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April 21, 2012

Reaching Students… Together

by Chris Lindholm

12 years after leaving the classroom to serve in school and district leadership roles, the awful feelings tied to being unable to reach every one of my students still haunt me.  I remember long nights in my early teaching years spent developing plans for small groups, large groups, and individual activities designed to address a wide spectrum of ability levels and interests.  I passionately searched for resources and lesson ideas that might engage reluctant learners, and I worked hard to forge a positive relationships with each child.  While I believe I reached more students than the average teacher, I did not reach them all and I believed there had to be a better way to “do school.”  There simply had to be a way to structure our work that would increase the engagement and learning of each student.  But how??? 

My early efforts to deal with just how isolating teaching can be drove me to pursue team teaching whenever I could.  My last two years in the classroom involved team teaching 4 out of the 5 class periods that I taught each day.  Both teaming situations involved a two-hour block covering two subjects, and I was blessed with wonderful colleagues to team with.  Yes we had 60+ students in the room (it was actually two classrooms with a moveable wall), but the flexibility to group students in multiple ways and capitalize on the work of two teachers seemed to free us up to meet more student needs.  We developed tight protocols for multiple cooperative learning structures, reflective anchor projects, and ongoing individual reading and writing strands that helped us differentiate instruction, divide and conquer with tougher issues, and create a flow in the classroom that was engaging and productive.  I truly enjoyed teaching those team taught classes and was very proud of the great work we were doing, but I moved into administration focused on finding a better way to arrange schools to promote collaboration and to better target the individual needs of students.  The assembly line structures that standardize teaching and learning was not the right way to do this work, and I intended to find another way.

Most traditional schools promote a culture of teacher isolation – individual teachers are left on their own to teach.  A professional learning community cultivates the exact opposite.  Schools and districts that function as professional learning communities are driven by a collaborative culture in which teams work together to ensure all their students learn.  DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, and Many (2010) describe the collaborative culture of a professional learning community by observing, “In a PLC, collaboration represents a systematic process in which teachers work together interdependently in order to impact their classroom practice in ways that will lead to better results for their students, for their team and for their school” (p.12).  Eaker and Keating (2012)

The stacks of literature on my desk detailing how professional learning communities do their work is matched by stacks of articles and research outlining how large school systems have significantly improved results.  They started out as separate piles, but they are now a jumbled up mess simply because I cannot pull them apart or sort them in any meaningful way.  Systemic improvement requires doing the work of a professional learning community and creating a culture that focuses on the 3 Big Ideas of a PLC – Results, Collaboration, and Learning.  Michael Fullan identifies four key drivers for systemic improvement that sound a lot like the elements of a PLC… capacity building (vs accountability), group quality (vs individual quality), instruction (vs technology), and a systemic focus (vs fragmented).  Recent studies highlighting the systemic approach of the world’s highest performing countries report similar strategies.  Finland, Shanghai, South Korea, Canada, Singapore, and Hong Kong all focus intensely on capacity building through mentoring, lesson study, action research, and tapping the talent of master teachers to instruct other teachers.  According to the Feb 2012 Grattan Institute report, teachers in Shanghai spend 10 – 12 hours each week teaching students… the rest of the time is spent in observations, researching, identifying the needs of students, modeling good practice, and collaborating on improvement work.  Thinking back to my early years as a teacher, I can just imagine how it might have felt to be supported with 20 hours a week to address the needs of students that I couldn’t reach, to learn from master teachers, and to develop rich strategies to improve my practice.  Even without the time teachers in Shanghai have for this work, I believe the disciplined work of a professional learning community would have changed my feelings about teaching in those early years.  I would have been surrounded by a team of teachers who shared in the responsibility to reach our students (instead of being given keys to a room, 30+ students each hour, and a thumbs up for good luck before shutting the door and leaving me on my own).   The team would have shared plans, resources, strategies, and insights as we worked toward a common goal.  We might have even celebrated successes together instead of commiserating with war stories resulting from teaching in total isolation.  Being part of a school focused on the work of a professional learning community would have made me a far more successful teacher years ago and a more successful teacher means far more learning and success for the students.

So 12 years later I am even more convinced that the assembly line model of “doing school” must go away.  We must work towards structures that empower teams of teachers to collectively own the responsibility for student learning and support them with schedules that allow for capacity building, enrichment, interventions, and collective problem solving to help individual students.  Change is scary to some, but it is frustratingly slow when we consider the students who fall through the cracks each day due to our rigid model of school.  We need to embrace the reality that equitable education is not equal education and focus on creating structures to ensure every student learns at a high level.  Amazingly, many people argue against this thinking we need to treat students equally to treat them fairly.  Why do we understand that it takes different levels of practice for individuals to perform in sports or music yet we can’t apply the same logic to learning math, reading, or a second language?  Some students might need 9 hours of academic practice a day and some might need 3 hours to achieve the same level of performance.  If all students need to demonstrate mastery of the same standards, then I can assure anyone that my class of 30 students 12 years ago would need no less than 5 – 10 distinct levels of intensity on the inputs side of the equation to get the same output.  That’s impossible to pull of in isolation and requires focused, intentional team work.  It requires the work of an empowered collaborative team doing the work of a professional learning community.

Now I wonder if a collaborative team would have made my desk a bit cleaner?


Messy desk photo by Mrsdkrebs on Flickr
Hand reaching photo by LifeSupercharger on Flickr

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