Professional Learning Communities, STAR Teachers and the Road Ahead – Part 2

The focus of professional learning is to examine the strategies for achieving effective communication, collaboration, and ‘job-embedded learning opportunities’ (Church and Swain) for the community of practitioners within a PLC for the solitary prize of improving student learning.

The current Australian context reveals a staggering agenda of reform in many areas of Primary and Secondary education. Educational leaders are faced with the challenge of delivering a balanced menu of curriculum reform, legislative change, administrative procedure, policy update as well as ongoing communication of the philosophical/religious beliefs and values that underpin the community for which the organisation has been developed.

In our great endeavour as educators, to secure best practice which delivers effective outcomes for students; educational institutions, and those who serve within them, we must work collaboratively through the toss and tumble of short to mid-term political agenda, to establish routines of cohesive practice that will position our learning communities to skim the cream of emerging insights, research and international best-practice.

Educational leaders and decision makers must also be prepared to invest time and money in effective, cutting-edge professional development for teachers. In “The Fourth Way”, Hargreaves and Shirley argue that schooling has slowly evolved in its structures of practice, from government funded, intuitively-lead foundations of teaching  (the ‘First Way’) to a system that is heavily laden with tight boundaries and “endless quantities of achievement/performance data so that short-term solutions prevail …”; the ‘Third Way’.

The ‘Fourth Way’ is a call to arms for a return to “… the magic and wonder … of teaching. It’s time to recover the missionary spirit and deep moral purpose of engaging and inspiring all our students. It’s time to put down the spreadsheets and look to each other … to show our true strength by learning to “let go” a little. Peter Senge presents a similar and powerful case, which speaks to the heart of the learning community’s culture – to release established beliefs about hierarchical leadership within educational (and other) institutions and embrace the value of an inter-connected, empowered, co-contributing community.

In developing a school culture of shared vision; open and collaborative learning; informed, research-rich discourse amongst practitioners, and accountable, open-door classrooms we must be committed to reinventing the tone, mode and method of our established communication pathways. Without a senior leadership agenda to commit to these ideals; teachers and middle-management can only aspire to achieve these objectives within their own spheres of influence. “… there is convincing evidence that teachers will reduce their overall involvement in work, in important quantitative (e.g., time, energy) and qualitative (e.g., commitment, caring) ways … as administrators tightened control over teachers, they tended to become less engaged, less motivated and less committed…” (Blase)

Sadly, for many teaching staff, the richness of an effective professional learning community may only be found within the micro-environment of their faculty rather than a school-wide experience.

For too long, schools have been subjected to workshop-centred professional development that only deals with the immediate needs of the organisation rather than working to a longer-term vision, professional learning which has been undertaken has been chiefly dominated by curriculum reform and legislative agenda; in many ways these agendas have masked other priorities for learning development.

So how do committed, time-stretched leaders encourage genuine opportunity for the development of the Professional Learning Community?

Recommendations for Professional Learning Practices – Whole School

For many schools, an effective plan for professional development as part of a strategic approach to the development of the learning community has not been systematically developed. Frequently, schools have ‘grown’ stronger leaders through trial and perseverance and there needs to be a strategic solution that allows all stakeholders to be heard if the community is to move forward without casualties.

Ideally, these objectives could be achieved with consideration some of the following strategies;

  • Evaluating the use of intra-school networks of collaboration, discussion and influence across ‘associated’ like-schools. The larger, more experienced schools, mentoring and resourcing (e.g. policy, documentation, marketing, shared resources, new teacher mentorship)through a structured development partnership.
  • Consideration of a development fund or teacher scholarship program.
  • An audit of professional learning priority in consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of the faculty/pastoral needs of staff and the needs that parents may need to access,  “Good governments do not merely tolerate and endure community organizing as a regrettable and dispensable distraction from learning. Rather they respectfully and continuously engage with parents and community activists to promote wider change strategies. More than this, they create preconditions that enable community organizing to flourish as an essential element of change…” (Hargreaves and Shirley)
  • Move Professional Development budgets and decision making procedures to faculty/teacher level.
  • Inter-Department discussions and Project-Centric Integration.
  • Empowering mastery – adequate provisioning for staff working out of their depth.
  • Empowering open discussion with TIME and RESOURCES for collaboration / experimentation – a “permission to fail” atmosphere.
  • New staff induction and school-based mentoring program (outside of the WACOT arrangements) not just a structured appraisal system.
  • A Required Reading File with ‘provocations’ for discussion in staff meetings / briefings.
  • Recognition of professional learning practices and a ‘profile’ of learning by the school leadership. Opportunity for staff to provide team members with insights (and recommendations for implementation)  from their professional learning.
  • Reflective practice – Asking for a ‘written reflection’ of how external professional development can assist the school/departmental practice and what recommendations the participant would make to the school as a result of their attendance.
  • “Modelling a Collaborative Approach”; here the focus is on the senior leadership who must model the desired approaches in “listening… inviting… initiating … managing … acknowledging” and rewarding collaborative process. Encouraging connection with schools/leaders who are “doing” it.
  • Investing in a professional development ‘library’ of staff resources (parent resources / board members, etc.) on current practice (books, texts, DVDs, CDs, Research Papers), case study, exemplars, etc. and asking staff to propose purchases from their own reading/s. This could evolve into a Reading Circles project for staff development.
  • Use of ICT resources to generate a staff professional learning ‘portal’ e.g. ‘schoology.com’
  • Staff retreat / workshop that focuses on specific areas of concern to groups of staff by choice of participation.
  • Automatic payment of subscription fee for peak association body membership within each faculty
  • Self / Peer Evaluation with specific content questions related to current ‘tools’. E.g. “How are you as a teacher tracking on Professional Knowledge (Standards 1 & 2) of the National Professional Standards for Teachers?”, “How does your term one year 10 program synthesise with the expectations of the Australian Curriculum?” This keeps knowledge expectation at a reasonable pace.
  • Visible documentation – Science and Maths Faculties may not be housed in the same office but we should have access to their ideas and offerings to find points of commonality within our curriculum that can serve one another.
  • Mentoring other schools AND sourcing mentors.

These proposals centre on a re-evaluation of corporate priority to community priority; to make the most of the constellation of educator-capital that has been demonstrated by committed and dedicated staff within the micro-levels of our schools. As leaders our attitude SHOULD be that … “In a time of great complexity and discontinuous change, a learning organisation effectively uses its sum total of organisational intelligence, which is exponentially greater than the sum of its individuals.” (Ryman)

 

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