A group of Orem principals who saw the positive impact of professional learning communities on their teachers realized they too could benefit from these interactions.
Teachers in many school districts in Utah have been engaging in PLCs over the past ten years. They meet in teams (usually by grade level) to collaborate on meeting the needs of their students. They discuss matters such as assessment data, curriculum needs, methods and strategies, resource allocations, and specific students’ situations.
“PLCs were a positive cultural change in our school,” said David Boren, who was principal of Scera Park Elementary in Orem, Utah and worked with teachers in his school to refine their PLCs. Boren is now director of the School Leadership Program at the BYU McKay School. “We shifted to having a continuous and recurring focus on working collaboratively, focusing on results, and believing that every student can learn at high levels.”
This past year elementary school principals in the Orem cluster, which consists of Orem High feeder schools, decided to meet together in a professional learning community of principals.
“Collectively, as learning leaders at our schools, we felt the need to engage in the same professional learning that our teachers engage in,” said Aaron Stevenson, who graduated in elementary education and then earned his master’s in educational leadership from the McKay School and is now principal of Orchard Elementary. “As colleagues we recognized that we could go through the same processes we are asking our teachers to engage in, and subsequently improve our abilities to lead our teachers in learning.”
Although Stevenson was not in a cohort that participated as a professional learning community during his master’s program, he became familiar with PLCs while teaching in the Alpine School District. “During my time there a culture shift toward learning communities was taking place,” Stevenson said. “It was natural as a new teacher to engage in the process of improving learning and I was grateful for the opportunity.” Stevenson extended his understanding of PLCs by attending workshops and reading professional literature.
When Stevenson was appointed principal of Orchard Elementary in 2010, PLCs were already functioning with teachers in the school. Stevenson tried to involve himself in various collaborative events and opportunities similar to PLCs, but felt that principals needed something specifically focused towards their leadership roles; Stevenson, along with a group of principals, decided to initiate a principal PLC among his Orem colleagues.
“From the start, everyone has been on board,” Stevenson said. “We set norms, identified essential learning standards, identified goals, utilized data, and worked collaboratively to improve our practices. It’s been a rewarding and gratifying experience, particularly because our efforts are having a tremendous impact on our schools.”
Stevenson and the other principals decided that organizing as clusters made the most sense. The Orem High cluster included six elementary schools, the Alpine School District curriculum departments, and the ASD south elementary supervisor. The principal PLC is made up of the principals from this cluster. The most difficult part of starting has been finding time for the six principals to meet, but meetings are now schedules for every two weeks.
“One of the most important aspects is how we hold each other accountable. No one is requiring us to meet, and no one is watching to see if we are there,” Stevenson said. “We want to be there and recognize the benefit of doing so. We have had the support of others in our district, and their support has been essential in focusing our efforts.”
Stevenson has already seen positive outcomes from the principal PLC. Because he is learning how to lead more effectively, teachers, students, and the community benefit. “The principal PLC allows me to reflect on my practices and identify areas I can improve on,” Stevenson said. “Because we use data to drive our discussions, we are able to look at the collective strengths of our cluster and create a plan for improvement.”
Boren saw how teachers working collaboratively together had a positive impact on his students. “When we started, teachers were struggling to meet the needs of learners all along the learning continuum,” Boren said. “Working together, teachers could identify best practices that led to better learning, and were able support each other in the process of teaching and learning.”
Some of the most positive outcomes from the principal PLC have been ways principals from different schools have collaborated to help each other. According to Stevenson, through sharing assessments, learning outcomes, curriculum maps, and research-validated best practices they have given each other better resources, and brought their schools closer together.