PLCs from one Teacher's Perspective

Hi!  I’m a Carleton College student who wrote some articles for over the last term.  I took a brief intermission from online journalism over Carleton’s long winter break, but now I’m back to work.  To start off, I’ll be continuing the promised series about PLCs, Professional Learning Communities, in Northfield, and how various members of the community view their strengths and weaknesses. 


Professional Learning Communities are a model that, at least in theory, will improve student learning by setting aside time for teachers to analyze data gleaned from students’ tests and assignments.  Using this information, teachers are expected to develop modified educational plans which will cater to student’s individual needs and raise overall student achievement.  Responses to the implementation of PLCs in Northfield have been decidedly mixed, with some writing hopefully of their potential in the long run, and others expressing frustration at a lack of tangible results in exchange for less actual school time.

My first article was written following an interview with school board member Ellen Iverson, my second with a parent in the school district, Kathie Galotti.  The article below is based on an email correspondence from last term (early November) with a teacher in the district, Mr. Darrell Sawyer, an 8th Grade Geography Teacher and the Assistant Coach of the Northfield Middle School girls’ basketball team.  I encourage readers to share their own thoughts below!

One aspect of Professional Learning Communities that has frustrated community members so far is the lack of transparency regarding how PLC time is spent.  I asked Mr. Sawyer to provide some information about what teachers are expected to do during PLC time.  He said that “teachers meet in groups to talk about how to improve student learning,” and that these groups “may be based on subject matter or age group.”  Most of the student-learning improvement strategies teachers work to create during this time are based on data taken from standardized tests, Sawyer says. 

Interestingly, based on my interview with Mr. Sawyer, it seems that issues of transparency and honesty exist on both sides; he told me that despite heated online debates over PLCs, when it came to parents sharing their thoughts directly with teachers, he had heard next to nothing.  In fact, although he acknowledged that perhaps other teachers had had different interactions with parents, “during the eight hours of fall conferences, I didn’t have one parent ask me about PLCs.”

Given that a number of parents have (at least online!) expressed frustration or dissatisfaction over the use of PLCs, I was curious to hear from a teacher whether there might be more effective programs to enhance student learning.  Sawyer said that in his ten years of teaching in Northfield, the model he liked best was the Personal Development Plan (PDP).  PDPs, Sawyer wrote, allowed more flexibility in choosing professional improvement opportunities to improve each teacher’ specific skill set or area of interest.  For example, he wrote, “if I attended a geography teaching workshop at Macalester College, that would count towards my PDP hours.  I liked that model because it allowed me to find development opportunities that were specifically related to my curriculum.”

The central issue for many when judging the value of PLCs has been the question of whether or not these groups are truly beneficial for both students and teachers.  Sawyer implied (again, based on an email from about two months ago) that thus far, he didn’t have enough information to judge.  He wrote “it will take more time to realize the full value of this initiative.”  On a personal level, he did feel that PLCs have allowed him more time to analyze information from individual students.  However, he wrote that his own personal preference might favor more of the PLC time going towards student-teacher interaction, such as meeting “with a small group of low level readers to keep them up to speed” in his class.  Sawyer seemed to feel this was an unlikely change, writing that “it has been made clear to me that PLC time is not a time to meet with students.”