How to Create a Strong Professional Community of Educators
Two heads are better than one.
Everyone's heard this idiom at one time or another. Simply put, two or more people thinking about how to solve a problem is better than leaving the problem-solving to one person. This isn't a new idea; it was first recorded in writings by John Heywood in 1546.
Time has taught the truth of this practice. You seek a second opinion when facing a major medical decision. You consult with advisors on investments, home purchases, legal matters, etc.
It makes sense that the art of education would benefit from application of this idiom as well. In fact, in a recent study of nearly 3,000 education professionals, 81% of respondents said that professional learning communities (PLCs) and personal learning networks (PLNs) are effective for professional development.
The simple truth is: two or more educators collaborating to solve a problem is better than a lone instructor left to resolve a difficulty alone. And today's educators are forming digital communities for this express purpose.
Characteristics of an Effective Digital Community
Participants in digital learning communities put their heads together to hash out new ideas, share information and learn to apply new, innovative ideas to problem-solving. When educators come together in a professional learning community (PLC), institutions are free to enact changes and improvements that can increase student outcomes, empower staff, and increase satisfaction for all stakeholders.
What does an effective digital learning community look like? While each institution can tailor their PLCs to focus on the specific needs and concerns of their members, there are some characteristics that all effective digital PLCs share.
- Vision, mission, values, and goals—A shared clarity of purpose is essential. Many institutions structure their PLC's vision around specific, measurable, attainable, results-oriented , and time-bound (SMART) goals to provide measurable, quantifiable progress monitoring.
- Learning is the #1 priority—PLCs are collaborative teams of educators working together to analyze and improve the professional practices of their institution's teaching staff. The focus is on improving and enriching the learning outcomes of the students.
- Best practices—PLC teams should be questioning their institution's status quo. They openly and honestly assess the instructional practices they employ, consult current research to find new methods of teaching and learning, and then reflect on the effectiveness of these practices in their student populations.
- Implementation—PLC teams learn by doing and encourage the testing of new ideas by their colleagues. An effective digital learning community takes its insights into the classroom where they can assess the impact on learning.
- Continuous improvement—An effective PLC is always on the prowl for better ways to accomplish their primary goals.
- Results—An effective digital learning community looks for tangible evidence of student learning, then puts that evidence to use to improve their educational practices.
The Importance of Content
Educators collaborate in with their peers to better meet their educational goals. Goals are inclusive of all perspectives, from the specific goals of instructors in their individual classrooms to the broad, cumulative goals of the institution. Whether formal or informal, the PLCs (or other collaborative group) should be there to encourage and support instructors in making effective adaptations to their teaching practices.
When digital learning communities consistently provide educators with opportunities to discuss student thinking, learning, and achievement, student progress improves. The content of information provided to classroom educators by their collaborations keeps these instructors on board with the goals of the group because of the results they see in their students.
Engagement and Support
Peer support is a powerful thing. Digital professional learning communities allow educators the opportunity to reflect upon their own teaching strategies and practices. It also allows them time to collaborate with and learn from other instructors.
A collaborative digital community can only be effective where there is clear communication between members, including clarity on expectations. Instructors must be actively engaged and committed. The PLC should find ways for all members to contribute toward the achievement of stated goals. This includes bringing in all available district talent—office staff, part-time employees, substitutes, and educational assistants.
With PLCs in place and functioning effectively, educators have the chance to openly scrutinize and refine their practices as a team rather than struggling in isolation. Educators engaged in the plans and strategies employed in their classrooms exhibit a renewed sense of purpose and focus.
Create a Strong Digital Community with Teachers
Building strong, positive relationships through a digital community network allows educators to interact with their peers in an honest, self-reflective manner. Instructors are best at critiquing the practices and strategies of others when encouraged to objectively reflect on their own best practices.
Development of positive relationships with others through professional digital community formats opens the door for members to give and receive feedback from their peers. The technological component should be a consideration but a top-of-the-line network infrastructure isn't an imperative.
A web-based platform will allow members to participate from any location with Wi-Fi capability and even via their smartphones. Some popular, and easily mastered, methods of digital communication include:
- Blogs—This allows for expression of ideas and interactive discussion among community members.
- Skype—Scheduled video calls can allow members to have real-time discussions with digital face-time over distances. Sessions are recordable for viewing by those unable to attend.
- Digital photo sharing (Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter)—Sharing photos of student projects or classroom activities can enhance your members' feelings of camaraderie and engagement as a community.
- Learning platforms—Learning management systems (LMSs) and other platforms are increasingly providing features meant for building and maintaining learning communities. If the same LMS is used for PLCs as is used for teaching students, all content and practices housed in the LMS can be more easily transferred and translated to the classroom.
Keep in mind, however, that it isn't the tools themselves that keep the community thriving; it is the quality interaction between professionals who grow to trust each other and value the opinions of their fellow educators.
Communities Mean Belonging
When educators create professional communities among themselves, the students they serve are the beneficiaries. Not only do the students receive the best the educational profession has to offer, the stakeholders of the institution become part of the solution. With everyone working together, you all reap the benefits of collaboration.