Teacher collaboration is vital to school cohesion. We see this cooperation in Freshman teams and department collaboration that help to unify curriculum and aid students.
These groups, called Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs are designed allow teachers to meet, share, and work together to help students. But starting in the 2018-19 school year PLCs at BFA evolved.
“Feedback that we get from teachers is that there often isn’t enough time or space to have conversations with colleagues across departments about various topics in education,” Shannon Warden, Vice-Principal said.
Beside the required class and in-service days, teachers have 30 hours of additional, after school time allotted in their contract. In light of this teacher feedback, administration reworked the distribution of required contract hours to provide teacher-led group work. Now, three of these 30 hours have been designated for PLC group time.
“That can be for parent-teacher conferences, is what we’ve used it for in the past, we used to use it for coverage to have teachers at athletic events or fine arts events to have somebody from BFA present. … There were a lot of inequities in the events, like if you go to the musical that could be two to three hours and some people would go to a soccer game that maybe an hour and 15 minutes or some people get assigned the homecoming football game which is huge long and then others maybe the spring dance recital which is probably closer to an hour and 20 minutes. So there seems to be a lot of inequities in that and it was really difficult to sort of map out what that would be like and if that’s a good use of teachers time,” Warden said.
These PLCs would function outside of departments and between departments, allowing teachers to speak and work with those they had fewer opportunities to traditionally.
After generating a list of topics and issues relevant to education, teachers, and students currently, administration sent the options out to the BFA faculty. The PLC subgroups that ran through the year were those that teachers expressed interest in — including some they came up with and proposed to administration.
“[We] said you know if you have other ideas or something else that you want to do like the best practices in school leadership that was Mr. Riegelman’s idea, the student leadership group, somebody else brought that one forward. So people were able to add to the list and then there were other things on there that people just weren’t interested in so we took those away,” Warden said.
In the end, eight different groups met: Facilitating Restorative Circles, Promoting Positivity at BFA, Book Club, Issues Facing Education Today, Vaping and Substance Abuse at BFA, Math and Science Interdisciplinary Work, Student Leadership Collaboration, and Best Practices in School Leadership and Shared Leadership, according to the official internal documentation of the meetings.
While these particular groups were unique to BFA and the interests of its faculty, PLCs are not a new idea. The PLC as we see it in modern education is largely the result of the work of Dr. Richard DuFour, Rebecca DuFour and Dr. Robert Eaker. The goal of PLCs is to create “a commitment to the learning of each student”, according to All Things PLC, and should be targeted on building student outcomes through teacher collaboration.
For instance, both Facilitating Restorative Circles and Best Practices in School Leadership and Shared Leadership worked from source documents to apply the topics and issues they worked with to BFA.
“I think they’re collaborative and I think each group has functioned a little bit differently and it seems like an each of the group’s somebody did kind of organically take a leadership role in that, just to get the ball rolling because they had an idea of something you know like (Larissa) Hebert had the idea for the book. (Peter) Riegelman had the idea for our group and sort of the structure for it to follow,” Warden said.
However, BFA English teacher, Larissa Hebert assures that while she may have brought forward the chosen title, it was a group decision.
With only three meetings, the group used the first to decide on a group read, the second to discuss that book, and the final to talk about their independent reading books.
“We all read The 57 Bus and then in the second part of the year we decided to just bring whatever we were reading to talk about. So we read The 57 Bus which, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but, it’s an excellent book, nonfiction, by Dashka Slater, who’s a journalist, about a hate crime that occured out in California against a student who went by the name Sasha but didn’t identify as male or female. It’s very interesting to read and talk about and think about. And this is something that — just sort of backpedaling to the Culture of Literacy Group — we had talked about having a school-wide read, a book that everyone in the school read and this would be one of those that we thought would be good as a school read. It’s nice to be together and have that relationship with other colleagues who I don’t get to see during collaboration because they’re not in the English Department. It was a great way to get to know other colleagues,” Hebert said.
The book was chosen not only for its quality of writing, but because it dealt with issues that are particularly relevant to many students — issues that teachers may struggle to understand: the topic of gender as a spectrum, and non-binary genders.
“I think it’s appropriate for young people to read this book to build tolerance and empathy and there’s evidence and studies that show that students build empathy by reading, which is one of the points we made in our culture of literacy group. It’s not just improving reading comprehension but it’s improving empathy; this book I think definitely does that. I think within our PLC group it helped us understand the demographics we work with better, be more understanding and compassionate of what students might be going through, and to perhaps address some of our own subconscious bias that the book helps us recognize. For example, it was unusual and difficult for a little while for all of us I think to read a book with the pronoun they. It was a little confusing for a while, but then we got into the rhythm… It was great, in The 57 Bus there was a whole list of terminology, it was insightful. So there was an article in the New York Times and they referred to the individual with ‘they’, so I was really comfortable with that at this point having read The 57 Bus,” Hebert said.
This growth of understanding works directly into optimising student outcomes and understanding. According to Warden, students who feel connected and understood within their school and community are “…going to come to school, they’re going to perform better, they’re going to connect with their teacher.”
While this PLC format allows for substantial collaboration and can build student success, for every gain, something is lost.
“I do have to say I enjoy the professional learning community group that was focused on group discussions of what we’ve been reading independently in our lives, however I was disappointed to hear that this would be replacing what was previously the requirement of attending two events a year. I mean I enjoy going to events like basketball games with my daughter anyway. I don’t want to say that I need to be forced to go, but I really liked that involvement. That was something that the previous school I taught at they didn’t have and I thought it was a nice way to have faculty faces at student events,” Hebert said.
Warden is optimistic that PLCs will grow and evolve, with groups continuing if they think they have more work to do and new offerings opening each year based on what topics teachers feel are important. She is interested in receiving feedback from the faculty involved.
Hebert shared her own final comments on the afterschool PLCs: “We were pretty free and I like that to a degree. Like, we got to decide what book we wanted to read, but, what is the purpose of this? Like to understand is there a statement that clears up for us what we’re responsible for doing? What should it look like? How does our work impact our classroom and relationship with students? A little a little bit of structure would have been nice and it would be great to think about well, if this group starting and is going to continue, is there anything we can do to help improve the Culture of Literacy in our school? It would be nice to see something that we could take action on.”
Inclusion of PLCs in faculty’s non-student time is not guaranteed. Connecting faculty group experiences to student learning directly is a challenge, but BFA gave the PLC strategy a try this year.