Students need to learn, but teachers also need to know they are not left to twist in the wind when they need help.
That was the upshot of a national conference recently hosted by Caledonia Community Schools, which aimed to give teachers strategies to improve student learning but not be lone rangers in the process.
Taking center stage was the Professional Learning Community initiative (PLC), a steady, workmanlike approach that drew about 1,000 teachers nationwide to the Caledonia district. PLCs have been given the educational muscle within Kent ISD districts to improve student achievement.
The goal of the PLCs is this: Educators work to ensure all their students are learning. Schools simultaneously foster a collaborative team approach among teachers, and administrators give them the flexibility to do so.
“All of us have strengths and areas of growth and we can learn from each other,” said Janel Switzer, Caledonia Community Schools’ director of instruction and technology integration. “If I’m (a teacher) struggling with a certain concept and my teachingpartner has done a good job with it, we’ll have conversations of growth around that.
“I think it has allowed teachers to collaborate very productively and around student achievement.”
Like clay, PLCs are adaptable. They come in many variations but often include:
- a shift from teaching kids to a focus on learning, meaning educators ensure students are grasping the lessons taught them;
- educators working collaboratively and holding themselves accountable for results;
- determining how they know students are learning;
- how to respond when a student has difficulty learning a subject.
No One Size for All Students
“When I went to school, I was given material and asked to learn and if I didn’t learn it was our fault,” said Caledonia High School Principal Jim Glazier. “Today in education, we provide a learning environment and if students haven’t learned it, we ask ourselves, ‘What do we do now and how do we bring them to a point where they do learn it?’ It’s a whole different philosophy of education.”
That means admitting there’s no one-size-fits all when it comes to how fast students learn, Glazier said.
“We need to prepare for those who learn it quickly and what do we do when they haven’t learned it,” he said. “We’re experimenting by combining two classes and two teachers who teach it. Those who learn fast go to the other teacher and learn it in depth, and other students who do not learn it go to other teachers to learn it.”
Glazier said his staff also is kicking around the idea of a “power hour lunch,” which would give students 30 minutes for lunch and 30 minutes with teachers for additional instruction. A committee composed of both teachers and students is sharing ideas on ways to help students learn, he said.
“I’ve learned to value (students’) opinions very much. We’re gaining their trust and showing we respect their opinion. To be honest, you see something we’d never see as adults.”
Julia Reynolds, director of curriculum for Northview Public Schools, said a PLC initiative there includes a strong belief in empowering teachers.
“The No. 1 person is the classroom is the teacher who finds opportunities to find support for the student,” Reynolds said. “But we do have K-6 certified reading specialists who provide additional support for kids mostly in reading, and then starting in middle and high school, time after school for kids to get additional help.”
Steve Seward, assistant superintendent for Cedar Springs Public Schools, said PLCs emphasize an iron-sharpening-iron strategy among teachers.
“The strength is it’s not being administrator-directed,” Seward said. “Teachers are the ones doing the work. They professionally develop each other and truly develop themselves.”