Getting the Most out of PLCs: Burlington High School


Expecting teachers to collaborate in Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs, has become a nearly ubiquitous practice in schools across the nation. While site leaders create schedules that allow for teachers to meet regularly in collaborative teams, often the purpose of these PLCs is unclear. This fuzziness can lead to fragmentation across the school on how collaboration time is used, with a resulting lack of progress toward site goals. Though time is set aside for teachers to meet, there is also often no clear leadership of the PLC space. Without intentional structures that support PLC leaders to set goals, plan for, and facilitate teacher collaboration in service of student learning, this huge investment in teachers’ time and energy can become a missed opportunity.

At Lead by Learning, we are studying what it takes to support leaders of adult learning to maximize the impact of their collaboration time on equitable outcomes for students. One area of this work focuses on supporting leaders of PLCs – both teachers and administrators – to engage in reflective practice about their leadership as they facilitate teams of department colleagues, grade-level colleagues, or cross-curricular groups.

This month, we had the opportunity to speak with Joe Faitak, Instructional Coach at Burlington High School (BHS) in Burlington, Vermont. BHS serves 979 students and 46% of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. BHS is partnering with Lead by Learning to support a new vision for their PLCs centered around teacher leadership and equity. Each of the nine PLCs at BHS meets twice per month and is composed of a cross-curricular group of teachers and led by two colleagues. These teacher leaders work directly with Lead by Learning in monthly group sessions and individualized coaching that supports them to vision for, plan, and reflect on their PLC collaboration. So far this fall, each PLC has focused on two main goals: 1) to articulate the impact they want to have on equitable student outcomes and 2) to understand and identify the types of data that best help them understand students’ experiences and illuminate their path forward. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Joe, thank you so much for talking with me amidst everything else going on! Jumping right in, what is your big picture vision for the PLC work at BHS? What do you hope comes out of it for students? For adults?

Well, I’ve only been with this district for a year and a half now, but what I heard was that in many cases, the PLCs had just become department meetings. So as a leadership team at our retreat this summer, we stepped back and really looked at our school. Everything we’re doing is centered around ensuring that we have equitable outcomes for all students, whatever that will mean for us. So we tried to look creatively at different pockets of places where we could improve on equitable outcomes. Our vision was to create PLCs that would address these areas. And to avoid them just becoming department meetings again, we intentionally made them interdisciplinary. 

For example, one of the most concrete areas that we need to improve on is our math SBAC scores. This is a direct mandate from the state of Vermont. But we didn’t want it to just be math teachers looking at this. In fact, one of the leaders of that PLC is an English language teacher who does a lot of math support, and he has valuable insights into the whole process. Another of our PLCs is focused on differentiated student support, where too often the support ends up being only academic, like this kid needs tutoring, or this kid needs homework help. And quite often, that’s the last thing a student needs! So if we’re trying to practice differentiation in the forms of support that we give to students, whether it’s social, emotional, or academic, we need to consider all those things and bring different perspectives in. 

But I think the most important thing that we were trying to do is make a cultural shift in our school. You know, I never thought of myself as a classroom teacher. I was a school teacher, and I just happened to teach a certain subject in a certain room or two. But most of us tend to get stuck in our subject areas. We want to help people feel more of a community as a school. 

Finally, one other goal was to build teacher leadership capacity across our school. All but one of our PLC Leaders haven’t had a leadership position in the school before. These are all people who have important voices and have really stepped up in this role. It’s been a great way to really see people. I didn’t know many of them that well before. But now we are seeing people who were typically quieter voices chiming in and participating a lot more. They are coming to me or other members of the leadership team, feeling like they have the wherewithal and the clout to really share an idea or ask a question.

It sounds like you had to be comfortable with some level of risk as a leader in shoulder tapping these people who hadn’t been in leadership positions before. How did you approach that?

Well, fortunately, our principal Lauren [McBride] and I are very similar in that we’re not risk averse. So that helps. But we were very thoughtful about the people we asked. We were thinking of two things: Would they be able to do it? And would their own practice benefit from doing this? We weren’t just looking at how they would serve the school, but also, it would be really great if this person felt more empowered.

I love that so much. A lot of our partner leaders tap the same people, thinking, “Well, this person’s already on the leadership team, so they’d likely be good for this role,” or “This person’s already a department leader, so they’re the right one for this, too.” They don’t always think outside of the box like you are doing, which means they end up relying on a very small subset of their staff to be the teacher leaders instead of spreading the leadership capacity around.

Yes, we really want the voices to be multi-dimensional. You know, if the same people are coming up with the same ideas and thinking about the same problems, we get stuck in the same perspectives.

Right, and that’s an equity trap right there. So how do you see Lead by Learning as supporting your vision for PLCs and the culture shift that you’re trying to build toward?

I remember at one point Lauren and I were like, “We’re actually doing this!” because it seemed like this really out-there idea.  But Lead by Learning was a fantastic design partner in bringing this to fruition. You have been so open minded and thoughtful to work with. When we’ve worked together, at the end of a coaching call or monthly learning session, everything is so much clearer. You also challenge certain things when they need to be challenged, and support when it seems they should be supported.

That’s really good to hear! So tell me the story of getting the PLCs off the ground. Were there barriers that you faced when you were getting your vision up and running? How did you overcome them? 

The biggest barrier was that we were trying to make a cultural shift. In our district, there’s been a lot of turnover – teachers, administrators, even superintendents. Many people, not all, but many people who have been here for a while tend to be kind of jaded. They look at things like, “Oh, here’s another new thing, you know, it’s going to go away.” A lot of times an initiative comes and goes within a lifecycle of three years, and then something changes again. So one of the hurdles was communicating to people, “No, this isn’t the same. This isn’t the same PLC that you have done before. This isn’t being done the same way.” Because a professional learning community doesn’t have to be centered around one particular subject. We can have our department meetings, we have other spaces for kid talk and collaborative planning. We wanted this space to feel different, more focused, and not just more of the same.

So shifting that culture was definitely the biggest challenge coming in, and I can see it shifting already. For example, I feel the energy in the room when we meet with our PLC Leaders and I see how invested most of them already are in the work. They are coming to me saying, “Hey, could you give me some data on this?” Or, “Would you mind taking a look at our agenda for our next PLC meeting and giving us any feedback you have?” And they’re coming to me! I’m not requiring anything. I’m giving them the permission to do it how they want to. We’ve also had a couple of PLC Leaders who signed up for coaching sessions with you. I heard that and my heart fluttered a little bit, because it was a big shift. In our school, people have a hard time asking for help. And I think as a leadership team we’re modeling that by saying, “Hey, we created these PLCs, and we have you guys helping us lead them because we can’t do it alone. We need your help.” So we’re trying to model that courageous vulnerability. I am seeing it starting to work, which is nice.

Something I’m thinking of that brings this to life in a concrete way is your decision early in the semester to cut the PLC meetings back from every week to twice a month.  Can you talk to me about your reasons for making that shift, and how it showed this willingness to be vulnerable and to change and learn along with your leaders?

Well, I guess like with any new team, we recognize that we came in hot. We had a lot of good ideas, a lot of things we wanted to do, and didn’t really realize just how stressful this year was going to be. Regardless, we kept thinking, “Finally, we’re going to get back to some sense of normalcy.” And it’s been anything but. So seeing that our teachers are just at an exhaustion point, we said, “We’ve got to pump the brakes a bit and slow things down and go to every other week.” And, you know, people were appreciative of that. We’ve been doing that in a number of different areas, too. I really feel that we need to narrow our focus to just a few key initiatives, because we did come in with a lot of different things that we wanted to do and we’re just not ready for all that yet.

It sounds like you were staying responsive to teachers’ social and emotional needs, and using that awareness to guide your decisions as a leader of this work, rather than blindly sticking to your original plan. So, here we are towards the end of this first semester. What are some questions that you’re holding as we prepare to move into the spring with your PLC Leaders?

The big question is around the fear and insecurity that I have about this whole thing. Like, are we actually going to produce some kind of change? And is this going to be sustainable? And how are we going to sustain it, really? We’re doing all this great work. I would love to see it keep going. I don’t want to just get to the end of the school year and say, “Alright, now what?” We really have to be thoughtful about year two of this process. And what will we do? Maybe some of the work next year is not coming up with new conversations and new ideas, but continuing the progress that came out of this year. Like what are the actionable steps, and continuing to carry them out.

That’s so great, because so many leaders aren’t comfortable sitting with that uncertainty. They feel they need to know the plan for what’s happening now, and what’s happening next, and what’s happening after that, all from the outset. But what you’re doing is flexing your uncertainty muscle and allowing this emergent work to unfold. And that’s hard, but you are seeing the benefits as it is creating a culture of distributed leadership across your school. Is there anything you feel like you have had to let go of as a leader, in order to sit with that level of uncertainty?

I mean, the hardest thing to let go of in anything is control. I can’t control where this is going to go. I just have to trust that something good will come out of it. When you were saying that leaders want to know what the plan is, it’s because they want to feel, “If you have this plan, and you have all these steps, well, then oh, great, I don’t have to think about it anymore.” I’m taking the approach where – I don’t want to say we’re making it up as we go along, because we are being very intentional and staying true to our vision –  but we’re not planning that far out so that we can stay responsive to what we are seeing and hearing. This way requires a lot more work. But I’m fine with that. Because I want this to actually – despite what happens so much in education – I want this to actually be one of those things where people say later, “Hey, that was actually really good. We couldn’t have done it otherwise.”

Okay, last question. What advice would you give to other school leaders who want to build teacher leadership at their schools?

I would say, trust the process. I would share with them the idea of capacity building through giving other people a voice. It’s so much better when things are coming from them, when ideas and next steps are coming out through a collaboration of participants, rather than the compliance of subordinates that I know a lot of people wind up with because it does cut down on some of the work I was talking about before. With collaboration, other people are bringing in ideas, other people are helping weave that fabric, that new culture that we’re creating. It can be messy and scary because as humans we don’t like to give up control, but if you throw some trust in the process, things will be alright.

Thank you Joe for making the invisible, visible about how BHS is getting PLCs off the ground to support students. Stay tuned for our Spring follow up with Joe and BHS to hear how the work is progressing.