For the past decade or so, we've been throwing around the term professional learning communities to describe the way adults work together in schools. Roland Barth, founder of the Principals' Center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education describes four different types of adult learning communities in schools in his amazing book for principals, Learning by Heart (Jossey Bass 2001). While there are a great many schools around the country that are collegial (teachers teaching in front of each other, reflecting and giving feedback), there are others which are less so (teachers not really aware of what their colleagues are doing, often harboring resentments and professional jealousy.) Let's think about what a community is...and is not!
Communities are groups of people with a higher ideal at their heart of their mission. They have an articulate vision of where they are headed, and are so fluent in their beliefs that they are willing and able to support one another through its most difficult points. Crowds are groups of people with something more short-term, often extrinsic that holds them together. They're not primarily motivated by a higher ideal, at least not one in common. Because they don't share this vision, they're less able to support one another when they have trouble. Therefore trouble can cause them friction, possibly turning them into an angry mob!
So what is at the core of your community's beliefs? If you're a principal, you may know what you believe in...but are you sure all the teachers you work with can articulate it? If you're a teacher, can you articulate a vision you hold true? Does it match the vision of your colleagues or your school? If the answer to any of these questions is no, don't worry, you can do it! Here are a few ways to get started.
1. Hash out your beliefs by studying something together. Student work. A chapter book. A professional text. Anything. All eyes on the same thing. Then follow these three steps: Read. React. Talk about your practice. For example, when reading a piece of student writing, give everyone a few minutes to read it. React to it by naming what the student did in his work. Talk about your practice and what you would do next. When engaging in a professional text, read a part of it. React by commenting on the ideas in the text. Talk about your practice by explaining how these ideas fit what you do, not shying away from thinking of ways you'll revise your teaching because of what you've read!
2. Write some belief statements. Create a T-chart. The column on the left should read, "This I believe..." and the column on the right should say, "Actions that support this vision." For example, you might write in the left, "I believe in a student-centered environment filled with lots of student choice." You'll need multiple examples of actions on the right: independent book choice, lots of student work on the walls, student-designed classroom configuration. The book, The Teacher You Want to Be (Heinemann 2015) has 13 core beliefs written by the over 60 educators who visited the Reggio Emilia schools in Italy. If you're not sure what a good belief statement might sound like, take a look at the belief statements in this book. Sometimes articulating your beliefs is easier if you talk through them with others. Once you formulate them, you might stick to them better by writing them in the form of a promise to your students!
3. Teach in front of others. Yes. For real! Invite a colleague into your classroom and ask her to watch you teach. Go to her classroom and return the favor! Break the ice by giving the observer something specific to look for. Ask him to time you, to transcribe what a student says so you can study it together, to record the questions you ask, to gather data on student behavior as they read. Ask for friendly feedback. As you offer feedback, start off the (what might start as an awkward) conversation with words like, "What I saw you doing was," "How did you (name something cool you observed?" or "One way I try to do that is..." You'll find that talking about your teaching through this common experience will add greater depth to your conversations, and you'll be more aware of your own teaching even when you're on your own later.
A very good teacher friend of mine likes to tell me that one of the most important things for teachers is a sense of autonomy. It's true. Our individuality and artistry are critical to our work. However, there's sometimes a fine line between autonomy and irresponsibility. We have to make informed decisions based on the students we teach and on the teaching communities we call our own. It's easy to forget one another and turn our communities into crowds...teachers who as Alfie Kohn writes...share little more than a parking lot. Ask someone you work with to think about this with you. How do your beliefs align? Are the most important things you value the same? Can you live with what's unique to each of you? Most importantly, how does the strength of your unity and contrast in your diversity affect your students?
You need a learner's soul, a teacher's heart, a coach's mind, and a principal's hand!