Professional Development in the 21st Century (Part II) –
School-Based Teacher Professional Learning Communities
Juanita C. García, Ph.D.
There is a substantial amount of research that describes the transformation of schools in the 21st century to function as learning organizations where teachers, administrators, students and families are collectively united by a shared vision of student and teacher success (Sergionvanni, 2006). Today’s teachers face unprecedented challenges that require collective thinking and problem solving informed by increased teacher learning and reflection opportunities. Rodríguez et al. (2011) define learning communities as forums to “enrich teaching and learning… by combining individual skills and strengths of each teacher into a collaborative effort with a shared vision of student success.” Well thought-out and research-supported teaching provides experiences enriched by reflection and interaction with colleagues.
Effective schools and classrooms require teacher professionalism that embraces a deep understanding of student diversity, assets and needs along with new standards. They also must hold high expectations for teaching effectiveness and student learning. Successful schools promote teacher and student efficacy and inspire a commitment to life-long professional learning and a collective responsibility for improving student performance (McLaughlin & Talbert, 2006). Schools that build teacher learning communities recognize the power of working together to achieve a common purpose. Thus, they create structures to promote a collaborative culture (DuFour, 2004).
A main contribution of School-Based Teacher Learning Communities is that sustained change in day-to-day practice is inherently local (McLaughlin & Talbert, 2006). Teachers need daily opportunities to contextualize learning by identifying and interpreting problems through observation, reflection and interaction with each other, thus fostering more effective and consistent classroom practices.
This article describes three interrelated functions (McLaughlin & Talbert, 2006) that are critical for contributing to a teacher’s knowledge base, and it shares insights into how one successful school built a learning community with professionalism and the ability to act upon what is learned.
Improving Practice by Building and Managing Knowledge
Sparks (2005) states, “Well implemented professional learning communities are a powerful means of seamlessly blending teaching and professional learning in ways that produce complex, intelligent behavior in all teachers and school leaders.” Through learning communities, successful teachers never stop learning, and they contribute to the welfare of their own classes and the school as a whole. A commitment by the school to provide its teachers with formal and informal opportunities of long-term professional development is an essential element to improving practice. Teachers in learning communities build a trusting relationship with other teachers and encourage collective reflection and feedback as best practices are modeled in the context of in-classroom experiences.
In one such school I have worked with, for example, the teachers and staff meet as a learning community after school or during their planning period. The principal has developed a collegial relationship with teachers, involving them in the decision making process related to specific needs and resources. Teachers collaboratively work together and reflect on their students and their own teaching practice. Study groups are formed, and guided reflection is an integral part of the learning community process. Teachers are encouraged to participate in study groups where they focus on most current research or specific chapters in a best practices book chosen by the staff. Learning community sessions usually focus on key questions, such as: What is contributing to success in the classroom? What are major issues that are having a negative impact on learning? What can we do collectively to address these problems or issues? What does new research say teachers need to know and be able to do to support student learning? What professional learning must the team engage in for student learning to occur?
Creating a Vision, Language and Standards for Practice
A vision brings people together to create change. The vision statement should be forward-thinking and ambitious so that it inspires, and concrete enough for educators to see the future and their respective roles in preparing students for today and tomorrow (García, 2012). A well-defined vision statement, shared language about practice, and goals provide the foundation for collective responsibility for student success. The teacher remains accountable for what happens in the classroom, while an established teacher learning community makes the school accountable for student learning.
My sample school is committed to the holistic growth of its students. Serving prekindergarten through fifth grade, it has long been ranked as one of the top elementary public schools in its school district. It has a multicultural, diverse enrollment with a majority of low-income students. The philosophy of the school focuses on the development of the child morally, intellectually, socially and physically. The school strives to meet individual needs while encouraging high expectations, independence, self-discipline, self-confidence and an awareness of self-worth. The aim is to offer a variety of experiences at every grade level to foster full development of student talents and interests. Educators at the school accept no excuses for failure. All staff value the heritage and the capacities that students bring to the academic experience. Teachers incorporate research-based higher-order thinking literacy strategies into daily classroom instruction for all students.
Sustaining a School Culture of High Expectations and Success
Profound change in a school’s culture often is needed to create learning communities that are central to a school’s academic success. Strong leadership, persistence and time are central to the change process in order to improve practice, which provides the path to creating a culture based on mutual trust and respect. The organizational culture of the school reflects a certain style and character. A good school fuses values and norms – the very soul of the organization – to provide a strong functioning culture that is aligned with a vision and purpose and that inspires a common direction (García, 2006). A cohesive teacher learning community safeguards against shifting priorities by keeping the school focused on agreed upon expectations and practices toward a shared goal of student success. A continuous celebration of successes is needed in sustaining school culture. It requires a renewal of professional motivation and an affirmation of making a lasting difference in the lives of the students.
School-Based Teacher Learning Communities hold promise for our schools. They can become supportive and rich learning environments for teachers and students alike. It is our hope that in this 21st century more and more schools will turn to professional learning communities to address the deeply-rooted systemic problems that challenge education today.
IDRA’s Professional Learning Community Model supports school success and informs educators with effective instruction for English language learners. It provides schools with the needed support and concrete assistance to function as learning organizations in the 21st century, united by a shared vision of student and teacher learning.
DuFour, R. “What Is a ‘Professional Learning Community’?” Educational Leadership (May 2004).
García, J. “Professional Development in the 21st Century – Nine Structures for Coaching and Mentoring (Part I),” IDRA Newsletter (
Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, February 2012).
McLaughlin, M.W., & J.E. Talbert. Building School-based Teacher Learning Communities: Professional Strategies to Improve Student Achievement
: Teachers College, 2006).
Rodríguez, RG., J.C. García, & A. Villarreal. “Community Engagement Tool for Educators,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio:
Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, September 2011).
Sergiovanni, T.J. “Leadership in Excellence and Schooling,” Educational Leadership (2006) 41.
Sparks, D. “Leading for Transformation in Teaching, Learning, and Relationships,” in On Common Ground: The Power of Professional Learning Communities, by R. DuFour, R.E. Eaker, & R. Burnette (Bloomington,
Ind.: National Educational Service, 2005) 155-75.
Juanita C. Garcia, Ph.D., is an education associate in IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at
[©2012, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2012 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]