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Sparking Student Success With Professional Learning Communities

by Sonia Rocca |

Navigating the dynamic landscape of teacher education requires an understanding of the nuanced differences between professional development (PD), professional learning, and teacher learning. Professional development typically refers to structured training, whereas professional learning has a wider focus, encompassing a range of activities aimed at enhancing educators’ skills and knowledge. Teacher learning, however, is a more intimate journey, emphasizing the ongoing reflective process educators engage in to refine their practice.

Professional learning communities (PLCs) emerged as a harmonious blend of these elements (DuFour & Eaker, 1998). Their impact extends beyond teacher education, effecting a dual transformation in both teaching practices and student learning experiences. This article ventures into the transformative world of PLCs, with a spotlight on the role of habitus engagement in revolutionizing teacher learning and reshaping the PD landscape.

What Are Professional Learning Communities? 

The Basics

PLCs come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors, tailored to meet the unique needs of their members and contexts. Smaller PLCs often yield higher levels of participant engagement, as they foster a more intimate setting for deep dialogue and personalized feedback. Similarly, theme-focused PLCs tend to be more effective than their generic counterparts, as they allow for a concentrated exploration of specific subject areas or pedagogical challenges. 

Initiating a Professional Learning Community (PLC) as a form of PD in your school or program can be a catalyst for collaborative growth. Here’s how to begin:

    1. Determine the Members: A PLC typically consists of educators who share a common interest or face similar challenges in their practice. Members can be teachers from the same grade level, subject area, or any other group with shared educational goals. They can also include administrators, counselors, and support staff who are integral to student success.
    2. Create The Groups: Participants can join a PLC through a variety of ways: voluntary sign up, invitations based on expertise or interest, or strategic nominations by school leadership to address specific institutional goals. The key is to ensure a diversity of perspectives while maintaining a focused, manageable group size.
    3. Choose Times to Meet: The frequency of PLC meetings can vary, but regularity is essential. Most PLCs meet at least once a month, though some might find weekly or biweekly sessions more productive. The schedule should be consistent and protected, meaning that meeting times are respected and upheld by the administration.
    4. Make Meetings Meaningful: PLC meetings should have a clear agenda, often collaboratively created, to guide discussion and activities. Meetings typically involve:
      • Sharing and reflecting on teaching experiences and student learning data.
      • Collaboratively analyzing student work or educational resources.
      • Developing and planning instructional strategies.
      • Engaging in ongoing PD activities, such as peer observations, book studies, or guest speakers.
      • Setting goals and action plans for classroom implementation.
    1. Establish PLC Norms and Goals: At the onset, it’s vital for PLC members to agree upon norms for collaboration, communication, and mutual support. They should also set specific, measurable goals aligned with broader school objectives, which will focus their collective efforts.
    2. Encourage Continuous Reflection and Evaluation: To ensure the PLC is effectively serving its purpose, regular reflection and assessment of the PLC’s processes and outcomes are necessary. Members should periodically review their progress toward goals and adapt their strategies as needed.

Remember, the success of a PLC hinges on a shared commitment to student learning and a belief in the power of collaborative effort. By honoring each educator’s contributions and focusing on continuous improvement, a PLC can become a powerful professional asset in any educational setting.

Advocating for PLCs: The Pros and Cons

When compared to traditional PD, PLCs stand out as a more cost-effective and dynamic approach. Rather than paying for an outside speaker or online course, adopting PLCs allows schools to leverage their existing resources and internal expertise, fostering a sense of community and shared responsibility. 

PLCs are a beacon of innovation, but the journey to successfully incorporate them in the educational system is full of challenges. Many schools and administrators remain hesitant to implement them. Time constraints are one significant barrier; scheduling regular PLC meetings often clashes with already-packed school calendars. Adopting PLCs also calls for a cultural shift away from sporadic event-like PD toward a model of ongoing collaborative learning—requiring a change in mindset for both leadership and faculty.

When PLCs are adopted in the face of these challenges, administrators can use the following strategies to maximize their impact:

    • Encourage participation from teachers across various subjects and grade levels to bring diverse perspectives to discussions. 
    • Ensure meetings are structured and focused, with clear objectives to keep collaborations productive. 
    • Allocate necessary logistical and financial resources to provide a solid foundation for PLCs. 
    • Incentivize teachers by recognizing achievements, offering PD credits, and creating opportunities for leadership. 

Foundations of Success

Understanding Habitus

The concept of habitus represents the array of deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions acquired through one’s life experiences. Introduced by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1977, 1986), habitus manifests uniquely within both students and teachers. For students, their habitus not only shapes their approach to learning but also significantly influences their behavior and overall academic journey. 

The challenge for educators lies in transcending generic pedagogies to adopt approaches that resonate with the rich and diverse tapestry of student backgrounds—a process central to effectively engaging with each student’s habitus. As Tomlinson and McTighe (2006) advocate, this necessitates not only recognizing but also thoughtfully adapting pedagogical approaches to align with the unique cultural and social fabrics that shape students’ learning experiences. Examples might include activities like the following:

    • cultural autobiographies 
    • student ethnography projects 
    • reflective journaling
    • classroom observations     
    • simulation or role-playing
    • community immersion

These techniques enable teachers to explore the complex interplay of factors that influence their students’ and their own behaviors and attitudes toward learning.

Teacher habitus is equally crucial. Shaped by their own personal and professional life stories, teachers develop a unique set of dispositions and practices. Teacher habitus subtly influences everything from teaching style to classroom management and interaction with students. In the context of a PLC, the appreciation of teacher habitus is a recognition that paves the way for a richer exchange of teaching practices and perspectives (Bedeker et al., 2023).

The Role of Teacher Research

Reflective practice is woven into the fabric of daily teaching and learning. When reflective practice evolves into systematic inquiry, it becomes teacher research (Rocca, 2023), extending beyond the traditional realm of detached academic research. Acting as participant observers in their own classrooms, teachers produce hands-on research that is deeply connected to their lived experiences and those of their students. Hattie (2012) notes that teacher research can have a significant impact on student learning outcomes. His synthesis of more than 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement suggests that teacher innovation and reflective practice are among the most influential factors affecting student success. Teachers who engage in research often modify their approach based on their findings, leading to improved educational practices and, consequently, better student outcomes.

Moreover, when teachers share their findings with the broader school community, this fosters collaborative learning among educators. PLCs, in particular, become vehicles for disseminating best practices derived from teacher research, thereby amplifying the positive effects on student learning.

As educators immerse themselves in PLCs, they bring to light the multifaceted aspects of their own and their students’ habitus—their ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions shaped by cultural, social, and economic experiences. This conscious engagement with habitus allows teachers to develop and share approaches that are not only effective but also deeply attuned to the diverse needs of their students. 

By integrating teacher research and habitus engagement, PLCs become a potent catalyst for transformative educational practices.

Starting Your PLC: Constructing A Common Compass 

The first PLC meeting is more than a first encounter: It is a foundational event where a shared vision is first kindled. This begins with individual educators sharing their aspirations and objectives. Sharing within the PLC creates a collaborative environment where teaching approaches are constantly evolved and strengthened through group input and reflection. As these personal visions merge, a collective vision emerges that is greater than the sum of its parts.

An effective shared vision within a PLC is like a guiding star, keeping the group’s collaborative efforts focused and purpose-driven. Here are a few examples:

Example 1: Technological Fluency Vision 

In an age where technology is integral to all aspects of life, a PLC might envision preparing students for the digital world. Their shared vision could read, “We aim to equip our students with the digital fluency and critical thinking skills necessary to succeed in a technologically advanced society.” This goal addresses the current and future demands of student competence in technology.

Example 2: Inclusive Education Vision 

Another PLC could focus on inclusivity and diversity, aiming to tailor teaching strategies to meet the needs of a diverse student population. Their shared vision might state, “We strive to create an inclusive classroom environment where every student, regardless of background or ability, can access and engage with high-quality learning experiences.” This vision prioritizes adaptability and equity, ensuring that educational practices reach and uplift all students.

Example 3: Collaborative Skills Vision 

Recognizing the importance of teamwork in the modern world, a PLC may choose to focus on collaborative skills. Their shared vision might be, “Our collaborative efforts are dedicated to cultivating students’ ability to work effectively in teams, solve problems collectively, and contribute positively to group dynamics.” This vision underscores the value of cooperative learning and its role in students’ success.

At the very heart of every PLC’s shared vision lies the optimization of student learning, which is essential for effectively meeting students’ diverse needs. This core aim harnesses the collective wisdom of each educator. As teachers weave their personal habitus into their professional practice, they bring a rich variety of expertise to the PLC. Habitus engagement means acknowledging how the distinct personal histories and professional attributes of each educator shape a pedagogical approach that is not only insightful and robust but also steadfastly focused on elevating student achievement.


PLCs are transformative, merging the insights of teacher research with the deep reflection of habitus engagement. In PLCs, educators collaboratively fine-tune teaching approaches, ensuring that each student’s unique journey is met with understanding and support. This approach elevates education beyond mere knowledge transfer to a reflective collaborative practice that honors the diversity of our classrooms. As we move forward, PLCs anchor us in a shared commitment to an education that is both informed and inspiring, with every student’s potential as the driving force of our collective pursuit. 



Bedecker, M., Rocca, S., & Hwami, M. (2023). Habitus reimagined in Kazakhstani higher education: EMI as third space encounters in professional learning communities. [Manuscript submitted for publication]. 

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge University Press. 

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241–258). Greenwood. 

DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities at work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement. Solution Tree. 

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge. 

Rocca, S. (2023, June). Teacher research: Empowering teachers to empower students. TESOL Connections.  

Tomlinson, C. A., & McTighe, J. (2006). Integrating differentiated instruction and understanding by design: Connecting content and kids. ASCD.



About the author

Sonia Rocca

Sonia Rocca is a Fulbright Global Scholar and an English language specialist with the U.S. Department of State. She holds a PhD in applied linguistics from University of Edinburgh and has been a language educator for 30 years, teaching three different languages (English, French, Italian) in three different countries (Italy, Britain, United States). Currently, she teaches Italian at the Lycée Français de New York. Last year, she launched a teacher research mentorship program at her school.

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