Last month hundreds of educators in Porterville heard Mike Mattos from Solution Tree present about building the collaborative culture of a Professional Learning Community (PLC). One key aspect of the PLC process is acknowledging that teachers are asked to do too much. He recommended that teachers stop practices that aren’t getting students where they need to be and get good at what helps them get there. 

High school graduate rates are rising, but 1 million students drop out every year. That’s one every 26 seconds. If self-sufficient graduates are wanted, then teachers have to give them the necessary skills to succeed when they leave. Mattos said that high school diplomas are a ticket to nowhere so if teachers want students to thrive, they need to prepare them to get college degrees.

When PLCs meet their work revolves around four essential questions. First teachers have to agree on what they want them to learn. Each content area has more standards than they can cover so teachers need to collaboratively decide which ones they all feel are essential.  

Next the PLCs focus on how they know that students are learning. Once a pacing guide of essential standards is worked out, then brief quizzes or Common Formative Assessments (CFAs) are developed and scored. Teachers check for understanding by administering these CFA’s that are designed collaboratively and given by all teachers. Covering and testing standards around the same time means the data can be analyzed and used to modify instruction. 

Teachers then have to decide how they’ll respond when students haven’t learned the material. Some need interventions for reteaching while others are ready to move on with new content. Figuring out why they aren’t learning involves motivating and inspiring effort. 

Finally, teachers need to decide how to respond to students that already know the content so that enrichment and acceleration can occur so these bright problem solvers are working on critical solutions rather than wasting time on material they already know. .

Some teachers resist looking at the hard facts of student data because they fear It may make them look bad. PLC proponents say that if teachers don’t know what’s wrong, they can’t fix it. It’s hard for one teacher to meet all the needs of all the students, and trying to do so is destroying teachers in the process.

The PLC process examines every practice and procedure that doesn’t help students learn. If it’s counter productive to the mission, then it’s discontinued. No one wakes up planning to hinder student learning, but with the advance of recent brain research, some activities have not been shown to work as well as others. 

Working in collaborative teams helps to shoulder the collective responsibility to improve teaching. The way to achieve the mission is if everyone believes they can have a huge impact. PLCs have a collaborative nature that does not have a hierarchy such as a department chair so each colleague has an equal voice

Some feel forced collaboration is unfair and takes away autonomy. Districts feel that once they train teachers to use effective practices then they should be implemented. 

Disregarding best practices goes against the research and doesn’t perpetuate the professionalism for which teachers are known.

Teacher created CFAs are the backbone of PLCs because they help identify strategies that lead to good student outcomes. These should never be used to evaluate teachers. Grading practices that allow retakes motivate students to improve their score the second time.

Determining a systematic response when students learn and when they don’t learn requires looking closely at grading practices, reteaching options and differentiated enrichment. In order for students to learn at high levels, they need to be taught at high levels. Most high achieving schools teach less content to greater mastery.

Trying to change the system of education that has lasted 250 years isn’t easy. A disequilibrium occurs when people are asked to stretch beyond what they know. When teachers put themselves in this uncomfortable place of “don’t know” and allow colleagues and students to impact their practice, magic can begin to happen. 

Incorporating effective PLCs will require a culture shift for teachers, but engaging the disengaged student is the job of all teachers. Having the input and support of a collaborative team is critical to troubleshooting the difficult parts of this complex process. When the whole school is considered a PLC, then cross department sharing can be used to broadcast successes that show evidence of effectiveness.

 

Kristi McCracken, author of two children’s books and a long time teacher in the South Valley, can be reached at educationallyspeaking@gmail.com.

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