How do we create high-functioning professional learning communities? | Chalkboard Project

How do we create high-functioning professional learning communities?

Thursday, September 7, 2017 Julie Smith

Reviewing a new national survey of teachers on professional learning,  I came away feeling extremely validated. I saw so much of Chalkboard’s work reflected in the report’s recommendations.

Like expanding opportunities for ongoing, job-embedded professional learning.  And using data to plan, implement and assess the effectiveness of professional learning. And giving teachers a strong voice in developing professional learning that is relevant to their practice.

That is exactly the sort of stuff Chalkboard has been working on with districts across Oregon!

We also have a ways to go. As the Learning Forward survey shows, teachers across the country feel uninvolved in their professional learning.  (Which I distinguish from professional “development”—development is typically traditional “sit-and-get” training, learning is about adapting ideas to the classroom.) They lack ways to measure whether professional learning is making a difference in their classrooms.

Chalkboard’s work through our CLASS initiative and the state-funded School District Collaboration Grants has given us insights into what works and what doesn’t when it comes to professional learning.

First off, there are no quick solutions when you’re trying to fix a systemic problem.

Chalkboard has brought a process to districts, which supports them to  drill down to the root causes of problems in teacher professional learning. Ultimately it almost always comes back to failure of implementation.

Traditionally, school districts have taken a top-down approach to professional development, typically driven by either district initiatives or state mandates.  The teacher voice is absent.

If you want to build a system of professional learning that is truly ‘by the teachers, for the teachers,’ they have to be at the table, involved in the decision-making at every level.

Districts also need to grapple with the issue of time—one of those root problems that can undermine the most well-intended efforts. Most school districts, for example, have set aside time for teachers to collaborate, often by forming professional learning communities.

Great, right? Not quite.

Many times, districts haven’t given teachers the support to implement that time in ways that deepen their teaching practice.  And often there’s no system in place to measure and assess whether that collaboration time is getting used effectively.

In a high-functioning professional learning community, teachers have been trained and supported to make the most of the time they get together.  They are determining need, tracking their work, measuring the impact in classrooms, then turning around that data to inform their ongoing professional learning.

Chalkboard works with school districts to elevate teacher voice and to empower teachers to hold themselves accountable. We help them understand the complex ways professional learning is connected to teacher leadership, evaluation and compensation.

The Learning Forward report reinforced that forward-thinking school districts across Oregon really are on the right track when it comes to professional learning. But it also reminded me how much work we have ahead of us if we want to make sure that there is an effective, empowered teacher in every classroom in every school.

Julie Smith is the Chalkboard Project Senior Director of Educator Effectiveness and Innovation. She leads the educator effectiveness efforts including CLASS, School District Collaboration Fund, and works with rural schools in Oregon. 

  • Professional Learning
  • Quality Educators
  • Professional Development

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