Professional Learning Communities: Moving from working alone to finding an ally
Keywords: Professional learning communities; collaboration; National Writing Project
Introduction and Context
I've always preferred to work alone, and this fit with my conception of being a teacher who closes the door when the bell rings and focuses on the community inside the classroom. In my first job, as a 12th grade English teacher, I was able to live that vision of being a teacher. Because we were not a tested grade, senior teachers were granted autonomy from school and district curriculum oversight. Although I experienced typical (and unique) challenges of being a young, white, female, new teacher working in an urban school identified by the state as “struggling” with predominately minoritized students, this school felt like an ideal place for me to develop my teacher persona, philosophy, and practices.
I lost this curricular independence when I started working at a new school as a 10th grade teacher after moving. My new high school was in the same state reporting category as my previous school in size and student demographics and was ranked similarly based on test scores. The significant difference was that the administration valued collaboration and put their money behind their beliefs. This meant that teachers had their planning periods and a period each day where they could meet and plan with the other teachers in the same subject/grade level. These planning groups were called "professional learning communities" or PLCs. Because the district had invested heavily, in terms of money and time, in these PLCs teachers were expected to adhere to the plans that were made in the PLC and teach the same lessons as their colleagues.
Through working with this PLC, I learned that while teachers do need professional freedom and flexibility, being independent could not sustain my teaching practice in this environment both because of the district structure and my desire to grow as a professional. The following will describe the tensions I experienced in a mandated collaborative environment and how I developed alliances to navigate these expectations.
Events, Actions, Outcomes
In our PLC, we rotated who would be responsible for lesson planning for the following week. Although I valued my coworkers, we had different instructional beliefs and practices, and I struggled to teach their lessons. Additionally, the district demanded lockstep teaching which meant that there was no room for adaptation of the PLC lesson plans for our students’ needs. Uniformity was enforced through evaluations of our teaching that focused on how we compared to our peers teaching the same lesson. Because everyone else seemed to be doing fine in this PLC system, I regularly questioned my teaching abilities, cried, struggled, decided not to speak up, and tried to change to fit in.
Unsure of what to do, I turned to my former university field supervisor (UFS) for support. She observed my teaching during a lesson designed by another teacher in the PLC, where I pushed play on the To Kill a Mockingbird audiobook, and students filled out a comprehension worksheet. We talked about my discomfort with this lesson, unit, and way of teaching and how I felt deeply constrained by my new context. Through our conversation, I realized that the teacher-initiated and inquiry-focused professional learning community (Raphael et al., 2001, p. 596; Rogers, Mosley, and Kramer, 2009) that I’d heard about as a student were different from my district-required PLC. My PLC was a district-mandated community intended to serve as embedded professional development to improve the school (DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2008, p. 1; Elbousty & Bratt, 2010; Lieberman & Miller; 2014, Wood, 2007). This PLC was a part of the instructional structure designed to maintain district control and support top-down instructional initiatives stemming from the pressures of high stakes testing and accountability. My teaching felt restricted because it was controlled in unexpected ways. The problem wasn’t with my teaching style, but in a misunderstanding of the system and how I worked within it. Although I felt compelled to comply inside the school, there were ways I could resist.
After talking with my UFS, I found teaching communities that aligned with my beliefs. I joined our local chapter of the National Writing Project and my UFS’s inquiry research PLC. These two communities aligned with what I was looking for as a teacher who wanted to be creative, flexible, and independent. They worked collaboratively on a shared inquiry around a common interest, but autonomously outside of district or school control. In these supportive communities, I regained confidence in my professional abilities and saw collaboration as generative. The most crucial relationship I gained from these two communities was meeting another teacher at my campus who became my most influential ally and partner. After our first summer thinking together in the NWP institute and in the research PLC, we decided we wanted to bring the workshop instruction we valued and the ways of collaborating that we’d learned in these communities to our district-mandated PLCs.
Due to changes in teaching assignment, my new teaching partner joined my PLC, and we continued to read, write, and plan together. We introduced workshop to our colleagues and helped each other advocate for our students and our professionalism. Being in the same PLC was crucial for our development as workshop teachers and for our ability to reshape the process for our PLC to one that engaged in inquiry and worked for departmental change. In two years, our partnership grew to include all the PLC members, and together we engaged in teacher inquiry, resisting top-down mandates, and implementing authentic reading and writing instruction. Our PLC earned the respect of our principal and worked collaboratively to convince district leadership that reading and writing workshop had merit and that teacher interests and expertise should drive PLCs. Through our collaboration and alliance, we were able to revise a PLC system that wasn't serving us.
By finding a community outside of my campus, I learned that I have the professional knowledge and ability to advocate for school change. Without this partnership and larger NWP community, I would not have stayed in this school or learned that institutional change is possible if teachers speak up and work hard.
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