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SPRINGDALE -- A skit of a meeting of algebra teachers provided an example Wednesday of how teams of educators can work to adjust their thinking and make changes to help students succeed.

During the skit, the principal expresses concern about a student who asks to withdraw from algebra and questions three math teachers about their grading system.

Key Questions

Four key questions for professional learning communities

• What is it we expect students to learn?

• How will we know when students have learned it?

• How will we respond when they don’t learn?

• How will we respond when they already know it?

Source: PLC at Work Institute

The fictitious meeting took place Wednesday on the first day of a three-day Professional Learning Communities at Work Institute being held at Har-Ber High School. More than 1,000 educators from four states are participating in the sold-out event organized by Solution Tree, a company based in Bloomington, Ind.

The principal in the skit says the teachers have a shared goal to reduce failure rates in algebra. A student has demonstrated his understanding of algebra on an exam but is failing because he hasn't turned in most of his homework assignments.

Teachers explain that they use a traditional grading scale, that homework assignments are important for developing math skills everyday and that assigning homework teaches students to be responsible.

The principal says the grading system is more about grading students' behavior than about showing whether they understand algebra. He suggests the teachers learn together about the best practices in grading and develop a system that requires students to do the work, instead of allowing students who don't want to do the work to get a zero.

Many schools have structures they call professional learning communities, but a true professional learning community involves teams of educators working interdependently to achieve a common goal for which each member of the team is accountable, said Richard DuFour, a public school educator for 34 years who is one of the architects of Professional Learning Communities at Work.

The other key speakers this week are his wife, Rebecca DuFour, also a former educator and consultant; and Mike Mattos, a former educator and consultant.

The term professional learning community has existed since the 1970s, but Richard DuFour contributed to a greater understanding of how to make them work effectively when he co-authored the book Professional Learning Communities at Work with Robert Eaker, a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Middle Tennessee State University. Solution Tree published the book published in 1998.

When the book first published, few schools would have set aside time during the school day for teachers to meet together on a weekly basis, DuFour said. Most schools now have that time built into their schedules.

The Professional Learning Communities at Work training helps schools understand more about how to use that time effectively to improve student performance, he said.

DuFour has worked to change the culture of schools from teachers working independently to teachers working together to make decisions about instruction, he said.

In Rogers, many schools have established what they have described as professional learning communities, but educators across the district are gaining a better understanding of how they are supposed to operate by going to institutes within the past year or two, said Virginia Abernathy, assistant superintendent of elementary curriculum and instruction.

About 90 educators from Rogers schools are involved with the institute, she said.

"You can take any topic or any goals you have and try to address them through [professional learning communities] where everyone's engaged, everyone's involved," Abernathy said. "It's all around improving student learning."

Kim Meyer, a fourth-grade teacher at Tucker Elementary in Rogers, said the time provided for professional learning communities often was just a meeting.

"When you meet, you don't always have the same goal in mind," Meyer said.

When the new school year starts, she wants to make sure she has the same shared goal as her colleagues, she said.

Another 240 educators attending are from Fort Smith schools, said Barry Owen, assistant superintendent for instructional services. Schools vary in their implementation of professional learning communities, he said.

"Our central administration team believes that real change starts at the building level," Owen said. "We all can take what skill-sets we bring to our faculty and share those skills and use them to make our whole school community and culture a better place to improve teaching and learning outcomes for our students."

In a school structured around professional learning communities, the staff will have a shared mission that explains why they exist and a vision for the future, Rebecca DuFour said. They will develop commitments to help individuals understand how they contribute to the vision.

The staff will set specific, attainable goals that can be measured, focus on student results and that can be accomplished in a defined period of time, she said.

The DuFours have been among the leading thinkers on professional learning communities, said Vicki Vescio, a clinical assistant professor in the elementary teacher education program at the University of Florida. She has researched professional learning communities with her colleagues.

Professional learning communities often are not enacted properly, with the weekly meetings focusing on administrative issues or testing data instead of on teaching practices, Vescio said.

When implemented properly, teachers are able to ask questions about their own practices and work together to solve problems they encounter in the classroom, Vescio said.

"Teaching practice trickles down to student achievement," Vescio said. "If the teachers are better, students are going to learn more."

Springdale schools have worked to implement professional learning communities for at least 10 years, and 190 educators from Springdale schools are participating in the institute, Associate Superintendent Megan Witonski said. The approach provides a structure for groups of educators to meet on a regular bases to discuss concerns about how to better address student learning.

Abbie Russell, a third-grade teacher at Monitor Elementary School in Springdale, appreciates having different perspectives, including from teachers who have more experience or from teachers who are able to connect with her students in different way.

"You can go to your colleagues without feeling, 'I'm not doing my job right,'" Russell said.

And the approach makes all teachers responsible for all students, said Lisa Latin, who also teaches third grade at Monitor.

"You're not just accountable to your students," she said. "You're accountable to the team."

NW News on 07/23/2015

Print Headline: Teachers learn effective strategies for working in teams

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