Professional Learning Communities
To attend or not to attend, that is the question.
By LaSaundra Booth, NAfME Professional Development Content Manager; Chair-Elect for NAfME Council for Orchestral Education
This article first appeared in the August 2023 issue of Teaching Music magazine.
As a music teacher and the professional development/grant project content manager for NAfME, I give several presentations each year on a variety of professional development topics for music educators. Some of these topics include advocacy, championing equity, diversity and inclusion in the music classroom, professional learning communities, grant writing, and best practices for end-of-year evaluations.
Although each topic is different, my approach to delivering the content is the same. One of my first tasks is to find out who is in the room. Once I know who is in the audience, I give attendees the opportunity to let me know what their needs are concerning the given topic. I then tailor my presentation to meet the needs of the attendees, even if it means making changes to a presentation, I spent days creating. In the end, it is more important to give teachers what they need instead of what I want them to have. I am taking this same approach with this article. I encourage you to email me and let me know what your needs are concerning professional learning communities (PLCs). After I learn about what is important to you, I will write a series of articles to address these topics.
Using a scale of 1–5, how would you rate your knowledge about PLCs? What was the catalyst that precipitated this type of network?
The fight for inclusion in American education has been going on since the mid-1800s. At that point in history, access to education was largely limited to children of wealthy families. The first movement in education in the United States occurred in the 1830s. Reformers, starting in New England, championed a free public education for all children. This movement led to the nation’s first public school system. Over the years, public schools have experienced waves of educational reform. Professional learning communities were born during the educational reform movement of the 1960s. However, it was after the publication of the book A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (1983) and the increasing awareness in the 1990s when professional learning communities became a part of how public schools operated. Student achievement became the central focus of educational reform.
According to Andrew Miller, director of teaching and learning at the Singapore American School, effective professional learning communities make use of “an ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve.” Take a moment to reflect on your school or district professional learning community. How much does your professional learning community align with Miller’s definition of effectiveness?
Although I have been teaching for more than two decades, my professional learning community did not meet this definition. Whenever I thought of my PLC, I was reminded of the line that opens the first scene in Act 3 of Hamlet where Prince Hamlet muses: “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” To go or not to go to my PLC was the question. Why? I struggled with the thought of being forced to invest my time and resources in a community that was not as effective as I felt it could have been. Why should I waste my time and resources in a community that did not serve me or my students’ needs? Perhaps you might feel the same way. However, there is something that we can do to make our professional learning communities effectively serve the needs of our students.
Your Role in Making PLCs Effective
The first thing that will make your professional learning community effective is to understand your students’ needs. Do your students sight-read well? How well can your students evaluate the quality of their performances? How would you rate your students’ abilities to demonstrate contrasting dynamics within a given selection? Meeting students’ needs should be the central focus of your professional learning community.
Once you understand your students’ needs, set goals and determine learning outcomes. The next step is to implement new learning. Once the new learning is implemented, assess what students know and can do. Then discuss those findings with your professional learning community. As you reflect on your teaching and get feedback from your peers, adjust your instructional delivery to ensure students master concepts. Analyze your findings and discuss the data with your professional learning community.
Professional learning communities and professional development are two separate ideas. I am aware that some music PLCs focus more on professional development than student achievement. I am not against professional development in professional learning communities. I am only suggesting that we take time to revisit the original design of what professional learning communities were built for to make these meetings work for us.
Take Inspiration from the Connected Arts Network
Making professional learning communities work for teachers is exactly what we have done with our current cohort of teacher leaders through the Connected Arts Networks (CAN). The overarching vision for CAN is to build a sustainable model of professional learning for arts educators to strengthen their pedagogy, instruction, and leadership skills to better serve students. Angela Keedy, professional development specialist with the Connected Arts Network, states, “The CAN grant is going to redefine what the PLC is all about within the music education community. We are going to focus on our students’ needs then use the power of collaboration and research to meet those needs.”
The pillars of CAN include teacher leadership, social emotional learning (SEL), equity, diversity, and inclusion. During the first year of this multiyear project, we recruited 15 diverse educators to create a national professional learning community of teacher leaders. By year two, these amazing teacher leaders received specialized virtual training to build their capacity to address equity, diversity, and inclusion, and social emotional learning in arts instruction. This year, the teacher leaders facilitate their own virtual music PLCs emphasizing principles of SEL, EDIA, and leadership. Each PLC will have 10 teachers, for a total of 150 music teachers in NAfME-facilitated PLCs nationwide. This is where we need you! If you would like to be a part of these national music PLCs, I encourage you to apply. Applications open on September 1 via the NAfME website at nafme.org. (Deadline to apply is November 13.)
Would you like to meet the NAfME teacher leaders? Full biographies of our current teacher leaders can be found at nafme.org. I encourage you to learn more about these amazing individuals. You can also share your PLC needs with me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to an amazing year of collaboration, leadership, and meeting the needs of all students.
“The History of PLC,” All Things PLC.
Andrew Miller (2020). Creating Effective Professional Learning Communities. Retrieved May 31, 2023.
National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform: A Report to the Nation and the Secretary of Education, United States Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Commission on Excellence in Education [Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office distributor].
About the author:
LaSaundra Booth serves as NAfME’s professional development content manager working on the Connected Arts Networks project. She is a national board-certified teaching artist, inventor, author, conductor, and arts administrator. In 2017, Booth was named one of 50 Directors Who Make a Difference by School Band and Orchestra Magazine.
The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.
September 26, 2023
- Music Education Profession
- Professional development
September 26, 2023. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)