Creating an Effective Teacher Learning Community

The success of a TWB program depends on how well teachers and school authorities succeed in engaging all parties to the educational paradigm (Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 2011). However, the academic success of the students in the school is the prerogative of the school staff, administration and teachers. Teachers are responsible for the daily planning and instructional decisions within the classroom, which puts them at the forefront of the quest for academic success. Various forms of professional development have been used over the years to prepared teachers to succeed as instructional leaders. However, many of the workshops provided have failed to satisfy teachers’ everyday needs within the classroom because they are disconnected from that reality (Calderon and Minaya-Rowe, 2003). As an alternative, many schools and districts have begun to organize small groups of teachers to provide their own workshops, which are targeted to the specific challenges facing their teachers. These groups are known as Teacher Learning Communities or TLCs.

Calderon and Minaya-Rowe (2003) define TLCs as a group of teachers who work together to construct meaning and knowledge from their profession. TLCs are forums where teachers analyze the challenges they face in their daily practice, collaboratively search for solutions to perfect their craft and eventually effect change for the benefit of all stakeholders in the program, and particularly for LEPs and their families. TLCs have a wealth of advantages (NCTE Research Brief, 2010) that are impossible to list exhaustively in this short paper. However, a number of them are worth noting.

Often, teachers complain about the disconnectedness between research and practice. One thing that TLCs do is to create a link between research and classroom practice. The issues debated in TLCs stem from daily classroom practices. These issues are addressed through many channels, including action research. Another advantage is teacher retention. The research clearly indicates that teacher turnover is mainly due to a sense of isolation many new teachers experience early in the profession. By getting these teachers involved with their local TLCs, they are given a voice and a support group that they can rely on instead of trying to figure things out by and for themselves. One last advantage of TLCs is their ability to bring together the pedagogy and content knowledge. The literature on staff development finds that most traditional staff development events focus on one aspect, not both. Consequently, there are many advantages to initiating and sustaining a viable TLC for our program. I will make the exhaustive list of advantages available to those who would like to look at them.

Classroom Challenges

Classroom challenges are the daily companions of all teachers. If seasoned teachers are trained to think on their feet to make split-second instructional decisions, for novice teachers, and even veterans who are transitioning to a bilingual setting, addressing the simplest issues can be a daunting task. Hence, for new teachers, it is important to have several pre-service staff development events (Calderon and Minaya-Rowe, 2003). These events will address issues of classroom management, choosing instructional materials, creating instructional units and daily lesson plans with clear language objectives, as well as planning that is appropriate for a bilingual setting. Initial staff development will also address assessments and peer mentoring.

It is important here to reiterate the importance of assessments. Assessments help in the placement of incoming students. If the assessments are well designed, they avoid misplacement of new students. Assessments also serve as tools to gauge the effectiveness of classroom instruction. They help teachers make instructional adjustments to address specific areas of challenge to their students. Finally, assessments help us evaluate the overall achievement of our students. It is important to remember that assessments are not confined to students only. Our program needs to be evaluated several times during the school year to address any issues that may be impeding adequate application of the agreed upon guidelines. Initially, novice teachers need to be apprised of best practices in assessment because planning, instructional delivery and student success are intricately interconnected. To make things a lot more palatable, we anticipate the establishment of a peer mentoring system where our most seasoned teachers will work with some of our younger colleagues to make sure they are and stay on the right track and receive all the support they need to be effective.

Importance of Peer Coaching

As stated earlier, moving from the theories acquired in teacher education programs to actual classroom practices is always a difficult transition for novice teachers (Vandelinde and van Braak, 2010). Therefore, it is paramount to develop a peer-mentoring system where a veteran and novice teacher work together to create strong unit and lesson plans. Initially, the role of the veteran teacher would be to provide feedback on the novice teacher’s work from planning to instruction and assessment. Obviously, it is essential to avoid replicating a situation that will mirror a principal’s or an assistant principal’s observation for evaluation or promotion purposes. Ideally, the two parties to the peer coaching paradigm would be people who enjoy each other’s company and feel comfortable working together. The seasoned teacher may model effective teaching periodically in the initial phase of the project. Gradually, the two teachers could co-teach several lessons. The role of the novice teacher is to seek advice whenever necessary. However, there will be pre-set meeting between both partners, the frequency of which is to be determined based on the novice teacher’s progress. The novice teacher acts on the suggestions of the mentor and takes notes for discussion during the following encounter. The frequency of these encounters depends entirely on the level of comfort the mentoring pairs enjoy with each other.

Action Research

One component of TLCs that that is strongly encouraged is action research. A teacher teaches a lesson. Everybody participates actively and seems to grasp the concepts being presented in the lesson. Two days later the teacher assesses the class on the lesson and only about 40% of your students have a passing grade or above. Clearly, something did not go as planned. The teacher wants to find out what did not work, so he or she sits down, reconsiders the instructional decisions and tries to determine if the assessment was aligned to the course content. Clearly, this teacher is facing a practical challenge within the classroom and has decided to look at ways to make things work better. This teacher is conducting a form of action research. In sum, action research is research initiated to address a particular instructional challenge.

Good action research should follow these steps: first, you identify the problem. Second, you search for ways to remedy the issue—you may research to see if the problem or challenge has been addressed in the literature. Third, you try your new approach and analyze the results. Of course, initially you would have had a hypothesis, which could be confirmed or disproved by you research. Although this type of research can be conducted individually, it is more interesting and informative to work with another teacher who has encountered the similar challenges for which the research is being conducted. The advantage in this case is a richer analysis and assessment of the situation.

Classroom Ethnographies

In the Florida Literacy and Reading Excellence Professional Paper, ethnography is defined as the “art and science of describing a group or culture.” It relies on the researcher’s observations, experiences and participation. Classroom ethnographies are important because they are an important part of effective teaching. Teachers who know their students’ cultural, academic and language backgrounds are more likely to design instructional strategies that are appropriate for their particular demographics. Additionally, ethnographies should include students learning styles. However, the foundation of ethnographies rests on the researcher’s attempt to understand the demographics from a native perspective. Data may be collected through interviews, observations and document analysis. Since our school is a TWB program, it is important for our teachers and staff to have a deep understanding of the cultures represented within their classrooms and the school in general. Ethnographies are a great way to achieve this. Obviously, depending on the budget, the school could send some teachers to some our students’ countries so they can experience their native cultures first hand.

Teacher Portfolios and Autobiographies

According to Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, a teaching portfolio is compilation of a particular teacher’s work, teaching philosophy and much more. The portfolio is proof of the teacher’s progress through the years. It may include strategies used by the teacher, assessments created, reflections and student work. In sum, whatever the teacher deems appropriate as an indication of his or her conception of teaching and progress in the profession can be included in the portfolio. Since the portfolio is meant to be a record of the teacher’s evolving practice, it would be ideal to start one on the first day in the classroom. The portfolio may be updated daily, weekly or at any time the teacher has something important to log. The portfolio is useful when applying for a position; it can be used as a way to reflect on practice, or for promotion or tenure. Teachers may even want to share their teaching concepts with people beyond their school. In this case, they can create an online version.

Teacher portfolios may bear some resemblance to autobiographies. However, in essence, an autobiography is a piece of writing produced by an author about his or her own life. Hence, teacher biographies are autobiographies written by teachers about their practice, but also more broadly about their life as teachers. Teacher biographies are opportunities for teachers to reflect on their lives from very early on to their current lives as teachers. Teachers may share anecdotes and other experiences, but the most important aspect is how the teacher grew or developed as teacher throughout the years. The process of writing an autobiography involves deep reflection on decisions made throughout life, but specifically as a teacher. These reflections have the potential of shaping the teacher’s approaches or fostering change in a teacher’s approach.

One major difference between the portfolio and the autobiography is that the former focuses essentially on professional development and contributions to the field whereas the latter provides a broader reflection on the events that shaped the individual’s life, led that individual to become a teacher and eventually to make specific decisions as a teacher. Both the portfolio and the autobiography are beneficial in terms of fostering reflection and discernment, two invaluable skills for any teacher.

Analyzing Instruction

One of the most valuable lessons every teacher learns in a teacher education program is that a good teacher is a reflective practitioner. Teachers plan, deliver instruction, and assess students. However, if they cannot evaluate their own effectiveness, then it seems appropriate to say that they are deficient in an important aspect of their profession. Teachers need to analyze their practices to determine what works so it can be celebrated and shared. Equally important is the ability to acknowledge that there are times when things do not go as planned or expected. This is where an in-depth analysis comes into play. How do we recast our approach to make it work? Luckily, in a TLC, teachers do not have to think and act alone. They have the support of their colleagues. Meetings for instructional analysis should take place as frequently as possible but more specifically after each instructional unit. TLC meeting may convened once every two weeks or once a month. Individual teachers or mentoring pairs should bring their observations or concerns to the meeting and share them with the TLC. The monthly meeting is also the opportunity to analyze assessment results. Together, the members of the TLC determine the most urgent concerns and focus on them too. Plenary sessions could be used for the presentation of concerns while breakout sessions would be used by small groups of teachers to address specific issues or concerns presented in the plenary. The small groups then reconvene and share their findings and suggestions. Finally, each teacher takes away what he or she needs, and a session secretary should compile the findings for distributions to the participants and a copy filed in the school office.

Focusing on Student Progress and Outcomes

The focus here is on the results obtained from assessments. In these times of high-stakes assessments and standardized testing, it is important to make good use of the data available to inform planning and instruction. Determining progress supposes that teacher and their supervisors have taken the time to assess students initially. Determining progress, in this sense, becomes a follow-up activity. Here again, it seems appropriate to schedule sessions as often as possible. However, the short-term analyses should be the prerogative of individual teachers or mentoring pairs. These analyses would normally address in-class assessments as part of an ongoing process. Teachers analyze their students’ assessment results, focusing on specific aspects of the assessments where students seem to have the most trouble. They then look for possible reasons for the poor performance and suggest possible solutions. Three times a year or after each term, this process should take place school-wide to assess the overall progress not just of students but also of the program as a whole. The findings are recorded by a designated secretary, and copies are made and distributed to instructional leaders and all interested stakeholders.

Developing Bilingual and Bicultural Skills

Bilingualism implies language skills that are seemingly equivalent in the individual’s two languages. It is therefore important to make sure that teachers and staff members of the TWB program are adequately prepared to use both of the program languages with relative ease. This is important. as most teachers will be asked to teach in both languages even though in some cases teachers may be allowed to use one language while the co-teacher uses the other language. To keep costs low, due to the current budget cuts, it would be appropriate to recommend periodic language courses at a local college. The frequency will obviously vary according to each individual teacher’s or staffer’s level of mastery. When budgetary conditions allow it, yearly or biannual language and cultural immersion trips to countries where the second language is spoken are recommended. Ideally, these trips would focus on both language proficiency and the teaching methods teachers in the chosen countries use to teach various content areas. After all that is the purpose of a TWB. Title I funds can be used for such linguistic and cultural trips if the administration sets clear priorities.

Celebrating Successes

Some may wonder why or what we celebrate. It is recommended that each small step in the right direction, in the direction of our prescribed goals, be acknowledged. Our teachers’ and staff’s efforts need to be acknowledge, and so do our students’. Celebrations bring together all the school’s stakeholders. As for the frequency, the end of each term or marking period is a good time because many teachers are burned out and need the opportunity to unwind to better tackle the rest of the school year. These events can take place in the school auditorium and be built around a multicultural theme. Parents would be encouraged to participate and contribute ethnic clothes and food. These would be opportunities to celebrate successes mainly. When the program is headed in the right direction, it is our duty to celebrate those who make such progress possible—teachers, staff members, administrators, involved and committed parents and all our sponsors.

Process for Achieving our Goals

The success of this proposal depends in great part on school professionals—teachers, staff, administrators and all the stakeholders. It also depends on how well the program can enlist the support and active participation of all parents whose children will attend the school, as well as community residents who want the best for their community. Consequently, professional development ought to be extended to our students’ parents. A portion of the school budget should set aside to provide targeted training for parents, especially those with limited English language skills and those with literacy needs. Parent who are professionals ought to be engaged and encouraged to share their expertise with other parents when it is appropriate. For example, a banker may run a workshop on how parents can better manage their income or how they can start a business. These workshops could be in addition to the provision to parents of ways to assist their children with their homework.

Beyond parental enlistment and the involvement of community leaders as sponsors teacher will need constant motivation. Educating students depends primarily on them and they need to be regularly reminded that they work is essential to the academic success of their students and to the welfare of the community at large. Good teacher who have proven to go the extra mile should be recognized and rewarded periodically. Their work could be showcased in a local newspaper or magazine, or they can be invited to run workshops to share their expertise on their best practices. In sum, all parties to the educational paradigm need to feel that they are valued and that their work counts.

Introducing the Proposal to the School Community

This proposal may be introduced as a PowerPoint presentation to the school administration and the community at large at an information session open to the public. The purpose would be to inform the community residents about the efforts the school and the district are making to ensure that their children received a quality education. Even though the focus is on teachers and their development as education professionals, parents need to build confidence in their local school and its actors. Introducing a sound program and explaining its advantages and challenges is an indication that their children will receive their education from knowledgeable professionals.

In addition to the PowerPoint presentation, teachers, administrators and staff members will receive a copy of this proposal after all necessary amendments have been made. It is important to understand that this is a proposal, and that the different parties may have preferences on certain aspects of it. Beyond personal preferences, budgetary constraints may hinder the implementation of some aspect of the proposal. It is therefore appropriate to wait until the proposal have been reviewed by all stakeholders and all amendments included to dis=tribute it to teachers, staff and interested community members.

Benefits, the Structure, and the Assessment Process

The benefits of a TLC are obvious. Teachers are the primary providers of education in a school. Because of their position and mission, it is important that they receive initial training that allows them to be prepared from the first day of school. However, throughout the school year, there will be challenges inherent to their planning and classroom practices. In such circumstances, their ability to think on their feet will be their primary asset. Subsequently, teachers, especially those who are new to the profession, are encouraged to bring any concern to their TLC so that together, all members can work out solutions.

A viable TLC is a forum of exchange where novice and veteran teachers alike learn from one another. When younger teachers feel that their ideas are valued, they are more likely to contribute voluntarily. The build confidence and feel a sense of belonging. Younger teacher are prone to being computer savvy. Beyond presented their challenges to the TLC, they could share best practices in how to incorporate technology in daily classroom practice. As a general rule, however, veterans will serve as mentors to younger teachers with whom they would have built a strong bond initially. As discussed earlier, mentor and mentee can meet as often as they wish to, as long as they feel comfortable doing so.

As with any program that aims to be sustainable, assessments are an integral part of TLCs. Periodically—this could be once a month or at the end of every marking period or major assessment—the TLC will convene to discuss the successes of and challenges to the full implementation of the program. These meeting will also serve as the forum to critically evaluate the mentoring program, students’ progress as evidenced by their test scores, and any adjustments that need to be made to ensure the success of the program and guarantee that students will continue to improve academically.

Conclusion

This proposal has focused primarily on what we can achieve when we work together. TLCs are an important learning forum where bright individuals analyze the daily classroom challenges to hash out solutions for the betterment of planning, instruction and assessment for the benefit of students and the community at large. The program needs teachers who are constantly reflecting on their practices, teachers who have their students’ success at heart and who are ready to always go the extra mile to make sure each child in our program has a smile on his or her face at the time of tallying our successes. I have stressed the importance of celebrating each person who commits time or money to the success of our program. The adoption of this proposal will ensure that all children, without regard to national identity or home language or culture, receives a quality education as prescribed in the New York Blueprint for ELLs.

References

Blueprint for English Language Learners (ELLs) success (2014). (Accessed at http://usny.nysed.gov/docs/blueprint-for-ell-success.pdf)

Calderon, M. E., & Minaya-Rowe, L. (2003). Designing and implementing two-way bilingual programs: A step-by-step guide for administrators, teachers, and parents.Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Center for Public Education (2011). Accessed at http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/Main-Menu/Public-education/Parent-Involvement/Parent-Involvement.html?css=print

Dignity for All Students Act (2013) (accessed at http://www.p12.nysed.gov/dignityact/)

Florida Literacy and Reading Excellence Professional Paper (https://education.ucf.edu/mirc/docs/pp/FLaRE%20Professional%20Paper%20-%20Ethnographic%20Research.pdf)

Haley, M. H., & Austin, T. (2004). Content-based second language teaching and learning: An interactive approach. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Horn, I.S., & Little, J.W. (2010). Attending to problems of practice: Routines and resources for professional learning in teachers’ workplace interactions. American Educational Research Journal, 47 (1), 181-217.

Teacher learning communities, A Policy Research Brief produced by the National Council of Teachers of English (accessed at http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/CC/0202-nov2010/CC0202Policy.pdf)

Katz, S., & Earl, L. (2010). Learning about Networked Learning Communities.School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 21(1), 27-51.

Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching (http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/teaching-portfolios/#what)

Vanderlinde, R., & van Braak, J. (2010). The gap between educational research and practice: views of teachers, school leaders, intermediaries and researchers.British Educational Research Journal, 36(2), 299-316. doi:10.1080/01411920902919257

One thought on “Creating an Effective Teacher Learning Community”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s