Professional Learning Communities and Coaches - Steve Barkley

Professional Learning Communities and Coaches

I found a few authors’ writings this week that reinforced the critical work that needs to occur in PLC’s and teacher/coach dialogues. The following statement appears in National Staff Development’s press release for the report Professional Learning in the Learning Profession:

Research shows that professional learning can have a powerful effect on teacher skills and knowledge and on student learning. To be effective, however, it must be sustained, focused on important content, and embedded in the work of collaborative professional learning teams that support ongoing improvements in teachers’ practice and student achievement.

Often, when I read public responses to newspaper posts about teacher professional development, I realize how many people “just don’t get it’. The complexity of learning and the constant adjustments that teachers need to make are foreign to many. Perhaps it is not understood by too many working in our schools or serving on Boards of Education or in the politics of education as well.

In an ASCD Inservice blog, Bob Marzano, author of The Art and Science of Teaching makes the following comments:

I can think of no strategy every teacher should use. They are all tools to be used in the service of student learning. That said, I realize I have probably contributed greatly to the burden of many teachers in schools or districts where certain strategies are “mandated.” For that I apologize. In my defense, though, right from the beginning, I have warned against this practice. To illustrate, in the first chapter of the book Classroom Instruction That Works (2001), I said, ” . . . teachers should rely on their knowledge of their students, their subject matter, and their situation to identify the most appropriate instructional strategies” (p. 9).

Accept things that you know work based on your experience. Reject things that don’t work based on your experience, and try things you haven’t tried before. Always keep student achievement as the criterion for successful teaching. If students are not learning well, then it is a professional educator’s responsibility (I believe) to try something new, and books like The Art and Science of Teaching are intended to provide some guidance to that end.

I was recently working with a coach who was mentoring a new teacher who was struggling because her lessons which worked in periods 1-4 just didn’t work in 6th. Conversations with the coach led the teacher to discover that she needed to plan a lesson for 6th period students rather than trying to get the lessons she had used in the other sections to “work”. Because it “works” in period 4 doesn’t mean it’s right for period 6.

In the February, 2009 edition of Phi Delta Kappan, The Journal for Education , Erin Young reports on the PDK Summit in an article titled, What Makes a Great Teacher. She highlights comments from Tom Guskey, Distinguished Service Professor at Georgetown College in Georgetown, KY.

But great teachers are not all alike, Guskey said. He asked audience members to think of a great teacher in their lives. About half of the audience selected a teacher who was harsh, demanding, and authoritative, while the other half selected a teacher who was nurturing, warm, and endearing. “In all of our research on effective teachers, it’s been very difficult for us to come up with any set of personality characteristics that defines a highly effective teacher,” he said.

To further complicate the issue, Guskey said, “Research in Tennessee has shown that a great teacher in one setting may be a poor teacher in another setting. Tennessee has a value-added accountability program that can show on average, for each teacher, how much the teacher’s students have learned throughout the year. “You would think we should be able to identify those teachers who are getting remarkable results, go and look at what they do, and just have everybody do the same,” Guskey said. “But what they’ve discovered is it’s not that easy.” Instead, he said, teachers who are effective in rural schools fail when they’re put into urban schools, even though they’re doing the same things they did in the rural schools, and vice versa. “They’ve really called into question this notion of best practices,” Guskey said. “Maybe best practices depend on where you are, the kind of students you’re teaching, the kinds of communities in which they live, the cultural background they bring to school…”

Teachers need a highly reflective environment to create the best possible learning for each student. Coaches and PLC Colleagues are important resources for that reflection.

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