Changing teaching with ‘professional learning communities’

Marion Mohler
Island Forum

“Teaching matters. We must attract and retain the best and brightest teachers and faculty for our students, and reward the best teachers for their commitment to results.” (Washington Learns - Bold Reforms for A World-Class Education System, November 2006)

The fact that “teaching matters” is not a new idea; parents know this, students certainly know this and the Mercer Island community has long supported teachers in the classroom through donations to the Mercer Island Schools Foundation, the PTSAs and through volunteer activities both in and outside of the classroom.

The District Strategic Plan 2001-2006 cited “attracting and retaining teachers” as one of the main priorities for the past five years. Our district provides mentors for new teachers, and compensation for teachers working on committees to improve teaching and learning throughout K-12. But there is something new in this “bold reform” from the state’s report on education in Washington today: rewarding the best teachers for their commitment to results. What exactly does this mean? At the state level it means providing additional compensation to teachers completing their National Board Certification — up to $3,500 per year for 10 years. Here, it is reflected in Strategy No. 5 of the Mercer Island District’s Instructional Improvement Plan for 2006-2012: Build, implement and support professional learning communities.

Professional learning communities are not about attending conferences, the “sit and get” approach, they are intended to “engage teachers thinking and be transformative in nature.”

At a recent meeting of the District Advisory Committee (DAC), Dr. Gary Plano, Associate Superintendent for Instructional Services, explained the concept of “professional learning communities.”

“Our goal is to enhance the effectiveness of teachers and administrators so that students benefit,” he said.

Examples in the district this year are the elementary Standards-Based Report Card committee and Schools Attuned training. “In the past,” said Plano, “teachers have been too isolated from each other and good ideas are not shared enough. Part of the goal is to encourage teachers to become leaders in their school communities and bring ideas to other teachers that will help all students to be successful in their learning.”

Mercer Island is now a “clock-hour” granting school district

The other part of professional learning communities is the notion of “clock-hours” (continuing education credits) for teachers. Through a partnership with Seattle Pacific University, the district is offering many of these classes on our own campus, during the evenings and on Saturdays. Some committee work also qualifies for continuing education credits. “We have always compensated teachers for their work outside the classroom,” said Dr. Plano, “but now we are adding course credits. We want to support our teachers, not add more to their already full plates.”

How do professional learning communities support Student Ends?

All five strategies in the District Instructional Improvement Plan are designed to support Student Ends, but Strategy #5 is the “glue” that holds it all together. End-2 Academic Achievement states that students will achieve in seven content areas, “at individually and appropriately challenging levels of increasing complexity, demonstrating the higher order thinking skills of knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation.” For teachers, the key words are “individual” and “appropriate.” While Mercer Island is not big by public district standards, we are still a community of more than 4,000 students with different learning styles in classrooms of 25 or more students. Secondary teachers work with more than 150 students in five or more classes and elementary teachers are asked to be “experts” in math, reading, writing, science, social studies and art. All of our teachers spend countless hours outside of their school day working on professional staff development and school improvement planning.

Can we really know each student and adjust our teaching to meet their needs?

According to Patti Weber, Director of Curriculum and Staff Development, “Teachers are humanists by nature. They care very deeply about the needs of students and want them to be engaged and confident in their learning. But if I ever hear frustration from teachers it is that they do not have enough time to truly know their students. That’s why we as administrators must be very proactive and deliberate on helping to focus teacher time on tasks that will make a difference for students. We believe that professional learning communities are an effective way for teachers to learn from each other, receive clock hours and compensation for their time, and ultimately, bring best practices to the classroom so that all students can be successful.”

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