ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

Professional Learning Communities Saved My Career

Gwendolyn Todd

Post written by Gwendolyn Todd, a secondary instructional resource teacher in the Charles County (Md.) Public Schools. This post was originally featured in ASCD Express.

When I began my teaching career just a decade ago, professors and veteran teachers warned me that teaching is a solitary profession. Although both groups continually taught me strategies to facilitate collaborative learning for my students, they also emphasized that my professional life would be lonely.

However, I started teaching at the advent of No Child Left Behind. The law's push for tough-love accountability provoked a general panic among educators that I, as a new teacher, didn't understand at the time. The panic prompted a new strategy: instead of working alone, a team of teachers could more effectively combat the heat of the accountability spotlight. Nevertheless, several colleagues who entered the field at the same time as I did left education despite being capable people.

But for me, working together with other teachers saved my career. I survived. I wasn't the smartest. I wasn't the most prepared. I wasn't the toughest. But I was the most supported.

What Works

In those formative years, I was offered the chance to be a part of a community of learners. I was part of an instructional team that met daily during a planning period to discuss how an instructional strategy worked in a real classroom. We were given time to read articles and books and discuss the material. We were offered time to review data and brainstorm instructional implications.

This sharing of information, lesson plans, and discipline management techniques made the profession doable for me. Instead of a barren wasteland where I was left to survive on my own, I had colleagues, the human connection, to stabilize my growth. This provided an education more valuable than the master's degree I eventually earned. Here's why:

  • Differentiation: New teachers were offered tried-and-true methods by veterans, but the veterans often spoke about the ability to be refreshed by new ideas from beginning teachers—especially in the area of technology. Therefore, teachers' differing needs were addressed, regardless of their years of service.
  • Model and Structure: Teams were structured as small discussion groups with peer accountability. For adult learners, having their voices heard and knowing their ideas are valued is imperative.
  • Follow-Up: Within a team, teachers offered specific feedback on projects, assessments, and even parent interaction. The latter was especially valuable for new teachers who had a difficult time working with parents. The diversity of teacher perspectives meant a variety of tools—both effective and ineffective—to learn from.

Support Needs Time

Now, as I work with new teachers and mentor teachers, the greatest professional learning need I see is time for that support. Too much of educators' days is parceled out before we even begin to work with students. We have parent-teacher conferences before and after school; tutoring and makeup test sessions; grading and planning; paperwork to fill out and file; and, finally, interaction with students.

Although educators know the power of worthwhile professional learning, we don't know when to schedule it into our day. This is the challenge that administrators and instructional coaches must meet: teachers want and need to continue to build their professional understanding but have very little time to spare.

What Doesn't Work

Besides the lack of time, there's often the issue of attitude: teachers are the worst students. We admit this and often wear it as a badge of honor. Typically, the first thought our brains drift to in a professional development session is, "I don't have time to waste—how could this be made more effective?"

It's difficult to provide instruction to people who are trained to critique instruction. Yet, that is what administrators and instructional coaches must do. We know a lot about effective instruction: it must be differentiated for learner interest and ability; it must be delivered using an engaging, appropriate model and structure; and there must be concrete follow-up with learners that can promote reflection.

Unfortunately, much of our professional learning is reduced to "read this article in your spare time" or "sit in this meeting and watch a PowerPoint presentation" or—if we're lucky—"go to this conference and think about things to use." These paradigms are not differentiated, usually not engaging, and often do not include follow-up.

The Challenge and a Possible Solution

Professional learning teams are not cheap to fund. In today's environment of budget cuts, it's difficult to maintain this type of learning community because it costs the equivalent of one additional staff salary to implement. The ability of the group to work together depends on total group buy in and a strong facilitator to set the group on the right track, which are hard to guarantee.

In the latest phase of my career, however, I have found a viable surrogate for my need for in-person collaboration: online communities. Whether through a hybrid of face-to-face and web communication or an asynchronous learning platform, you can use the web to fill the void to some extent.

Districts can have content mentors meet with teachers face-to-face and provide specific and timely feedback through an online platform, many of which are open-source or free. School teams who are not able to meet on a regular basis can collaborate via a wiki or simple e-mails to discuss lessons. Administrators can even post noteworthy articles to a faculty website for comments. It may not be the same as the professional learning community that I met with every day early in my career, but online options at least offer those three key tenets for professional growth: differentiation, model and structure, and follow-up.

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