Contributed by Margot Heaton
It has been nearly a decade since Dufour (2007) advised that if principals promote a learning communities approach, then they are obligated to create structures to facilitate meaningful collaboration. While learning communities have the potential to thrive when administrators devote attention to these facilitative structures, educators are left with questions regarding their practical implementation in schools. This article offers suggestions to administrators who are looking for creative solutions to incorporate supportive structures to enhance the work of teacher learning teams.
- Have a Home Base
Students have their own areas and resources to support their learning and teachers benefit from these same affordances. Create a space in the school devoted to the work of teacher teams. Equip the room with a variety of supplies like index cards, chart paper, markers, pens, pencils and highlighters. While school space is often limited, it is sometimes challenging to learn in multi-purpose environments. Try to remove any additional clutter so that the room is viewed as a room devoted to teacher learning. Consider posting corkboards on the walls and devote space for each team to post their inquiry questions, their learning goals, relevant articles or findings and to use this space to document their journey.
- A Room with a View
The power of classroom observations for colleague learning is indisputable. Allow teachers to share their teaching practices by signing up for time slots to use tools such as Skype or Face Time and broadcasting their lessons into the professional learning room. It is a challenge to build times into the school schedule for teachers to book entire periods to visit other classrooms. This method enables teachers to view others’ practices even during their preparation time and begins conversations that might otherwise not start. This practice de-privatizes classrooms and teachers’ crafts to build a collaborative learning environment for all of the learners in the school.
- Team Meet and Eat
A large number of schools have invested in teacher teams through regular meeting time embedded into the school timetable. Across many contexts, teachers experience rich but fragmented learning due to the infrequency of their meetings. Generating and maintaining momentum are essential to fostering both meaningful and sustainable teacher learning. Frequent, regular and focused meetings help to thrust the work of teams forward to authentic school improvement. Consider team breakfasts or lunches where all teams have an open invitation to meet once or twice per month. To further focus the time, participating teams could be required to submit a to-do list or work agenda with their acceptance to the invitation. Administrators would host by bringing in food for the teams to enjoy while they collaborate. Some administrators might initially express dismay at the suggestion that they further support teachers’ meeting time since they have already made an investment by providing time. Unfortunately, in many cases, the limited time provided by school schedules isn’t sufficient to build the needed momentum and this simple structure has the potential to support teams and extend their conversations to outside of embedded meeting times.
- Protocols Por Favor?
Another set of structures that are sometimes used to support the work of high yield collaborative teams are protocols. Conversation protocols, when used effectively, can enhance the level of teacher discourse and ultimately enrich teaching and learning. While protocols have the potential to work powerfully as a support to teacher teams, facilitators and participants are often overwhelmed by the sheer number of resources and conversation protocols available. Print or post a small collection of user-friendly protocols that teams can access and group them by purpose. For instance, organize a maximum of ten to twelve protocols into categories such as “Learning from Research,” “Examining Student Work,” “Improving our Assessment Practices,” etc. Consider leaving post-it notes or a comments section for teams to suggest modifications once they have used any particular conversation protocol.
- Connect Online
Use the structures supported by social media to enable teachers to easily continue in their collective learning. Consider, for instance, using Facebook to create a main group and subgroups for teachers who are willing to connect in this way. Subgroups could be organized to represent teacher learning teams while the main group can connect all participating teachers. This method might also be a good way of networking with other learning communities who share similar areas of inquiry or experts who are willing to participate. In 2014, we have at our finger tips tools that allow teacher teams to articulate their thinking, build on one another’s ideas and question one another while at the same time conveniently sharing relevant video resources and photos. Learning communities who are willing to connect virtually could experience powerful learning. Administrators could support this work by posting relevant resources, contributing their own thinking, helping to connect some of the dots and asking high quality questions to sustain the momentum of these teams.
Supporting the work of teacher learning communities is complex and demanding work. These easy to implement structures enable leaders to provide helpful supports to fuel the work of collaborative teams without forcing administrators to adopt micromanaging behaviors. Schools that invest in establishing facilitative structures are well-equipped to build strong and sustainable teacher teams that are committed to school improvement.
Margot Heaton is a Vice-Principal in Ontario, Canada. Margot holds a doctorate in Educational Leadership. She has spent several years developing and facilitating professional learning communities in various schools. Margot shares her enthusiasm and knowledge of facilitative structures and techniques to support learning communities through her writing and conference presentations.