Professional Learning Communities–Who has time?
The answer to this question has everything to do with what you want for your students and teachers. In the words of John Kennedy, “You must use time as a tool and not a crutch.” Student instruction and interaction must be the most important focus in any educational setting. However, it is necessary for many things to occur behind the scenes to ensure that our students receive the most effective, cutting edge and individualized instruction possible. As the principal, you have the unique opportunity to facilitate and encourage the variables that will lead to student success and a cohesive staff.
There are a lot of factors at play when you put a group of teachers together. The more seasoned teachers may feel that their methods have been tested and tried, whereas the newer teachers may feel that their methods are more effective. As a result, there will most likely be a wide range of learning outcomes and educational experiences for students. The truth of “method effectiveness” lies somewhere in between the two perspectives and is very fluid. Staff “buy in” to this concept is imperative.
All levels of teacher education and experience are necessary to ensure that students are receiving the education they deserve and that we are always able to mix the new with the old in order to implement highly effective instructional strategies that address all learning styles and modalities. Therefore, positive and productive relationships between seasoned staff and new teachers are most important to ensure that embedded professional development is an ongoing, valued process. This process also creates a pipeline of educators that ensures generations of effective and opened minded individuals will be shaping our most precious resource for the future – our children.
Therefore, what we put into the practice of building relationships and increasing the teaching capacity of each other through the Professional Learning Community (PLC) process will determine the outcomes. As stated by Charles Buxton, “You will never find time for anything. If you want time you must make it.”
The challenge remains, how to find the time for this important work. For many years I would have argued with anyone that we had high functioning PLCs when in fact we had high functioning Team Meetings. Our Team Meetings focused on student behavior, emotional and socioeconomic issues of the students, scheduling tests on different days, completing tasks from the principal, etc. These meetings were high functioning and necessary, but were not true PLC meetings. Highly effective PLC meetings are geared towards analyzing data to drive instruction, sharing and refining instructional strategies, developing professional relationships within the staff and developing individual and collective capacity. All of which will enrich the educational experience of our students and make all of us better educators.
With the increased responsibilities and demands of education today, when are we going to have time for PLCs? Thank goodness that we have technology to answer this question! With very little time you can set up a system that allows staff members to stay abreast of everything occurring in the school as well as contribute to various initiatives in their own time. It is not necessary to “carve out” large chunks of time for a group meeting in order to accomplish tasks or discuss issues. At Buffalo Middle School, we have about 20 Minutes of “re-imagined” time at the end of each day that we call our “2:48 Meetings”. The meeting derived its name from the fact that all students are generally on the bus by 2:48 and we can meet for a few minutes as a whole staff, focus group, etc.
We use the technology tool Microsoft One Note to keep meeting agendas and minutes. These are readily available to all stakeholders at any time and remain confidential. One Note is set up like a notebook with tabs and pages. Each grade level, content area, focus group, etc. can have a tab with as many pages as necessary. You can upload, pictures, graphs, notes, etc. in the program. Issues can be briefly discussed in a 2:48 meeting or an email and the remainder of the work be completed through the One Note Notebook. For example, of the various Leadership Groups that we have in our school, each group has a tab or section of the notebook. Under each tab, the agendas, notes, etc. are added as separate pages. Each time the group meets everything is digitally put into the notebook. All members on the staff have access to view everything so that everyone knows what is occurring at all times and in all groups.
One of the most beneficial aspects of this process is my Resource Tab. I have always emailed information out to my staff. However, emails can become overwhelming and lost in the mix of day-to-day responsibilities. Although I still email my staff, I also place salient information under the Resource Tab so that staff members can quickly find what they need. The email serves as notification of the updates and the Notebook keeps the information safe until it is needed.
Another Tab that we use on a regular basis is the Data Tab. Various forms of Data is uploaded so that all staff members have it at their fingertips at all times. We refer to this Tab on a regular basis in our meetings or individual conversations. It has become a treasure trove of information that is living, breathing and constantly changing. This resource makes a difference in the way we instruct our students daily. This allows us to reflect upon our practices on a regular basis and apply what we have learned to our instructional methods. Additionally, by having access to view the data and reflections of others, we benefit from their perspectives and instructional adjustments.
I believe the most beneficial part of using One Note in our PLCs is that once my staff became comfortable with the program, they began using it in their classrooms with their students. This can be applied at any level. For instance, my Self-Contained Classroom for students with special needs complete their journal in One Note each day. The teacher has given me access to view these entries and I often go there when it has been a particular busy or difficult day and am always assured a smile.
The one safe thing to say about education is that it must change with the demands of the world in which we live today. If you think about a telephone or car of 100 years ago they were much different in appearance, usage and function than they are today. However, if you look at a classroom of 100 years ago it still looks much the same in many schools and classrooms. Students are lined up in rows listening to the teacher lecture. This has to change! The attainment of skills to apply to situations is so much more important than knowing specific content. For example, it is not important to be able to memorize the periodic table, but it is important to know how to use it! Therefore, the gravity of our obligation as educators to transition to the classroom of the future is crucial to the long term success of our students.
With that said, as the principal you have the awesome opportunity to model the interactive learning with your staff that can be transferred to their classrooms. You cannot “lecture” to your staff and expect them to elicit and maintain student interaction and self-direction in their education. You must model the teacher-student interaction and self-directed learning by your example. The process of PLCs, with the support of technology, is a very effective way in which to accomplish preparing our students for the 21st Century.
This naturally leads to distributed leadership among the teachers when they become comfortable participating and directing their own learning. It is important to distribute leadership to your teachers and students in every instance possible. What they direct, they will value. Ensure that you monitor all aspects of leadership from afar because “what gets monitored get done”! By doing this, you will become the change agent in the lives of your staff and students and your job as the principal will be less hectic. You may even have some time to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
Principal, Buffalo Middle School
Wayne County, West Virginia