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Teaching Better Together

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I can remember having dreams—or perhaps nightmares—during my first year of teaching about the acronyms that surround the educational world. These three- to four- letter phrases would pop up in my subconscious as I tried to process the new and often overwhelming events that crowded the first months of my new career. IGP, NCLB, and IEP all made cameo appearances in my nighttime world. Then came PLC.

When my principal first asked me to join a school-based team responsible for gathering information on professional learning communities, I seriously considered asking her if she had confused me with someone else. The team would be part of a project funded by the Wachovia Foundation called ASSET, or Achieving Student Success through Empowering Teachers (another acronym for my late-night entertainment). Our job would be to investigate PLCs and to lead our faculty through a three-year implementation process.

As a first-year teacher, I was plagued by feelings of incompetence and inexperience. I definitely did not view myself as a teacher-leader and worried that my peers would feel the same. Nevertheless, I agreed to join the team and began to learn how PLCs can transform a school’s culture.

Year One: Exposure

As I attended PLC workshops and read up on the research basis of teacher collaboration, I initially felt as though I was already participating in a PLC as a result of my first-year teacher experience. As newbie questions, dilemmas, and crises popped up, I constantly found myself consulting with my colleagues and benefiting from their ideas and advice. Granted, I was on the short end of the sharing stick, but, considering I was still learning the basics of teaching, didn’t that make sense? However, I soon realized that these experiences, while invaluable, were ones of mentoring, not professional learning communities.

The PLC culture, as I came to learn, emerges from the principles of meaningful professional development. It is beyond teachers gathering and performing a show-and-tell of the happenings in their classrooms. A successful PLC thrives on questions presented by all of the participants, who seek to improve their instruction and, in turn, their students’ learning. It’s a career-long experience, premised on the idea that professionals never stop fine tuning their practice.

As part of a partnership, teachermagazine.org publishes this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

During our first year, our ASSET site team worked through the logistics, addressed anticipated roadblocks, and prepared for the following year’s partial implementation. On an individual level, I worked through all of the challenging first-year teacher scenarios and prepared to come back the following year with a bit of actual experience to share.

Year Two: Testing the Waters

At the start of the second year, our ASSET team gathered to clear the cobwebs and create a plan for implementation. Our initial goal involved teachers stepping out of their classrooms and reaching out to their colleagues. We hoped to encourage conversations based on instruction and the sharing of ideas. For some, this concept was old-hat and essential to their productivity; others had to fight years of isolation and the engrained habits that went along with those years. Still others, such as myself, were left to wonder what their role in PLCs would be.

As a beginning teacher, I found myself tempted by a self-imposed passive role in my PLC. After all, I reasoned, what did I have to share? Weren’t my colleagues more qualified to guide our group? Perhaps, I thought, I should get a few years under my belt before speaking up and contributing.

However, as the year progressed, I gained confidence and slowly stepped out of the shadows. When I shared ideas with colleagues, I found them listening to my thoughts rather than dismissing them as naive and uninformed. I realized my self-handicapping wasn’t helping me or the PLC initiative, and I began to work with others to make small yet significant changes in our school.

By the end of the second year, our staff as a whole was participating in meaningful conversations about their instruction and student learning on a regular basis. We test drove a few components of PLCs, such as common assessments, and gained experience in functioning as teams. I grew tremendously both personally and professionally over the course of the year. While I knew I was still green in many ways, I became comfortable and even confident in the knowledge I possessed and sought out conversations with colleagues more as a peer and less as a helpless rookie struggling to stay afloat.

Year Three: Full Implementation

This year—year three—began with full-fledged PLC implementation. Meeting times and expectations were clearly laid out during our first staff meeting. As a school, we were ready to jump in with both feet and see where we landed. The year has included some trials and tribulations. Nevertheless, conversations about instruction and student learning occur on a daily basis in our school. This is our foundation for future years of PLC activity.

As I near the completion of my third year of teaching, I often find myself looking back on my past mistakes. How could I have ever thought that lesson would go well? What was I thinking when I let that student get away with such behavior? Did I really try to do such a crazy thing in class?

When these moments occur, I allow myself a brief laugh (or sometimes a brief sob) at my own expense and then try to shift my thoughts to the future. In part because of my membership in a working professional community, I find these thoughts to be less egocentric and more focused on producing meaningful changes in my school. How can I help my school achieve its goals? How can I support beginning teachers while encouraging them to share their expertise? How can we as a whole school enhance our students’ experiences and learning?

Over the past three years, my colleagues and I have worked to create a collaborative environment in our school that promotes teacher and student learning. It isn’t easy or always comfortable, but we can see the payoff for our efforts everywhere we look.

Throughout this process, I have found myself equally playing the role of the student and the teacher. In my experience, that’s what PLCs are all about. Whether we’re first-year novices or 40-year veterans, we just teach better together.

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