One by one, we file into the room and find a seat around the table. Within five minutes, our team is assembled, and we’re ready to do some of the most important work we’ll do all week. For the past two years, the fourth grade team, coaches and administrators have dedicated one 45 minute block of time to each other every week. In an elementary school where you only get 45 minutes without students each day, this is a sacrifice. What we’ve learned over time is that it’s also a deposit. Each time we meet, we invest in our team and our students. Based on this work, we’ve developed what educational researchers call collective teacher efficacy. Simply put, we believe that together we can and will have a positive impact on student learning. These dividends are extraordinary! In fact, a meta-analysis of educational research revealed that collective teacher efficacy has the most significant influence on student achievement-- and we’re seeing it.
Let me be clear. Collective teacher efficacy is not just saying, “Oh yeah, I know that we can get our students to learn.” It’s a belief that is built over time through trust, professional growth, shared success, shared struggles, and concrete results. It's a belief that can only develop in a collaborative team that focuses on student learning, the type of teams that comprise a school-wide professional learning community, or PLC.
The fourth grade team at Cold Harbor- Matt Coleman, Courtney Peterson, Kim Webb and Kelsey Zeilinger- were the “guinea pigs” for our launch into establishing a professional learning community, so when asked to share what our journey toward becoming a PLC has entailed, I went to them because they can best describe how this journey feels as a teacher. Has it been smooth? No. Has it been easy? No. Have their opinions about PLCs changed over time? Yes.
Our initial meetings were awkward. Administrators and coaches would plan to lead a conversation, analyze data or lead professional learning, and the teachers would come to the meeting, participate and leave. The meetings didn’t always feel connected, and many of our tasks seemed to remain unfinished. When I asked the team how they felt at the beginning of our journey, one team member said, “I remember thinking, ‘What is this?’ We left meetings going, ‘Why did we do that?’ But, looking back on it, we started to realize why.” Once student data became the focus of our discussions, meetings became more comfortable and natural. Teachers started to talk more and trust one another, and we collectively gained professional expertise to address the needs we identified. When I asked team members to share advice for school teams who are just beginning to put structures in place to encourage more collaboration, they said, “Trust the process and be patient. Miracles don’t happen overnight. We didn’t really see the impact of our work until the end of the first year.”
As we embarked on our second year of this journey, it has been easier to establish our focus areas and see results. Every meeting is different, but they are all connected through the learning cycle of inquiry, research, development, data collection and debriefing. At the end of each meeting, our goals for the next meeting are identified so that we come prepared in order to be efficient. Unpacking standards and creating formative assessments as a team has allowed us to more effectively engage in backwards instructional design. We’ve also been able to more strategically use assessment data to guide interventions and share the responsibility for students across the grade level.
The fourth grade teachers have found value in working with one another and now extend their collaboration beyond the collaborative team time to plan all instruction. When asked how the PLC structure has changed the way their team functions, teachers shared, “It keeps us aligned as a group and moving forward.” and “We are more cohesive with common goals.” One teacher said, “I feel like right now our team is stronger than it has been in years because we’ve had this chance every week to sit down and collaborate.” As an administrator, the most exciting part of this process has been watching a team of teachers gain professional respect for one another and realize that they aren’t alone in their jobs. They have become attuned to their teammates’ strengths and weaknesses and aren’t afraid to have open dialogue as they problem solve. One teacher shared, “We know where each others’ gaps are, and we’ve been able to support each other. We aren’t afraid to ask, ‘What did you do to get this success with this specific skill? What are you doing differently?’” On this team where each teacher differs in their instructional approach, they came to realize that open-mindedness is critical. One teacher’s advice is, “We are all professionals. Each person has something to give. I may not match you in my style, but if we work together we create a more positive learning experience for kids.”
Our school's culture has begun shifting toward becoming a PLC-- our meetings aren’t perfect, and we have much to learn-- but the outcomes we’re already seeing make us excited to think about what lies ahead for this team, our students and our school.