Professional Learning Communities, STAR Teachers and the Road Ahead – Part 1

“What initiatives in our professional learning will bring about positive change in student learning?”

The idea of developing collaborative structures amongst teachers within learning communities is a key concept that is echoed throughout a lot of my current reading and experiences in education. Whilst the attributes of a learning community are widely explored and indicators defined; achievement of these ideals is by no means an easy feat.

Hurdles to change in school culture and the development of successful learning communities are plentiful, especially in the mid to long-term. For leaders who desire to move student performance forward either on a school, district, state or federal level; these barriers can be multi-faceted and are frequently well ingrained into the teaching fraternity psyche.

Macro-political influences from both state and federal levels often set the short to mid-term educational agendas for schools. The impacts of these multiple and consistent waves of change are felt for many years by educational professionals. Any fresh initiatives at the school leadership level to bolster performance may be met with some degree of scepticism.

There is a tendency for teachers to demonstrate a lack of faith in educational reform. For many, corporate memory of historical changes that were perceived to have little return for huge personal or departmental investment are coupled with disillusionment, that commitment to these initiatives are not sustained by governments (or school leadership) over the longer-term. The evolution of the Australian Curriculum saw a marginalisation of the work, by many, in the implementation of the Western Australian Curriculum Framework and some teachers are saddened by its impending demise (despite the benefits of the changes). In this climate, learning communities can be more resistant to embrace initiatives for mandated change, or worse, approach changes with a cynical caution.

After reading the work of Haberman in ‘Star Teachers’, I felt empowered to sell my long-standing opposition to the belief that it is the responsibility of ‘learners to learn’, not ‘teachers to teach’. Unfortunately, I believe that this mentality, (i.e. the “you can lead a horse to water” mentality) is rife amongst many educators and is a real barrier to teachers seeking opportunities to improve in some areas of their practice. Whilst teachers show a commitment to growing in the functional aspects of their profession (e.g. development of content, processes and procedures, marking etc.) they are less inclined to take responsibility for student learning.

According to the Haberman’s view of STAR TEACHERS, “Stars view themselves as successful professionals rescuing students … see themselves as teachers of children as well as of content… they accepted accountability for student achievement … did not blame students for not learning … and defined their roles in terms of “whatever it takes”…”

If ever the question of, ‘Who is responsible for student learning?’ was more important, it is most certainly now. In Melbourne, a 15-year-old male student “… is suing the Victorian Education Department and the State Government for failing to teach him literacy and numeracy”

I was recently honoured to have an ECU practice student join me for a week’s observation and she will join me for another four weeks in June. It soon became clear that this young lady had a great deal of natural panache and I asked her to take a class on her final day. She did a wonderful job and I was pleased to sit down with her for 20 minutes afterwards to highlight her outstanding points and deal reflectively with a couple of the ‘bumpy moments’ in her lesson. I provided four pages of hand-written notes as a form of affirmation and evaluation.

I doubt there would be many teachers who did not commence their teaching in a similar manner. The role of mentorship has to be a natural, less formalised form of professional appraisal and an ongoing habit of departmental (and inter-departmental) discourse. Lack of robust discussion and inter-teacher feedback (i.e. for the years BEYOND our practicum or first year of teaching) can lead to a culture of isolationism in teacher practice.

In high school settings, there is prized value in developing the departmental learning community and the powerful effect this can have in dispersing isolationist practices. Some argue that departments methodologies should promote, shared values, de-privatised practices and reflective dialogue –  others see these tools as a “softer approach”; instead, preferring to ramp up departmental function and policy into a system of rules, agreements and goals regarding teaching and instruction – obtaining data on student performance, which in turn serves as a feedback mechanism for improving teaching and learning.

I am genuinely delighted to see a call for this kind of rigour. Working with co-professionals from an agreed platform which clearly stipulates the process for improvement in teaching and learning objectives. Policy that ‘builds in’ teacher accountability, (e.g. turn around on marking, holistic student review, consensus process and delivery strategies, co-observational expectations) and are not driven by a ‘back-scratching’ mentality of endorsing one another’s mediocre practice.

The Gratton Institute (see my earlier post – http://wateacherslounge.wordpress.com/2010/11/16/the-report-every-politician-and-principal-should-read/)  endeavours to remind educational leaders and decision-makers “that teacher effectiveness is the most significant influence on student outcomes”. Jenson investigates the factors that influence student performance and writes; “An increase in teacher effectiveness of 10% would lift Australia’s education systems into the highest performing group of countries in the world… Each grade needs to incorporate 5% of a year’s worth of learning for our students to be amongst the best in the world.” The report campaigns for more government investment in teacher training and utilises internationally recognised testing such as PISA, PIRLS and TIMMS to lament Australia’s eighth placing in international rankings. It determines that “… moderate changes to teacher effectiveness have a significant long-term effect.”

It is hard not to see the logic of his (Jenson’s) argument and his passionate representation for teachers to be provided with constructive criticism on their ongoing teaching practice as a means of gauging progress and effectiveness over time. “All teachers need to have effective evaluation that identifies their strengths and weaknesses and feeds into individualised development plans.”

Investment in the professional development of staff is an imperative that can’t be ignored in the evolution of learning communities. With an expected surge in school-age children in WA next decade of more than 140,000 students … and an estimated 312 new schools, coupled with a predicted 30% exodus of teachers and administrators in both Primary and Secondary due to retirement over the next five years; initiatives to invest in teachers and leadership has never been more at a premium.

Development of well-supported, training-rich, cohesive teachers who are valued for their ability to ‘deliver the goods’ as a growing team within their learning communities is an objective we all want to see. It is a worthy goal and one, we hope we can say, we got ‘right’.