8 Tips for Developing Your Own Virtual PLC

This post was written by Sam Northern, a National Board Certified Elementary School Librarian, National Geographic Certified Educator, and Grosvenor Teacher Fellow.

There’s a common misconception that a school librarian’s work is distinct from a classroom educator’s work. But as a school librarian, I want to show my peers that I can serve as a curriculum specialist and directly support their professional growth. Unexpectedly, the pandemic gave me an opportunity to design and lead professional development that would be sustained, reflective, practiced, and customized to teachers and students via virtual professional learning communities (PLCs). 

At the start of the pandemic, I saw I could be a partner in making remote learning more effective and engaging. I started by sending an open invitation to elementary educators to join a science or social studies PLC, as they often voiced they didn’t have the time, tools, or confidence to teach those subjects. I ended up with two volunteers each from first, second, and third grades, along with a curriculum coordinator. The eight of us decided to meet every week for one hour and grow the PLC organically based on collaborative input.

Sam Northern meets with his professional learning community to review different concepts. Photo courtesy Sam Northern.

The PLC was beneficial in a number of ways. In just eight weeks, the participating teachers felt more confident teaching science and social studies and had a strong grasp of techniques that cut across subjects. They were able to create connections between literacy, math, reading, writing, science, and social studies, and tie these all back to standards and resources to make the most of their short time with students.

The PLC also helped me build culture and relationships with teachers in my school. I hope that moving forward, they feel more comfortable coming to me with questions, and we can foster a community of trust and positivity. We don’t know what’s going to happen this year, but I am confident we will get through it together because we have that bond and common purpose of serving our school community.

Interested in starting your own virtual or in-person PLC? Here’s my advice:

  • Get buy-in from school leadership. I started by contacting the school principal, vice principal, and curriculum coordinator with my idea. I explained my intention to support educators in standards-based teaching and find ways to get students thinking critically at a higher level. I also raised the concern that teachers were being asked to teach multiple subjects in a short time period daily, and that through a PLC, I could help them see how to better connect content areas within one lesson. The school leadership has been supportive throughout the process, even setting aside PD time for PLC work so educators’ development time best serves their needs.

  • Start by setting goals and priorities. This can be as simple as asking teachers, “What’s going well? What is beneficial or valuable about _______?” When I asked my science PLC what they liked about science, we got so many great responses: students get to do experiments, solve problems, make predictions, learn how the world works, engage in hands-on learning, develop teamwork skills. We moved into their concerns, which included resources, time, preparation, monitoring student behavior, and managing a messy lesson. We then set goals and priorities. For example, one concern was not having enough time to teach science, so we considered other ways to integrate it, such as STEM activities that could support reading instruction and serve as a pathway to improved literacy. Finding ways to marry subjects became one of our goals.

  • Develop some structure around your time together. Our first meeting laid the groundwork with the understanding that it would evolve over time. Each week, the meetings would start with a review of prioritized goals. We had a shared Google Doc that housed resources, distilled down information from the dense Kentucky Department of Education modules, activities I had adapted for elementary learners, a creative assignment for the week, and an ask of something to share out at the next meeting. The bulk of each meeting was sharing time. Teachers would present questions for a standard and have time to workshop ideas. And after each meeting, teachers went back to their teams and communicated out their learnings.

  • Assume the role of a facilitator, not an expert. I know that I don’t have all the answers. What I can offer is alternative perspectives and new ways of thinking, and let teachers draw their own conclusions. My goal was to facilitate discussions and activities based on what we determined were concerns, needs, and priorities, and gauge how it was going. As a facilitator, I like to model and then give space for participants to engage and learn from one another. Ultimately, it’s their teams and their colleagues, and they want to see what others are doing and get input from them directly.

  • Make it interactive and hands on. I take the constructivist approach to learning: you learn by making sense of your experiences. I had to find a way to do that virtually, and the best way was through activities. Each week, I would build in time for teachers to create something and share it out. And to ensure we were seeing the full spectrum of standards and ideas, we would break up the work and jigsaw so we were all doing something a little bit different. For example, one of my assignments was, “Take or find a photograph that relates to a performance expectation for your grade. Write how the image could be used as a phenomenon for that standard. What makes for good phenomena to anchor a unit? What is a key science idea that a phenomenon for our focal PEs would need to address?” You can check out the teachers’ amazing work here.

  • Ensure it is applicable now. We all love to learn, especially teachers. I wish we had more time to be scholarly and research and read and hold book clubs. But with the demands of our school and standards, that doesn’t happen very often. Through a PLC, you have an opportunity for everyone to pause and think about things differently with new information, but I would always keep in mind: how can teachers use this in the classroom next week?

  • Keep things organized. I used Google Sites to house everything: standards, resources, opportunities. They are easy to update and you can give multiple people editing power. You can check out my social studies site and science site for inspiration! And we would always work from an agenda. I used Google Docs to make editable agendas for each meeting that linked to resources and goals. Check out an example of one of the science agendas and social studies agendas.

  • Check in regularly and be flexible. I did a pre- and post-PLC survey:
  1. I measured if and how the PLC changed teachers’ understanding of science and social studies concepts and how to teach them
  2. Whether it improved their confidence in teaching
  3. If it gave them ideas of resources they could use and
  4. If it increased their ability to use inquiry. 

We also checked in during each meeting to ensure our goals and priorities were still tracking with their needs and experiences. After each session, I could tell that either the teachers really enjoyed the topic and got a lot out of it or things fell flat. And that’s the reality of professional learning: it’s not going to work every time. By being flexible and adaptable, I was able to adjust along the way to best serve our mutual growth.

I’m planning for part two of the PLC this fall with a different group of educators and new goals and priorities. I’m interested in learning more about each member of the PLC as individuals so I personalize it to their learning and growth. There are many potential pathways and opportunities ahead, and the beauty of it is that we can decide as a group where to go next. 

By the way, if you don’t have the time or capacity to create or join a PLC this fall, there are still other ways you can share what you know and what you need with fellow educators. One easy way to connect in our National Geographic education community is the #TeacherStrong strategy toolkit. It’s got everything you need to craft a #TeacherStrong strategy and share it out into the community. Get started now and see where your conversations take you! After all, I believe it’s not always what you learn, but who you learn with that’s most important.

Feature image by Chi Gin Tan

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