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June 2004 | Volume 7 | Number 9
Schools as Learning Communities
When teachers collaborate, they learn. Research supports this assertion, as does the experiences of a group of young teachers in the Liverpool (N.Y.) Central School District. In the fall of 2000, four first-year teachers created a collaborative teacher network that sustained them through those critical first years in the classroom.
Jen Caples and Jenny Sechler first met as students at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. Although later separated by their student-teaching placements, the two stayed in touch, bouncing ideas off each other and planting the seeds for their future collaboration. Melissa Andrejko joined the informal professional-learning team when she became a substitute teacher in the Liverpool district: Caples and Sechler had been assigned to teach 8th grade students at the same school, and Andrejko was an e-mail or telephone call away in a sister middle school.
The stage was set for their teaching worlds to improve dramatically. Initially, the three used e-mail daily to share ideas, make sure their lessons supported the curriculum, and get feedback on what did and didn't work in the classroom. The three reported feeling safe with each other, able to ask any question, and reveal their deepest insecurities. When asked why they didn't seek help from their mentor or myself, their curriculum coordinator, they replied that they didn't feel comfortable admitting weakness or confusion to veterans—especially myself, one of their supervising administrators who had “power” over them.
The three met most Saturdays as a collaborative planning team. Initially, they met at one of their homes, but although that was comfortable, they soon moved to a local library because they needed a copy machine.
They worked three to four hours at a time and came to each meeting with a pre-identified topic to provide a focus. Because Sechler had taught 8th grade the year before, she became the acknowledged guide, while Caples and Andrejko added ideas and helped create materials.
The three left each session with specific plans, activities, and materials for the week. They acted in concert to review curricular learning goals and prepare lessons that would best support student learning. During the week they e-mailed each other to assess the success of their planning. If a lesson worked for did work for one of them, they looked at why and tried to adjust for that difference.
Over the summer they met at Andrejko's home to collaborate and map out the following academic year. Once that was accomplished, they were freer to concentrate on improving existing lessons and create new lessons to support the curriculum map.
The learning community proved to be resilient as well as talented. When the three teachers began to struggle over the details needed to create a shared set of lesson plans, they agreed to co-plan the big ideas and to flesh out lessons, but to create materials individually. By this point, their collaboration had provided such confidence and support that each was ready to fly more independently.
Larisa Farlin joined the professional learning community one fall. Impressed by her passion for teaching, outgoing personality, and content knowledge, Caples and the others agreed to invite Farlin to join them. Farlin felt awkward at first, joining a well-oiled team of people she barely knew. Plus, she was afraid that as the only first-year teacher, she would have little to offer. Her fears proved to be unfounded, and soon she was helping plan units by conducting needed research and sharing what she found with the group.
When learning communities evolve, rules emerge for sustained membership in the team. The teachers from the Liverpool school district all agreed to
The four teachers also agreed that the collaboration would continue as a professional growth opportunity only for as long as it was needed. It would then transform into more of a social support network with more informal connections related to teaching.
And that's exactly what happened. As the original three teachers gained experience in the classroom, weekly planning became less essential. “We met as long as we needed to,” the teachers explained. Eventually, the teachers ended the weekly meetings and reunite on a needs basis. When the middle-level program adopted a required research paper, for example, the four teachers worked together to prepare for the unit. They also met to plan for an independent reading strand.
A professional learning community like the one described here helps the school community in many ways.
Benefits to students. As teachers in the collaborative group stated, “We avoided many mistakes by working together. Our students reaped the benefits of our joint planning.” Many colleagues agreed with this conclusion, including Jim Heinz, reading specialist at the school where Farlin taught. Heinz recalls that Farlin delivered lessons that were more polished than those usually associated with first-year teachers.
Benefits to the school culture. In addition to improved instruction from these collaborators, there have been other benefits. Their planning has served as a model for their colleagues. Members of this team had the confidence to try out many new ideas, and their success and experience inspired others to do the same. Last year Caples and Farlin provided professional development for the high school English staff on how to use literature circles—typically, it is the high school staff that lends its wisdom to its middle level colleagues.
Benefits to myself, the administrator. What have I learned from these young teachers? I hadn't been aware of their collaboration, so imagine my surprise as I supervised them. At times I would visit all three classes within a single day and think I was seeing triple. At other times, after I observed one teacher and discussed potential strategies to strengthen the lesson, I would visit a member of the collaborative group to find the changes already imbedded in the “same” lesson. Obviously, their communication was outstanding. It was clear that I was witnessing a remarkable relationship among young professionals, which was paying huge dividends for their students.
Having observed the power of the friendship and the collaboration among these young teachers, I see the value of supporting study groups so that all new teachers can network within a learning community and build support, commitment, and leadership (Wong, 2003). More and more we are aware of the power of such collaborations to enhance student success.
Wong, Harry K. (2003). Collaborating with colleagues to improve student learning. ENC Focus, 11(6). Available online at http://www.enc.org/features/focus/archive/newteachers/document.shtm?input=FOC-003255-index
Hetty Gingold (email@example.com) is the curriculum coordinator for the Liverpool (N.Y.) Central School District.
Copyright © 2004 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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