Student-Centered Coaching and PLCs

Editorial support provided by Andrew Hossack (Graded School in Sao Paolo, Brazil)
We all struggle to find the time for meaningful collaboration, and if your school has an existing structure for Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), you may have wondered how it fits in with student-centered coaching.
Some schools opt to provide coaching support through PLCs. After all, time is tight and the teachers are meeting anyway. While this makes sense if your lens is efficiency, the tradeoff is the personal side of coaching that occurs in coaching cycles. Rather than choosing one approach over another, let’s find a healthy balance between PLCs and coaching.

How are PLCs and Student-Centered Coaching Alike?
Before discussing strategies, it’s important to reflect on purpose. There is no question that PLCs student-centered coaching are both about student learning. The four questions for PLCs are designed to ensure that conversations are grounded in what matters. In 2004, Rick DuFour wrote, “The professional learning community model flows from the assumption that the core mission of formal education is not simply to ensure that students are taught but to ensure that they learn. This simple shift—from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning—has profound implications for schools” (p. 7). This is the same belief system that drives student-centered coaching. If our work isn’t impacting learning, then what’s the point?

The Four Questions for PLCs

  1. What do we want the students to learn?
  2. How will we know they are learning?
  3. How will we respond when they don’t learn?
  4. How will we respond if they already know it?

How are PLCs and Student-Centered Coaching Different?
There are differences in the structures for PLCs and student-centered coaching. PLCs are typically required for teachers and occur in fixed teams. For example, fifth grade teachers meet weekly with their grade level team. Or at the secondary level, PLCs often include teachers within departments. This creates consistency and builds a collaborative culture over time.

Student-centered coaching is organized through cycles that are flexible, responsive, and needs based. The goal is to create partnerships that lead to a deeper level of shared decision-making and follow through. Teachers choose how they will engage in coaching cycles. They also choose with whom they will engage. Given the personalized nature of coaching cycles, teachers are more able to be vulnerable in ways they can’t be in PLCs.

SCC Coaching Cycles are…

  • 4-6 weeks in duration
  • Focused on a standards-based goal
  • Include at least one weekly planning session
  • Include 1-3 co-teaching sessions each week
  • Can occur with individuals, groups, or pairs

Another difference lies in the fact that coaching cycles involve regular co-teaching. Co-teaching is a powerful lever because it provides the coach and teacher with rich opportunities to formatively assess and engage in shared decision-making around instructional next steps. Being in classrooms also helps coaches ground the work of PLCs in the real work of teaching and learning. Getting to this level of student-centeredness is hard to do if coaches aren’t in classrooms on a regular basis.

Every PLC is unique. Some trust and value working together, while others may not. For this reason, assigning coaches to ‘coach’ in PLCs will work better with certain teams. For example, when trust is lacking, having a coach in attendance may not make much of an impact, especially since the coach is a peer to teachers. There are also some teachers who have a negative view of PLCs (possibly for the simple reason that they are mandated). In these situations, coaches may feel as if they are there to hold PLCs accountable, which will erode their relationships with teachers.

That said, when coaches join PLCs, they may create connections that will translate to future coaching cycles. Participating in PLCs also informs the coach about how the standards and curriculum are being implemented by teachers. After all, there is a curriculum in writing and then there’s what’s happening on a daily basis with students. Joining PLCs may help the coach better understand this landscape.

We recommend finding a balance between PLCs and coaching cycles. In this way coaches are engaged with teachers in a variety of ways. Here’s what it looks like:

  1. Select two to three PLCs for the coach to work with each quarter. When the quarter ends, move the coach to other PLCs. This allows the coach to engage with a broad base of teachers while still having the time for coaching cycles. This applies to coaches in one school or across a few.
  2. Reserve time for the coach to engage in approximately three to four coaching cycles each quarter. Avoid assigning teachers to coaching cycles, and encourage them to enroll based on their expressed needs. We recommend no more than three teachers in a cycle so that the coach can get into each classroom on a weekly basis. This system allows a coach to engage in coaching cycles with approximately 20-24 teachers over the school year. For more on how to reach this goal, read my blog series titled,Getting to 60%.
  3. A coach may also enter into a coaching cycle with an individual teacher from a PLC. For example, imagine that a PLC is working together on a goal such as, “Students will use more appropriate text evidence when speaking and writing about texts.” It is easy to imagine that the rich conversations in this PLC could lead to coaching cycles on a similar goal. It would be up to the coach and teacher to figure out how they would tackle that goal.
  4. When facilitating PLCs, encourage coaches to embed SCC strategies into their work with teachers. In this way, coaches can keep the focus on student learning. This infographic details concrete strategies that coaches can use when facilitating PLCs. While these strategies are simple, they build a bridge between PLCs and coaching cycles. They also provide coaches with some foundational moves for good facilitation.
  5. The school leader may need to reclaim the purpose for PLCs. If teachers have decided that they ‘own’ their PLC time and the coach is having a hard time making inroads, then it might be necessary to reestablish expectations as a school community. Assigning a coach to spend too much time sitting in dysfunctional PLCs will erode their coaching role, decrease their impact, and make them miserable. Re-establishing expectations might take some time, and in the meantime, the coach can easily increase coaching cycles and revisit working with PLCs after the school has gone through the reset.

In Closing
Richard DuFour was right when he said that our role is to ensure that students learn. If we are savvy, we can create symbiosis between PLCs and student-centered coaching cycles to make sure this occurs.

DuFour, R. (2004). What is a Professional Learning Community? Educational Leadership, 61: 8 (p. 6-11).

© Diane Sweeney Consulting, all rights reserved.

1 thought on “Student-Centered Coaching and PLCs”

  1. I appreciate how you pointed out the importance of the choice, trust and vulnerability that exist in a coaching cycle, and how the relationship and collaborative process positively impact student learning.

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