During the summer of 2006, as I was working through an AQ course, there was one question that I endlessly fretted over: how to initiate a professional learning community (PLC).
In the end, my solution was simple: I contacted all of my Junior division colleagues and suggested we should endeavour to work together. The invitation was open, but I was determined that the numbers would not matter, and that we would move forward with a group of two, three, or seven. One teacher, who was more isolated than the rest of us because she worked at two different schools, showed up for our first meeting. I was surprised, but happy to see her. The first words out of her mouth were “Why are we here?”.
There were a number of issues that persuaded us to work together. One was that we worked mostly in isolation. Second, as was soon apparent, we were worried about top-down management, and felt that if we worked together as a team – strength in numbers – it would be hard for a principal to say no. Third, I had found that having students more than one year (called looping) was beneficial in many ways. Teaching the same students a second year means you know most of them and can begin where you left off the previous June. Routines also are simply continued from the previous year. Through observation and discussions with parents, I’ve found that even our best students may need at least two years to get on track toward independence.
But when we do not usually have our students for more than one year, how do we achieve the same results? How do we ensure consistency with note-taking, notebook organization, or assessment? And how do we reach the high expectations we set for our students? The answer is obvious: through collaboration teachers can maintain standards and procedures from one year to the next. For example, before the end of September, we had presented a list of at-risk students from the Junior division. American author and educator Richard DuFour mentions the “powerful collaboration of school teams.” By working together, we found we could focus more specifically on student achievement.
Creating a divisional PLC
We started our PLC by examining the needs of our Junior division students. Although mindful of the importance of a school focus, I would suggest divisional teams as a more powerful beginning for a PLC; this arrangement can address common student needs, has an immediate “looping” effect, and involves smaller numbers of staff. Through board and ministry assessment, and through teacher observation and collaboration, we identified a need to improve our students’ writing.