Learning Styles, Collaborative Learning, Project-Based Learning (PBL) — these are just three of the many instructional approaches that I have been trained to implement during my twenty-two-year teaching career. All of the above-mentioned approaches have been seen as educational fads and have not fully caught on as the silver bullet in education. Ultimately, there does not seem to be only one way to reach all students.
Has all of my previous training missed the real issue? What if effective pedagogy has less to do with the students and has more to do with the adults cooperating, sharing best practices, and analyzing student progress collectively?
What if the adult drama is the elephant in the classroom?
I have taught in my current school building for fourteen years. In that time, I have said goodbye to over 8,000 graduates, over nine administrators, and two superintendents. However, I have worked with many of the same teachers for most, if not all, of those fourteen years — we have “outlived” students and administrators. Teaching is one of the few remaining professions where people work their entire, or a majority, of their working years in one place. But, are teachers truly working together, or are we shutting our doors and teaching in isolation?
The veteran teachers that I work with have been hardened by change, the disillusionment of so-called reform, and the alphabet soup language of educational vernacular. Please pardon our reluctance to jump on any bandwagon that any new leader, reformer, or expert presents to us!
That is not to say that my colleagues are “stuck.” On the contrary, I work with professionals who are creative, dynamic, and compassionate. However, we are also just tired of “experts” telling us what we need.
We are also so exhausted by the lack of consistency from our leaders, who in our building have come and gone like a revolving door — usually, these assistant principals use our high school as a stepping stone to running their own buildings. Many of these administrators have great ideas, but most do not stay long enough to do the hard work of getting to know the teaching staff well enough to affect critical change.
What if the teachers stopped listening to so-called experts, and stopped waiting for leadership? What if teachers, collectively, figured out what their students, buildings, or districts needed and then were given the time and freedom to accomplish their goals? Dr. Luis Cruz, of Solution Tree, a professional development company, empowered my colleagues and me to become experts in our own building when he spoke at our school in October.
Dr. Luis Cruz presented about the power of professional learning communities (PLCs). A dynamic, humorous speaker, Dr. Cruz inspired the audience of teachers to figure out their own, collective, “whys and hows” — he pushed us to create professional learning communities where teachers decide what students need (the why) and then decide actions to help students meet goals (the how).
Dr. Cruz helped us recognize examples of adult drama — including teachers who are unwilling to work with others, insecure professionals, and overworked educators — as the biggest impediments to meaningful change.
Since Dr. Cruz’s performance (yes, it was part stand-up and part lecture), I have been listening to the adult drama emerge. My colleagues are fatigued. They are secondary teachers with large curriculums, heavy student loads, and great student needs. The adults are also confused as to what professional learning communities will look like in our school. Although Dr. Cruz enlightened the staff to a degree, we still need training. We need time and a blueprint.
Although Professional Learning Communities can be authentic and exciting, teachers need the following things to effectively implement and sustain PLCs, each is subsequently dependent on the other:
Collective Teacher Training:
A few teachers and administrators in my district have traveled San Diego, CA and San Antonio, TX — places that sound exotic to teachers in a suburban school north of cloudy, Syracuse, NY. Although these individuals have returned energetically enthusiastic about the concept of professional learning communities, what our building needs now is collective training. We need consistent definitions; we need to recognize the protocols of learning communities; we need to see a model of a PLC. Teachers not selected to travel to sunny places desperately need to feel included in the process, and that includes the training process. Furthermore, without instruction teachers will never be on the “same page” as one another. The adults will not be able to properly assess student needs if their vocabulary is not universal.
Teacher Acceptance (Buy-in):
After instruction, teachers must have time to assess the needs of their students. This evaluation that Dr. Cruz calls the “hows and the whys” is crucial as the first step in teachers accepting that professional learning communities have staying power. There will be no teacher buy-in without purpose. Needs assessments allow for purpose and help to give a path for action. Action, however, needs to be teacher directed. In his presentation, Dr. Cruz stated that the administrators need to be there to support, but also get out of the way of the teachers.
Furthermore, needs assessments should be standardized, in a scientific, organized manner to better enhance the collective reform of the various issues. Teachers are very wary of assembling in a big room where they are told to write down their ideas with funny smelling markers on big sheets of paper. Those lists, seldom ever spoken about again, disappear like candy after Halloween. A needs assessments should be transparent and accessible to all staff.
Time for Teacher Reflection:
Reflection of and reaction to the implementation of reforms, learning strategies, and teaching techniques need to be sacrosanct. It cannot be done when the teachers are tired after a long day of teaching. Without meaningful reflection, PLCs will fade away into the wastebin of educational reform. Too many times teachers are shown great ideas, implement those changes, and then fail to be given time to assess the impact of their pedagogy. Without reflection, there also cannot be redirection and future changes. Without reflection, institutions stagnate — teachers close their doors and return to isolation.
Ultimately, learning environments are more akin to a marital relationship than a parental one. To have a strong family, you must have a strong marriage. To create a rich professional learning community, a school must empower teachers to have healthy relationships with each other. When adults “put on their oxygen masks first” then they have the ability to “save” the children. To create rich, effective PLCs the adult drama must be kept to a minimum and the teachers need to be given collective instruction, room for collaborative instructional implementation, and loads of time for reflection.