On two recent hot steamy July days 1200 Rock Hill teachers and administrators met at Winthrop University to improve their skills in building “professional learning communities” in their schools. Speakers from Boston to Los Angeles spoke passionately on the power of teachers and the imperative for successfully educating our students. “I have seen the price of academic failure and it is a matter of life or death.” John Hodge.
PLCs “Professional Learning Communities” is the name for organized procedures to make sure all students make gains in learning year by year. PLCs, if implemented faithfully, prevent academic failure. Here’s how it works.
Teachers at each grade or subject level work together in regularly scheduled group meetings (often weekly or more often) to determine the specific skills and concepts to be taught in the upcoming period of time. “What should the students be able to do when we finish teaching this unit (small part of our subject)” or “What should the kids be able to understand and remember after we have taught this part of our course?”
The teachers then together write a short PRE-test for this bit of learning and give it to their students BEFORE they teach them the information. This lets teachers know who already knows what they are about to teach, who is ready for this instruction, and who may need preparation for the learning planned. Pre-information helps teachers plan and instruct more effectively.
Teachers then instruct their own students using the information from their pre-tests; including enrichment and acceleration for those who need it. At the end of the unit (this small section of learning related to the overall topic) all teachers in that grade/subject level give the same common exam – a post test. They grade their own students answers but then meet together, examine each other’s results, analyze and plan from their test results. They collaborate on how to reteach those who still have not mastered the skill and look for evidence in their test results of reasons for failure and ideas for re-teaching.
Teacher collaboration is a very important part in Professional Learning Communities. A web definition states, “When you work together on shared goals, you collaborate. If you work together on creating solutions, you collaborate.” Teachers working together and sharing ideas can solve more student learning problems than when trying to work by themselves.
Beginning this process can be daunting. When we began sharing results in my last school some teachers were uncomfortable sharing their test scores with their grade level peers. BUT what we discovered was that everyone has areas of skill to share and everyone has areas of “I need help.” What soon happened was that someone would say, “I had a kid just like yours a couple of years ago and here’s something I tried.”
The key to PLC success is that we do not just say, “Oh, she/he just didn’t get this skill!” and then move on and leave her/him behind. When we first started this process teachers would try to reteach within their own rooms. But rather quickly they decided they needed to group across classes. Someone would say, “I’ve got a couple of kids who need more teaching on this skill. Why don’t I add your kid to mine to reteach?”
One teacher would accelerate those top kids who needed the challenge. One or two would take all students on the grade/subject who “didn’t get it” and needed re-teaching individually or in small groups. Someone would take those who had the concept but still needed more practice. Eventually we expanded our weekly remediation period to be school-wide with all support staff (including me) working in classes as assistants with teachers where kids were working to master un-mastered skills.
It is a powerful technique and our scores on end of year test began to improve even in the first year. We were not letting kids get behind. We were focused on success and celebrated every step of progress; every skill mastered by 90% of students at that grade. An equally important outcome had to do with teachers as much as students. Collaborating and sharing resulted in teachers building strong teams who shared ideas and helped each other grow in successfully solving learning problems of the students. Added together we became more powerful than us individually. No longer “your kids” or “my kids” but OUR students.
I was a principal for almost 20 years. I spent many of these years trying to find the solution for students who failed to make progress. Professional Learning Communities provided the most effective of any of my efforts to work with teachers to improve students’ learning. In addition to successfully teaching struggling students PLC’s also enabled teachers to challenge and accelerate the progress of our higher level students. The greatest challenge was rigorously tracking data, organizing schedules to provide time for teachers to work together, and supporting teachers as they begin to collaborate. Celebrating successes was great fun.
In the coming year our administrators and teachers across Rock Hill 3 have been given the challenge of implementing PLCs in all our schools. I look forward to hearing and cheering our successes with our students.