCs to form with a certain theme. That could be a focus on teaching at a certain grade level, like elementary schools. Or it could take the form of a special subject area, like STEM education. The critical element is that all participants want to improve their skills and knowledge in that subject area.
How Leaders Build and Sustain Professional Learning Communities
PLCs almost always exist in school districts in one form or another. But there is a range of different ways they come together and operate.
Some may be extremely formal—an established after-school meeting held once a week, with scheduled presentations, subcommittees that study various data, and action plans that lay out future events.
In other cases, they have a more casual format. It could be a simple coffee klatch before class, with topics of discussion emerging from daily challenges. A senior teacher might preside and guide the others. Or subject matter experts and specialists might pop up to take charge when relevant.
Either way, PLCs usually work through similar types of interaction:
The groups are all about information sharing and collaboration. And while this offers tools for every participant to do their own job more effectively, the groups also accomplish something more: they offer a way to get an entire team on the same page.
Getting the Right Training to Lead a PLC Through a Degree in Educational Leadership
No matter what the PLC looks like in your school or district, there’s sure to be a leader involved. Whether a principal, instructional coordinator, or teaching lead, someone must step up. Due to the multidimensional nature of a PLC, there are even occasions when junior teachers or specialists might step into leadership roles. Where their area of expertise is most important, it will fall to them to take the lead.
The leader will suggest subjects for study and improvement, arrange for meeting times, follow up with members, and offer additional support where needed.
In most cases, they’ll have picked up the skills to perform all those tasks through an advanced degree in educational leadership.
The curriculum behind a Master’s in Educational Administration or a Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership includes all the tools needed to sustain a PLC. Through research, coursework, and actual practice in internship placements, students learn skills like:
The organizational skills come in handy for things as basic as finding a clear time on everyone’s schedule to getting bagels from the bakery in the morning ahead of a breakfast meeting. But the real magic happens through the relationships developed and the subtle ways you learn to guide the group’s focus.
Putting together an effective professional learning community in your school is one of the best levers you have as a leader. Through it, you will both empower your staff to achieve their own professional goals and develop an organization that allows you to achieve yours.