Leading a Professional Learning Community for teacher educators: inquiry into college principals’ motives and challenges

June 2021

Source: Teacher Development, 25:3, 263-277

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In light of the paucity of research that focuses on such a duality of roles, with the added value and challenges that arise, this study attempts to investigate the motivations and challenges of Academic College of Education (ACE) principals as leaders of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).
The current study represents an effort to review the perspective of ACE principals as PLC leaders, with the understanding that creating a successful connection between these two roles constitutes a critical and challenging component of professional development in ACEs.
The significance of the study stems from two aspects: firstly, from the changing nature of learning needs and trends in the professional development of teacher educators; and secondly, from the hybrid identity and multiple roles of ACE principals who are expected to support and lead these trends in the quest to establish PLCs.

This study used a qualitative approach to data collection and analysis.
Data were collected through interviews with seven senior teacher educators who serve in academic-administrative positions in three ACEs in the center of Israel.
The sampling process was based on three criteria:
(a) experience in teacher education (over 15 years); (b) seniority and dedication in an academic-administrative position in the college (such as head of an academic program or dean of a faculty); and (c) background in initiating, developing and facilitating in-house PLCs.
This ‘criterion sampling’ is derived in the present study from the need to explore a combination of different roles (management in the institution; initiating the idea of establishing a PLC; guiding, leading and evaluating the outcomes from a top-down viewpoint) with emphasis on organizational change.
During the one-hour, semi-structured interviews, the interviewees were asked about their experiences in leading PLCs, with emphasis on both the administrative and professional aspects involved.
In addition to the questions raised by the interviewer, the interviewees chose to relate to the motives of establishing a PLC and challenges that they had encountered at different stages, the added value that the process held for them and their understanding of how to lead a PLC.

Findings and discussion
The interviewees shared their experiences of leading PLCs, emphasizing their respective motivations and challenges.
Their testimonies pointed to two main areas in this regard.
The first area referred to the motives for establishing a PLC, which addressed the need to bridge gaps in collective knowledge, establish a social ‘hothouse’ for early-career teacher educators, and cultivate creativity and cooperative creating of new specializations for the ACE.
The second area, which related to emotions and experiences of PLC leaders, refers to the need for a ‘positive self’ (i.e., self-positioning, self-determination, self-challenging and self-realization) in an intellectual sense.
These areas can be described as ‘journeys’, namely a series of changes and milestones in progressing toward a new perspective and new status, as a result of the individual transition between different events, situations and circumstances (Kibel 2003).
In the context of the present study, findings can be seen in the form of two parallel journeys: the first relates to co-leading and cultivating creativity among staff (CCC journey), and the second allows a look at the internal world of the interviewees and refers to the crystallization of intellectual identity and image (III journey).
This study points to the two main journeys experienced by interviewees in this study, one of which serves as a motivation factor for the establishment of the PLC, and the other which involves a number of challenges.
Motivation for the initiation of a PLC can be seen as emphasizing its contribution as a medium for social-cognitive learning and encouraging creativity by collaboration between colleagues with different levels of seniority and experience (CCC journey).
However, the III journey allows us to look at aspects related to intellectual identity from the perspective of social psychology, thus revealing the challenges inherent in the important issues behind the establishment of a PLC.
The successful experience of these two journeys coincides with the patterns of coping with the tensions and fears that characterize the work of PLC leaders.
Recent studies (e.g., Vanderlinde et al. 2016) present the challenges that typically follow the integration of multiple roles among teacher educators, and at times even leave the individual in a state of tension and fear.
These studies posit three likely areas of such tension.
The first area of concern is the fear of managerial failure, that is, exposing one’s vulnerabilities in this role.
More concretely, when the individual initiates the establishment of a PLC and makes efforts to develop their vision, they may find themselves confronting a professional image that differs from the one to which they are accustomed in their daily routine (Hord and Sommers 2008).
This may be due, inter alia, to a lower motivation among colleagues to enlist and commit to the ongoing learning process, which will undoubtedly damage the leader’s image and be interpreted as a failure, revealing their unofficial status as weak (Fleming 2004).
However, the interviewees in the current study did not express concerns about this potential failure.
Moreover, they discussed ways of minimizing such risk, including careful listening to the professional needs of the team, involving other role-holders as partners, providing a space for creative ideas and a hothouse for developing early-career colleagues, and finally, encouraging the cooperative creation of useful specializations and expertise and defining this as a final common goal for the PLC.
The second area of concern is the fear of damaging the intellectual image and identity.
The rotation of the roles (administrator–facilitator–learner) that occurs naturally whilst leading a PLC may cast doubt on one’s authority as a source of an up-to-date knowledge when compared with the participants.
Although they are required to serve as personal examples of lifelong learners (Carpenter 2015; Hadar and Brody 2017), such leadership may expose them to difficulties with the ability to learn continuously (Hargreaves 2000; Oplatka and Nupar 2014).
In contrast, interviewees in this study saw the opportunity to give their colleagues room to express ideas as a ‘privilege’ acquired with age and seniority and were not at all concerned about their status, thus indicating their acceptance of the cooperative nature of the PLC in which responsibility is shared equally among its participants.
The third area of concern is linked to the challenge of demonstrating co-leadership (Fleming 2004), in keeping with the cooperative nature of the PLC (Ping, Schellings, and Beijaard 2018).
Given the fact that some ACE principals do not define themselves as having the skills of co-leadership (Gutman 2019), they may feel uncomfortable being on the same level of learning as their subordinates (Carpenter 2015; Fleming 2004).
This issue is expressed in the findings of this study as a point of strength and an empowering experience.
The interviewees testified that creating a PLC in cooperation with people they knew well and with new participants creates an incentive for them to learn actively, to mitigate the problem of outmoded knowledge and to provide satisfaction.

Carpenter, D. 2015. “School Culture and Leadership of Professional Learning Communities.” International Journal of Educational Management 29 (5): 682–694
Fleming, G. L. 2004. “Principals and Teachers as Continuous Learners.” In Learning Together, Leading Together: Changing Schools Through Professional Learning Communities, edited by S. M. Hord, 20–31. New York: Teachers College Press.
Hadar, L. L., and D. L. Brody. 2017. Teacher Educators’ Professional Learning in Communities. Abingdon: Routledge.
Hargreaves, A. 2000. “Four Ages of Professionalism and Professional Learning.” Teachers and Teaching 6 (2): 151–182
Kibel, B. M. 2003. “From Results Mapping to Journey Mapping: A 10-Year Methodological Adventure.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Evaluation Association, Reno, NV, November 5–8.
Oplatka, I., and I. Nupar. 2014. “The Intellectual Identity of Educational Administration: Views of Israeli Academics.” International Journal of Educational Management 28 (5): 546–559
Ping, C., G. Schellings, and D. Beijaard. 2018. “Teacher Educators‘ Professional Learning: A Literature Review.” Teaching and Teacher Education 75: 93–104
Vanderlinde, R., M. Tuytens, B. De Wever, and A. Aelterman. 2016. “Professional Learning of Teacher Educators, Teachers, and Student Teachers.” In Professional Learning in Education: Challenges for Teacher Educators, Teachers and Student Teachers, edited by D. W. Bram, R. Vanderlinde, M. Tuytens, and A. Aelterman, 9–20. Ghent: Academia Press

Updated: Sep. 15, 2021


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