When new teachers enter the workforce, they face the daunting task of being prepared each day to make sure their students are getting the most out of their education. To assist them, school systems need to offer the resources to help beginning teachers, and even veteran ones, gain the confidence and knowledge to be effective educators.
One way schools can offer support is through professional learning communities (PLCs). Through these programs, teachers get the support and professional development they need to maximize student learning. The help teachers receive from PLCs and various other supports can also offer an incentive for struggling teachers to stay in the teaching profession and can help them avoid burnout, stress, lack of interest, or loss of motivation.
In New Zealand, educators and researchers Susan Lovett and Marie Cameron have conducted studies and examined data relating to the importance of PLCs and have found that they are effective, if not essential, to improving teaching and helping beginning teachers thrive in the classroom. Lovett and Cameron have also conducted research on reversing the trend of large numbers of teachers leaving the profession.
"The Teachers of Promise (TOPS) study was initiated because of concerns about the continuing quality and supply of teachers and the realization that alarming numbers of teachers were exiting the teaching profession in their first 3–5 years," Lovett and Cameron said of the study, which was initiated in 2005. "In the TOPS study we found that early in their careers teachers frequently moved because they did not feel supported to become more effective teachers. Now, nine years on, the picture is still much the same. Although teachers move for personal and career reasons, the most common reasons for changing schools include unsatisfactory working conditions and dissatisfaction with the way schools are led and managed."
Lovett and Cameron state that professional learning is something that teachers must embrace throughout their careers, but the early years are the most important. In another article, "Schools as professional learning communities for early-career teachers: how do early-career teachers rate them,"
the researchers argue that schools must do everything in their power to support new teachers if they want to keep talented educators from moving on to careers in other fields. Administrators must create a supportive culture if they want these teachers to thrive.
During their research, they spoke with many teachers about how PLCs, professional development, and a supportive environment factor in their decisions to continue teaching. Most said that these supports played a large role.
"To be an effective teacher, one needs to accept that professional learning is a career-long activity," Lovett and Cameron said. For professional learning to be meaningful, each teacher should be "taking responsibility for [his] own learning, which means knowing what is needed and how to access the necessary learning, and being discerning about the choices; [and] accessing support from colleagues and mentors who can provide timely advice and help to solve issues of practice," the researchers say.
During their research, they concluded that PLCs are helpful to teachers, especially in their first few years in the field. By having the support of colleagues, teachers gain invaluable insight on what works best in the classroom.
"Professional learning communities are one means where teachers work alongside one another as equal learners," Lovett and Cameron say. "They want to feel connected to their teaching colleagues. When this connection is mutually beneficial, colleagues see one another as sources of learning and this breaks down the barriers of feeling alone with a class of students."
Lovett and Cameron emphasize that teachers need to have conversations that are respectful and based around learning. Many teachers only discuss performance appraisals and other trivial things that do not help them to enhance their teaching practices. Instead, new teachers should be discussing what skills they need to learn to improve their craft and be more successful.
"Professional learning communities can provide opportunities for structured talk about practice, based on evidence, and encourage particular ways of talking to make sense of data and then consideration of possible next steps," say Lovett and Cameron. "It is through such structured talk that teachers learn to value their own and others' skills."
Teachers need to accept that they can and should take some responsibility for determining their own learning needs, Lovett and Cameron say. "This also means they should see themselves as career-long learners who need to keep learning in order to be responsive to the needs of their students."
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