My Community Learns Professionally…I Think

My first year as a school teacher changed the way I view many things.  I always felt like I didn’t have enough planning time, no matter how much planning I got done.  There was always some data that needed to be analyzed, and there were always papers that needed to be graded.  As an English/Language Arts teacher, I had a difficult time keeping up with everything.  At the time, we focused on writing during the first semester, and we pretty much covered everything else during second semester.  That meant my time was spent reading essays on the weekends, and I didn’t really have time for anything else.  In addition to that, the collaborative teacher went out on maternity leave in November, so everyone’s schedule was changed to have me as their 8th grade Language Arts teacher…yeah…that’s what I thought as well.  How in the world was I going to keep up now?  I didn’t know the answer at the time, but I made it through, and the students did well because I had an excellent coach that helped me along the way.

As I’ve grown as an educator and spoken to others and worked with others, I understand that professional learning communities are what make a difference in the success and failure of a school.  It doesn’t matter what type of kids you have.  Believe me-parents aren’t keeping the best kids at home and sending us the leftovers.  Parents are sending us the best kids they have, and we have to put in the work and instill high expectations, no matter the students’ backgrounds.  But in relation to professional learning communities, we should know that we have to work around the three big ideas of professional learning communities, which are to (1) ensure student learning, (2) build a collaborative culture, and (3) focus on results.  If these three ideas aren’t at the heart of the professional learning community, then perhaps the “community” is misnamed.    The professional learning community also has to focus on the four big questions, which we know to be the following

  1. What do we want students to know and be able to do?

  2. How will we know when they know it?

  3. What will we do if they don’t know it?

  4. What will we do if they already know it?

These four guiding questions can essentially help a teacher focus on a plan to help students achieve mastery, which is the goal of any teaching and learning experience.  Everything else becomes a means to get there.  So, you may ask, “How do I get started?”  The answer is determining where your school currently is on the professional learning continuum.  In Learning by Doing, DuFour (2010) discusses five phases of the professional learning community.  They are as follows: (1) The Pre-Initiation Phase, (2) Initiation Phase, (3) Implementation Phase, (4) Developing Phase, (5) Sustaining Phase.  Essentially, the leadership team has to know where the school stands, and they have to build an action plan to ensure the PLCs that occur in the school are action-oriented and aligned with the vision and mission of the school.  We want the school to be in the PLC Sustaining Phase, meaning the process of effective PLCs are deeply embedded within the school’s culture and norms.  Leaders also have to be comfortable participating in those meetings, perhaps following this protocol to keep everyone focused on the data.  There’s no need for excuses when we let the data do the talking; this helps focus on what needs to happen to fix the issue, and it also keeps the focus on what students know, don’t know, and how we will fix it as a team.

Over the four years that I’ve been in administration, I’ve also learned that it takes time for teachers to feel comfortable sharing their data with other teachers.  There’s an unspoken fear that another teacher’s students will perform better, but we have to remember that students have different experiences, capabilities, and starting points.  That’s the important part of differentiated instruction.  Not all kids will reach the same targets at the same time. The PLC process will help develop consistent plans to get all students where they need to be.  Progress is more important than proficiency, and our ultimate goal is to make sure that students know where they are and where they need to be.

As I begin my transition process to Kennedy Road Middle School in Griffin, I plan to start with analyzing the school culture and the PLC process.  The two factors have a huge impact on how successful a school can be.  Four years ago, we underwent an overhaul at Carver Road Middle, and we had to reframe our PLCs in a way that focused on SMART goals and actions.  It was uncomfortable at first, but it slowly became part of the way we did things.  Everyone in the building was attached to student progress is some manner, and everyone had a role to play in helping students reach their goals.  The Media Specialist was an important part of helping build a reading program and helping the students build their Lexiles.  Part of her job was to know where students were and to help them increase the love of reading.  There were departmental goals and action plans that we had to create, and we also did performance reviews at the end of the semester to determine if we were making progress toward our goals.  The process was clear, and it took work on the part of everyone, but we experienced tremendous gains, and our students benefited most, which was a point of celebration.  A tad bit of success was all it took to get buy-in from the faculty and staff.  It was awesome to witness.

One of the things that’s a nonnegotiable for any leader is data-driven instruction, which is fostered in PLCs.  Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been revisiting some of the resources I have such as Driven by DataLeverage LeadershipLearning by Doing, etc. to pull key pieces and analysis tools from them.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll use these tools to develop a plan of action, not only for the school that I’ll be transitioning to but also for the school where I currently am.  We are all accountable for the success of our students, and no one wants to work endlessly and receive small gains.  One thing I know for sure is that teachers work hard, and they want their students to be successful.  The question becomes, “What do we do to make sure everyone makes progress?”  It’s sometimes tough to answer, but an effective PLC can get to the root of it.  They always do.

So as we work through the rest of the year, let us challenge ourselves to continue to either build strong PLCs or sustain the ones that we have.  Let us expect compliance and progress from all of our students and give 110%, even after our students have taken their Milestones assessments.  Let us be the light for the students and help them to achieve great things.  In the end, our results will only be as good as the effort that we put forward as leaders and teachers.  Let us end the year with #2185Pride and #CougarAccountability.  Our students deserve it, and so do we.

Dr. G.

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