Team mentality drives professional learning communities

Forming our Future
Margaret Anzelmo
Professional learning communities (PLCs) are becoming more and more commonplace in today’s schools as a means of professional development, growth and school improvement. Professional learning communities operate under a set of core values that distinguish this professional development model from more traditional ones and that coincide naturally with the values of Catholic education. The most common models for PLCs include a focus on learning for all, a collaborative culture, collective inquiry into best practice and research, action orientation, a culture of continuous improvement and a results orientation.
PLC values lie at the heart of what already occurs in Catholic schools across the nation and in our diocese every day, so the transition to becoming a professional learning community often occurs more naturally and easily for these institutions than for public ones.
Providing academic excellence for a diverse body of learners, modeling the idea of community in daily life, and educating the whole child are PLC principles already inherent in Catholic schools and are principles that are also in keeping with Pope Francis’ Jubilee Year of Mercy. What better way to be merciful than to collaborate as schools and as a diocese to meet student needs?
According to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, one of the intentions of this Year of Mercy will be to encourage Christians to meet people’s needs in tangible ways. The logo for the Year of Mercy is Jesus as the Good Shepherd with a lost soul over His shoulders. As Catholic school educators, we are called to model these exact principles daily.  The culture is naturally there, so for a Catholic school to become a PLC, the focus typically becomes more about developing PLC structures and in engaging the school community to work together in reviewing data, learning together, designing instruction and developing common assessments to meet the needs of the diverse population of learners.
In our diocese, we have taken this concept a step further. Our diocesan schools work together to write and implement curriculum, a curriculum that our teachers wrote for our students, and to share assessments and strategies. We operate as a PLC consisting of 13 schools and hundreds of educators, and our students benefit. They benefit academically due to this individualized response to their needs but also benefit emotionally in that they are able to feel supported and loved as they receive appropriate instruction and gain confidence with their successes.
Organizational characteristics, such as culture, leadership and capacity building, and operational characteristics, such as professional development, data collection and systemic trust contribute to successful implementation and transformation of schools and dioceses into professional learning communities.
Catholic school leaders should model and create a culture of collaboration and trust and set a timeline for implementing the structural components of PLCs, such as the protected time for collaboration, development of norms and professional development of each component to build the capacity of the faculty and create a merciful, spiritual, inclusive learning atmosphere for students.
The population of today’s Catholic schools has changed. Students and teachers alike need intentional, individualized learning, with the goals of improving knowledge and practice. Teachers cannot meet the needs of today’s students without the ongoing, focused support and learning provided by PLCs. Professional learning communities meet the professional development needs of today’s teachers which in turn maintains the level of academic excellence present in Catholic schools and creates an environment ready to meet the 21st century needs of our students and to demonstrate the ideals of the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
In addition, the concepts of a professional learning community meld perfectly with the theme for our diocesan schools for the 2015-2016 school year. This theme is two-fold. We are TEAMing Up for Catholic Education, with TEAM as an acronym for Teaching Everyone About Mercy.
We meet the needs of our students and our staffs academically, spiritually, emotionally and even physically, and we sometimes carry along the souls of those who otherwise would have been lost. If those sound like insurmountable tasks, it is because they would be without our faith – when we operate together as one Body in Christ, as a professional learning community that collaborates to meet the spiritual and academic needs of those whom we encounter.
As the Catholic Schools of the Diocese of Jackson, we are a professional learning community. We truly are a team and with that, we make evident the beauty, the joy, and the excellence that is Catholic education. Our students will leave us as productive, successful members of society who not only have an excellent academic foundation but also are ready to put mercy into practice due to the spiritual principles taught directly to them and modeled for them in their schools each and every day.
When we TEAM up together as the Diocese of Jackson schools and as a professional learning community, we show that Catholic education is the priority that leads to excellence for all.
(Margaret Anzelmo is the coordinator of academic excellence for the Office of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Jackson.)