Teachers give up more of their summer than students do. In addition to putting their rooms together, lining up their lesson plans and supplies, they are also learning the importance of ongoing professional development in their careers. Montana teachers usually attend two to four days of district programming prior to classes starting.
To fulfill those obligations administrators and teachers from Corvallis, Stevensville and Lone Rock attended a presentation by Solution Tree, designers of the Professional Learning Communities concept, Tuesday at the Bitterroot River Inn.
Presenter Janel Keating said the concepts and practices benefit administrators, teachers and students.
“Basically, there are two reasons we are here today,” Keating said. “We’re going to work to improve our professional practice as teachers and when the teachers improve more kids will learn more because of it.
“We often say ‘if the kids would …’ but the bottom line is before the kids can get it the teachers must have the knowledge first.”
Keating said it is communication that is focused on learning.
“It’s a shift from teaching in isolation to working with a collaborative team,” she said.
Corvallis Superintendent Tim Johnson said the concept has been around for a number of years.
“As we look at our professional-development philosophy and best practices we do the collaboration almost by default,” Johnson said. “You really can’t do this job unless you talk to other people. The PLC (Professional Learning Community) gives a more formal structure around initiatives that the district might have.
“It’s a data-driven mindset. The real question is: How do you know? How do you know that what you’re doing is actually working? It goes beyond the typical question of ‘Are our students learning?’ It reaches into how do we know that as a district we are addressing the learning of our adults and staff members.”
Johnson said they started to define this process last year with their staff by writing individual SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. As a first step, they started with a one-on-one conversation with a teacher and a supervisor.
“That process went really well,” Johnson said. “It generated a lot of interest and a lot of energy. We loosened the SMART goals from ‘Here’s your goal’ to ‘Tell me how you want to do this.’”
Johnson said administrators found they shared interests with teachers. They are meshing those interests, defining the structure and finding that working together benefits everyone – increasing motivation and providing a more relational approach to learning – top to bottom.
“For us it starts with the staff,” he said. “We’re absolutely interested in kids – absolutely. But if the staff doesn’t experience it, how do you model it? How are you the model if you haven’t truly experienced it yourself? That’s on the administrative team to provide that experience for our adult students. We talk about professional development – my mindset is you have professional development for adults – you have professional development for kids. That’s really what we’re doing.”
Johnson said that may not be measured in students until they are in college or a career, but the knowledge and a collaborative and flexible mindset begins in school.
“We are developing the professional skills and attitudes of our kids and it begins with our adults – that’s where the PLC comes in,” he said. “We have to model the very thing we expect our students to do. We want it to be motivating; we want it to be interesting.”
The Corvallis administrative team has goals in mind, then works with the interests and skills of the staff.
“That’s exactly what we ask our teachers to do – find out what the kids are interested in and infuse the information through the conduit with our kids,” he said.
The big question is ‘How do you know?’ PLCs ask four fundamental questions: Where do you want to be? How do you know when you get there? What do you do when you get there and you know it, and what do you do when you get there and they don’t know it?
The concept is designed by Solution Tree for larger schools with 20,000 students and multiple teachers handling one subject that have easier collaboration and Professional Learning Communities. Corvallis is taking the basics of the formal design and modifying them for their own use because size matters.
“At the high school, where you have a single teacher who may teach English to all the freshmen, they can’t collaborate with another ninth-grade English teacher,” said Johnson. “How do you have a PLC? Do you go vertically – so do all the high school English teachers collaborate? That’s one way to do it, but then what about band, music, art? There really isn’t a vertical component there.
“The size of our district has unique challenges. We have to let go of some of the formal structures that Solution Tree says must be a part of it. We have to alter it and look at the heart of it and allow the staff to make it their own. The specifics will be up to adaptations.”
The Corvallis administration has previously attended the workshop and is currently outlining the measurable objectives and going through the foundation and philosophy of the Professional Learning Communities.
“The very thing we are asking our staff is something we are also working on,” Johnson said. “The concept of Professional Learning Communities folds into the culture of Corvallis – it is really complementary to a lot of things that are going on here. This is a forward-thinking and creative staff. This district has that culture more highly developed than other districts that I’ve worked in and we are well equipped to adopt a PLC. It’s not a destination but more of a mindset.”