When we think about an effective school environment, there are a lot of factors that go into it. Ultimately though, the key to an effective school environment is creating the conditions for students to learn and grow in a developmentally appropriate way. There are many things that must happen to create those conditions, but one of the pieces is having strong instructional leadership. While many might point to the school principal (and I see that as an important part of my role), there is more than one person who can own the instructional leadership. In some schools, there is an administrative team, there may be a coach, and there may even be teacher leaders that are a part of the instructional leadership team.
In my current school setting, much of the instructional leadership comes from our Professional Learning Community Leadership Team. This team is made up of representatives from every grade level, the teacher-librarian, the counselor, the resource teacher, the instructional coach, and the administrators. To help make sure we are all on the same page, here’s how we define the PLC: “A school’s entire staff engages in an ongoing, collaborative process of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for their students.”
But here’s another thought about the effective school environment – even with great instructional leadership, the success of any initiative in a school will also depend on the competence and commitment of the professionals in that school, specifically the teachers. The word professional is an important one to me. Educators – teachers, administrators, support staff members – are all professionals in what they do. The work we do for students can’t happen without the people who are devoted to it. Unfortunately, some do not see educators as professionals. Let me share a story of an experience where I was seen as something less than a professional:
In my junior year of college, I was living in a fraternity at Indiana University Bloomington. It was a couple weeks before the end of the first semester, and I was studying for an upcoming final. Junior year was packed with several classes in the School of Education, but one of the requirements I was completing that semester was a class called Music for Elementary Education. Throughout the semester, we’d been learning about instructional practices in music and ways to integrate music into the learning that happened in our classroom. For the final, there would be two parts, a written final based on concepts we learned, and a performance portion on everyone’s favorite elementary school instrument – the recorder. I was practicing one of the pieces that I’d have to perform for my final in my room at the fraternity house (Hot Cross Buns if I recall). I had the door closed but soundproofing in our fraternity was severely lacking. I’m sure that anyone on my floor could hear me playing the recorder. Suddenly, the door burst open and the guy who lived in the room next to me yelled “What in the world are you doing in here?!?! I’m trying to study for my bio-chem final.” This guy was a pre-med student, and he was wrapping up a stressful semester and was truly upset with me at the moment. I told him that I was studying too – “I have to play this for a final in my music class.” Let me tell you, it was all I heard about from any of the guys who lived on my floor for quite some time. While we all laughed about it at the time, they clearly saw what I was doing as anything but preparing for a professional career. Many of the guys who lived on the floor were studying business, or science, or several other “professional” careers. This is not the only time the career I was preparing for was not seen as a profession. I’ve had people ask if I got into teaching so I would have the summers off. I’ve had people give me a hard time about our fall, winter, or spring breaks. It’s frustrating to be working in a career that many people claim is important, but at the same time have people treat me as something other than a professional. With that in mind, we have to make sure that the things we do as professionals are modeling what we want our stakeholders to see us as.
In the more traditional factory model of education, I would say that much of the focus of what happens in a school was on the teaching. In this model of education, there is a curriculum that would tell you what to do, what day to do it, what questions to ask, what homework to assign. The goal for teachers would be to make it to the end of the textbook. Maybe students would get to do something fun in class if they finished the book early. A popular refrain for teachers in this model of education would be some variation of “I already taught that; they just didn’t learn it.”
I would argue that schools of the information age must move beyond this focus on teaching. Professional teachers must exemplify the skills we seek for our students: curiosity, tolerance, honesty, fairness, respect for diversity, and appreciation of cultural differences. To professionalize education, there must be a new relationship between students and teachers. Professional teaching requires so much more than just the presentation or coverage of material. It requires a focus on learning that is both measurable and measured. This is some of the key work of the professional learning community and brings us back to the quote that was at the beginning of this post.
You see, if we gather data from our students, and that data shows that our students have not learned material in a meaningful way, then we need to find a new way to present that material. We must focus instead on ways to develop a deep understanding of the content. As a professional learning community, we should be identifying areas of inquiry we want to pursue. This means we need to think critically about what we are noticing with the members of our PLC team. Next, we research our topic – this might include analyzing student work, adjusting plans, studying new ideas or strategies, adjusting plans, teaching, and monitoring achievement. This cycle of inquiry allows us to deepen our knowledge as professionals and is a sign of strong professional learning communities.
So, let’s take a moment to reflect. When you think about the work you are doing in your PLC, does it align with this process? Are you focused on learning? Or are you focused on teaching? To be sure, they are aligned with one another – learning can’t happen without good teaching. But if we only focus on the teaching, how can we know if learning is really occurring?
I challenge you in the coming weeks to use these reflection questions to guide the work you are doing in your PLC. If you are truly doing the work of professional teachers, you are spending much more of your time focused on whether students are learning. Then, you can reflect on what you should do as a response.