Anne Jolly, a former Alabama teacher of the year and author of A Facilitator’s Guide to Professional Learning Teams, talks about how teacher professional learning communities operate and the impact they have on teachers and schools.
What’s the philosophy behind using professional learning teams as a form of teacher professional development?
Really you’re just giving teachers the same opportunities that other professionals have to work together on projects and share insights during the workday. Teamwork is the best way to make progress in any occupation, because many minds working on an issue are better than one.
But this kind of collaborative work is especially crucial for teachers. There’s such a culture of isolation in schools. Teachers are used to doing their work alone. They work very hard to do the best job they can within their range of knowledge. But their knowledge can be limited by many factors—by their professional opportunities, their access to materials, and the time they have for research, for example. By providing teachers time and space to work together and to go deeper into an area of instruction, you build opportunities for them to learn and grow on the job with one another, to create a synergistic kind of learning.
Ideally, as they work together, they will be able to examine new resources, talk about different teaching techniques, use action-research methods, and take a more reflective approach to instruction.
How are professional learning teams different from regular department or staff meetings?
During her 16 years as a middle school science teacher in Alabama, Anne Jolly always had the nagging feeling that there was something wrong with the way teachers were expected to do their work. Faced with dramatic changes in student demographics, academic requirements, and information technology, teachers were cocooned in their individual classrooms, where it was difficult to acquire new professional knowledge and all too easy to fall into familiar teaching routines. “I wondered what it would be like to work in an environment that encourages teacher collaboration, support, and personal growth,“ says Jolly, who was Alabama’s Teacher of the Year in 1994. “What would happen if teachers worked collectively to increase our expertise and change our teaching practices?”
That line of questioning led Jolly to undertake an extensive research project on the art of teacher-collaborative work and ultimately to write her book A Facilitator’s Guide to Professional Learning Teams, published by the SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Jolly defines professional learning teams as small, hyper-focused groups of educators working together to improve learning for both themselves and students in a particular academic area. She believes that these teams are schools’ best bet to break down the traditional cultural of isolation in teaching and to help teachers expand their intellectual horizons and improve their practice.
Jolly is now project director for professional learning teams at SERVE.
Professional learning teams go beyond just focusing on procedures. In a typical department meeting the conversation might revolve around things like unit scheduling, classroom activities, or who’s going to do the bulletin boards. Professional learning teams typically go a layer deeper than that in that they identify and focus on a specific area of student need. They set a clear focus on delving into a particular instruction area and learning how to improve their practice.
Let me give you an example. Many schools identify reading comprehension as an area of student need. So teachers on professional learning teams will get together and work specifically on the area of reading comprehension for perhaps the entire year, trying to ratchet up their instructional knowledge and expertise in that area.
So it’s not just a brush-fire-by-brush-fire approach to a meeting. It’s a systematic, reflective, long-term approach that seeks to make lasting changes in instruction and student learning.
How have school administrators and school districts responded to the idea of teacher professional learning teams?
It varies, but districts are becoming more supportive. In fact, professional learning teams are now mandated by many districts. They’re being seen as an effective and common-sense strategy. For their part, I think school principals are generally supportive of professional learning teams, but they don’t always know how to support them.
How can principals be more supportive? They need to keep the lines of communication open, but not micromanage. For example, they shouldn’t necessarily attend the meetings, but they need to know what’s happening in them. They need to set up ways for teams to communicate their work and ideas to the school—for example, by arranging e-mail groups, collaborative Web sites, or presentations at faculty meetings. In other words, principals need to keep the professional learning teams on the front burner and not just look at them as some extracurricular activity that teachers are engaging in. They need to keep the effort highly visible in the school community.
What sort of things do educators need to think about when creating professional learning teams? Are there common mistakes or pitfalls?
The first thing that can hurt a learning team effort is when the administration, primarily the principal, doesn’t buy in or doesn’t see the need. So if I were a teacher interested in forming a professional learning team, I would begin by touching base with my principal and explaining what it is we want to accomplish. I don’t know many principals who would say no, but it’s important to get buy-in from the start.
Another important thing is to make sure that the team provides all members the opportunity to grow and have leadership roles—for example, by using rotating facilitators. Within certain parameters, teachers on these teams should be able to determine the processes by which they’re going to learn and the particular teaching techniques they’re going to adopt. The decisions they make in team meetings should not be dictated to them—although there need to be certain guidelines so that the effort doesn’t get off course. The team projects should take place within a structured framework, but still give teachers flexibility.
Finally, you need to believe strongly in what you are doing. Professional learning teams are research-based, and they do make a powerful difference. But you’re going to find it tough going: You’re going against the cultural norm and status quo in schools. To keep everyone enthusiastic, you need to have some good selling points, and you should start with some small, doable goals.
How do professional learning teams find time to meet regularly?
This is one reason why you have to have buy-in from the principal. Meeting time during the school day is not usually something teachers can create themselves. They have to work with the principal to find a way to make time.
Some schools have enough teachers’ aides that they can rotate teachers off so they can meet at least once a week for an hour or so. (It helps if the aides are also meeting in learning teams, studying the same things teachers are, so that not much ground is lost when they take over a class.) Another way is to bring in volunteers—for example, parent teams—to cover classes, or to have teachers in non-core subjects fill in on a rotating basis for core teachers.
Of course, many schools also have late-start or early-dismissal days where time is devoted to professional development. The trick is to get principals to see the need to allow teachers to use that time for learning teams.
Professional learning teams have a variety of shapes and structures, according to Jolly, but they tend to share these common characteristics.
• Teams serve as vehicles for teacher professional development and ongoing learning focused on instruction.
• Team goals are determined by student data and needs.
• Teams meet regularly throughout the school year and use a systematic approach to guide their work.
• Team activities revolve around an action-inquiry cycle that engages teachers in questioning, studying, planning, experimenting, reflecting, and assessing.
• Team members rotate roles and share responsibilities equally.
• Teams keep documentation of their work and share this publicly.
Source: Excerpted from A Facilitator’s Guide to Professional Learning Teams.
Is an hour a week typical?
An hour a week is about the least amount of time you can meet and still make progress. The ideal would be to meet every day, but that’s usually not possible at this point.
How do you respond to educators who say they’d rather work independently, or that meeting with other teachers is just a waste of their time?
You’d have to acknowledge that you understand that sentiment but tell them you feel that not only would they benefit from the learning-team experience, but that others would benefit from their participation—from their own knowledge and input and experience. This is actually a fairly common situation. You just have to push through it. Rick DeFour, who’s pretty much the grand guru of professional learning communities, cautions that collaboration by invitation doesn’t work, because isolationism is so deeply engrained in schools. There comes a time when you have to say to those who are reluctant, “We understand your feelings, but this is something that we think will make a difference for the kids.” Generally you’ll see changes in teachers’ attitudes as the work progresses and they begin to see the value of working colleagues in a focused way. I’ve seen this happen even with some of the most outspoken skeptics.
In your book, you talk about the importance of data to a professional learning team’s work? Can you explain what sort of data teams should be looking at? I generally see data as being much more than just student scores. It’s really more a matter of looking at what experiences are taking place.
Of course, when a team starts out, in order to identify areas of student need and set some benchmarks, they need to look closely at whatever summative data on students is available—for example, standardized test scores, report cards, portfolios. That can help them set clear goals and gauge a school’s strengths and weaknesses. But as their work proceeds, teams should be looking more at what I call formative types of data—basically evidence of whether teaching and learning is changing for the better as a result of the team’s work. This might consist of customized classroom assessments, classroom observations, or videotapes of lessons. The process should become a real study of the art of teaching.
How are professional learning teams held accountable? How do schools evaluate the work teams are doing to see if they are adding value?
There are several levels to this. First of all, you want to look at how teachers are reacting—whether their attitudes toward their work or professional development are changing for the better. This is an important but often overlooked measure of success. Then you want to examine what teachers are learning in their team meetings and whether there is carryover to the classroom. As a principal or teacher leader, you can do this by looking at the materials teachers are using, by visiting classrooms, by asking team members to make presentations at faculty meetings, and by looking at meeting logs. You’d be surprised by what you can tell by looking at the logs. Over time, you should see substantial changes in the way the teachers are talking about their work and what’s happening in the classroom. It starts to go beyond just “OK, now let’s try this” and evolves into something more reflective, where the team is blending experience and research and really dissecting the steps in the teaching and learning process.
And then finally, of course, the biggest area of evaluation would be changes in student performance. You should expect to see these more slowly. It might take a whole year to see real growth. But if teams are really focusing on one area, you’re going to see pretty substantial growth toward the end of a year.
Is there evidence that professional learning teams improve student performance?
Yes, there’s some scientifically based research data, and quite a lot of literature that chronicles the value of this process for teachers and for students. SERVE Center has done some statistical analyses on student performance in the Edenton-Chowan school system in North Carolina. The student scores in reading there went up dramatically after teachers had been working in learning teams. They began to see increases after a year, and the gains were even greater after the second year.
Another way to document impact is to examine changes in classroom applications and teaching performance. But school districts these days pretty are harassed by a lot of different pressures, and they’re trying to implement a lot of initiatives at once. It’s hard to put enough focus on any one initiative to monitor and measure impact at the local level, but that’s what we try to help districts do.
What’s your outlook on the future of professional learning teams and teacher professional development in general?
I see this particular approach as being the only practical and viable professional development approach we’ll have. We have a lot of data showing that one-shot workshops, if that’s all there is, are not very effective. I’m not saying that we don’t need workshops. We do. But once the workshop is over, what then? This is where working together to sustain good practices and ideas is going to be very valuable. If it’s worth sending teachers to a workshop, then it’s worth having teachers get together to figure out how to put what they’ve learned into practice. Otherwise, if you just leave everybody to their own devices, very little of it is going to be implemented.
We’ve got to have some way to keep the teaching profession as close as possible to societal needs. And right now society is changing so fast. Breaking through the culture of isolation in schools can help teachers become more connected—to each other, to changes in student needs, to new instructional techniques.
A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2007 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook as Team-Oriented Teaching