Habits and teaching

I recently finished reading the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. If you’re into understanding human psychology, it’s a really solid read. The gist of the book from my perspective is about laying out the framework for how habits are formed. It gives insightful strategies for forming new habits we want to have, and methods for breaking bad habits that we want to lose. While I think that there are many parts of the book that I already knew in some way, I’d never seen anyone lay it out in such an actionable way.

As educators, many of us have developed our own set of habits around the ways we do things. How we plan, what our day looks like, and what our learning environment looks like. These are just some of our own form of habits. Recently, the staff in our school has been devoted to a professional learning cycle that really digs into some of the pieces of the PLC. This work is happening with the hope of helping each of our PLC teams build some new habits around the PLC.

You see, in my mind, the PLC is all about the work of ensuring learning in our school. This learning is not just for our students, but also for the adults in our building.

This quote from Rick DuFour helps to lay out the values of the PLC. As a learning organization, we have to first, believe in the values in the PLC, and second, behave as though we believe them.

And let me be clear, I don’t think that anyone in our school is doing something “wrong” in the way we are utilizing the PLC process, but based on some recent conversations at our PD, and in the follow-up conversations I’ve had with some after our PD, it has become clear that there were some pieces of the PLC process that we can strengthen.

In an ideal world, this is kind of an outline of the process of the PLC:

  1. Map our curriculum
  2. Identify Power / Priority Standards
  3. Unpack the standards
  4. Build common assessments – both formative and summative
  5. Bring assessment data back to the PLC meetings during a learning cycle or unit
  6. Adjust our teaching during the unit based on the data
  7. Celebrate the learning and growth that has taken place during a unit
  8. Restart the cycle for our next unit

If you can say that all these pieces are in place with your PLC consistently, then that’s great! You’re a model for what we want to be doing, because if we follow this process, we as teachers have learned about our students and about our teaching practices, and we can ensure that our students have shown learning in our assessment data.

This semester, we have chosen to devote large chunks of our professional learning time to helping each team strengthen the PLC process. My hope is that through this work, we can all have data to share that supports the assertion that our school has helped each student to learn during the school year. None of the topics of our Professional Learning are intended to be stand-alone topics or something that you do once and forget. This cycle of learning is about making sure we have built a process for each PLC team to be able to work through the four big questions of the PLC (What do we want students to know? How will we know that they know it? What will we do if they don’t know it? What will we do if they do know it?)

When we talk about identifying priority standards, we don’t just want to pick one standard in one subject to focus on forever – the PLC is meant to be an ongoing process in multiple subjects. When we come together as a team, everyone should be bringing data – assessment data, student samples, etc., to help guide our conversations around the four questions. It means taking feedback strategies back to your classroom to provide students with steps for how they can grow from where they are to their next step in learning progressions. Then it’s about building a new formative assessment to check how that feedback strategy has worked.

For many of us, this may feel different than the way you might have utilized PLCs in the past. But going back to the Dufour quote above, it is our job to constantly be assessing our own practices in the light of student learning. If something is not successful, then there might be a strategy or practice that needs to shift. And going back to the concept of Collective Teacher Efficacy, I believe that the answers to our questions lie within our staff. We have lots of smart people with lots of great ideas. The PLC model allows us to talk about our own practices, and trust that the people around us will help all of us learn and grow.

What has been your experience with the PLC? Where have you seen the greatest strengths? What are your current pain points where you still need to grow as a PLC? This reflection can help you work with your team, your coaches, your administrators to build a stronger team concept and ensure learning in your school.

Are we a teaching organization, or a learning organization?

Recently I’ve been thinking about a statement I heard once – I honestly can’t remember who I heard it from first, but I think I recall versions of the quote from Dave Burgess, another version from Matt Miller, and yet another version from George Couros (all are some of my favorite authors in the educational space). The quote basically says that teachers who have a 25-year career need to avoid teaching 1 year 25 times.

Let’s unpack that a bit – the gist of what they are saying here is that as teachers, our students change from year to year. Their needs change from year to year. The world changes from year to year. A teacher who teaches 1 year 25 times is someone who has their “January” binder or folder that they pull out every year and it has all the activities for the month of January pre-created. In environments like this, the focus is on the teaching – often it’s about “what is easier for the adults in the building?” The problem is that it may not be what’s best for our students.

Instead, what these authors say we should strive for is to teach each year one time. We adapt our lessons and curriculum to meet the needs of our students, to meet the needs of our community, and to meet the needs of what’s happening in the world right now. And to me, that’s the beauty of the Professional Learning Community! Your PLC team is there to support one another in identifying needs, doing some research on how to meet those needs, and then testing it out.

As I think I have shared before, I’ve been reading the book Professional Learning at Work this school year. I finished it over winter break, and it has me thinking about what it takes to be a school that is focused on learning rather than just on teaching.

Let’s take a moment to define the differences – in a teaching organization, we might have our list of standards and skills or lessons from the textbook, and we say “I have to get through all of this!” It’s almost like we create a checklist for learning. Once I get through item number 1, I move on to number 2, and so on down the list. Can you see a problem with this? I don’t think students can be thought of like items we’re producing. A checklist will not meet the need of every learner in a classroom. Learning is not about developing a lesson design, implementing the steps, and ending at a finished product. I think we all know that students don’t work that way. Learning rarely happens as a straight line – instead, it’s often made up of a bunch of squiggly twists and turns.

On the other hand, a learning organization is all about looking at learning as a process of perpetual renewal – for us as teachers and faculty, for our students, for our community. We get there by focusing on the emotions that have brought us to the career path of teaching, and the emotions that keep us coming back each day (no matter how good or bad yesterday may have been). Ultimately a learning organization is a place where the community is passionate, driven, and in a continuous process of growth.

In a previous blog post, I wrote all about “My Why” – the things that motivate me to do what I do (You can see that post here: Starting with why). I encourage all of us to do a little self-assessment – where are you now? Do you trend towards the teaching mindset? Or do you trend towards the learning mindset? Are you comfortable with where you are? Is what you are doing helping your students to learn and grow?

If you feel completely comfortable with your answers, good for you (To be honest, I’m not sure I can say that I am 100% comfortable with my answers). But if your reflection leads you to feel like you have some growing to do, then go with that. Reassess what you can do to improve. My goal is to help lead a school that is a true learning organization. I see our process as one of continual growth and renewal, and I’m always thinking about how I can help in that process. We will never get to a point where everything is perfect! Even when we meet our initial goals, that creates a place where we can set a new goal. 

What are you working on? What growth do you seek? Share with us in the comments below!