Observations of a k12 Vertical Professional Learning Community - Steve Barkley

Observations of a k12 Vertical Professional Learning Community

I recently spent one hour observing a team meeting at the Gibsonton Elementary School in Hillsborough County, Tampa, Florida. It was only the third meeting of the team which was newly formed as the school adopted vertical teaming plan. I was impressed at the collegial dialogue that occurred and the amount of ideas that were shared in a one hour time frame by such a new team.
Highlighted below are the comments I shared with the team. I have added some additional information for your thinking.

The team and each individual member functioned as a professional learning team. They individually took interest and responsibility in the success of each other and the students that the team serves.
Here are specifics I noted:

Vulnerability-Teachers were comfortable saying, “ I don’t understand this” or “I have a question about how to…” or, “At this point, I don’t know what to do next for this student” and “ I need help”.

Just like in our classrooms, learning is enhanced when learners are comfortable being vulnerable. When a student can raise a hand and say to the teacher, ” I’m not getting this” an observer knows that learning will happen. The teacher has created an environment where that student’s vulnerability will speed the learning process. Students don’t have to wait for the teacher to discover that understanding isn’t happening. The teacher can adjust quickly to the student’s needs.

When PLC’s create that level of trust among members, vulnerability emerges and teacher learning propels. Patrick Lencioni in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team(Jossey-Bass), pg.97 identifies the following behaviors of team members where trust is present.

• Ask for help
• Accept questions
• Take risks in offering feedback and assistance
• Tap into each other’s skills and experiences
• Admit weaknesses and mistakes

Respect-It is clear that each teacher wants each of her colleagues to be successful. They are rooting for each other. No competition. This respect encourages the vulnerability. Teachers worked with and thought out loud about a problem a colleague shared.

Collegiality- Teachers are using the input of each other to decide “what to do next”. Students will receive the “teams best thinking”. Teachers tapped each other’s expertise.

I have been promoting the statement that “Teaching is a Team Sport”. That really captures what I observed in this meeting. One teacher shared observations about a child whose behaviors were very different from other children and her past experiences as a teacher. Rather quickly the expertise of the teacher of the Emotional Behavioral Disorder class emerged and the whole group listened intently. As the teacher saw her input being valued, she volunteered to do an observation of the child, providing more information for the next team meeting.

Here’s a Roland Barth comment on collegiality:
“Above all, collegiality means rooting for the success of one another. If every adult in the school is rooting for you, when the alarm clock rings at six a.m., you jump out of bed to go to that school .“

Mentoring– New teachers were encouraged, affirmed, given approval for asking questions, and were active thinkers/problem solvers on their issues as well as on issues shared by experienced colleagues.

When I am conducing mentor training, I frequently comment that new teachers should be mentored by everyone and that the job of the official mentor is to mentor the system…. that is, get everyone to support the new teacher.

Teachers on a vertical team have an additional, somewhat self serving, reason to mentor new teachers on their team; “I am getting your students next year” or “You have the students I worked so hard with last year”. I believe this shared ownership of students promotes mentoring relationships.

What I valued most was the fact that the veteran teachers modeled an openness to learn from and be assisted by their colleagues. New teachers quickly pick up that it is not only OK to ask for help, but it is a professional behavior.

Professional Development– The reading coach had the opportunity to respond to questions regarding instruction and the chance to extend understanding. Job embedded professional development… I call it “just in time learning”. We tend to learn most when we can rather immediately apply the learning.

Often when training reading or instructional coaches I get the question, “How can I get to everyone?”. I frequently describe the coach as being similar to the plate spinner at the circus. Get a group of teachers working together on a new learning, pull out and get another group started. Then, on to the next. You’ve got to return from time to time to keep a group functioning. PLC’s are a natural way for coaches to extend their impact and a great opportunity to differentiate professional development.

Fun-I believe the teachers I observed enjoyed the professional dialogue!

Judy Willis,M.D.,M.ED (www.RADTeach.com) provides the following connection to fun in the classroom and learning:

“Dopamine is one of the brain’s most important neurotransmitters,
proteins that carry information across spaces between nerve endings. When you can incorporate pleasurable learning experiences and activities into lessons, the dopamine released is then available to increase pleasure, attention, and memory.”

PLC’s can be pleasurable places for teachers to learn.

When teachers share student successes that were generated by the strategies developed at a PLC meeting, the entire team shares in the celebration. Celebration will reinforce all the components I’ve identified above.

I’ve now seen a PLC become very effective quicker than I thought possible.

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