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Communities of practice in this social distancing moment

By April 23, 2020 No Comments

Whether a teacher team is called a Professional Learning Community (PLC) or a Community of Practice (CoP) or simply a grade-level team or subject-area department team, most educators are accustomed to maintaining a consistent team meeting schedule during the school year. Often, this team time is used to examine student work or assessment results, compare notes about lesson plans, share strategies about different instructional moves, or seek advice about engaging students in a tough unit of study. Depending on district and school resources and directives, educators may also find themselves discussing shared team leadership, collaboration, or identifying “people who need to be at the table.” Again, these meetings have been the routine “normal” for just about all of us for our entire teaching careers. But now that COVID-19 has closed schools and shifted us all to online teaching and learning, these routine meeting schedules have in many cases been temporarily suspended while educators try to normalize the virtual classroom environment.

Teachers are still talking to each other though, be it emailing, texting, Zooming, Skyping, or calling one another to solve a current problem of practice, get tips on using virtual platforms for lessons, share how to best engage students online, and support colleagues as they navigate this extraordinary moment. While they’ve flipped from face-to-face to screen-to-screen, these teacher conversations and collaborations are still living out the intent of the PLC or CoP.

In 2007, Shirley Hord identified a set of characteristics that define an effective PLC, including shared beliefs, values, vision, and shared and supportive leadership. The remote teaching and learning environment we’re in now offers us a chance (some might even say requires us) to re-examine our beliefs, values, and vision for teaching and learning. What is most important to us and our students and our families right now? How are we delivering online teaching and learning? How are we making connections with our students? As teachers look around their virtual classrooms, who are the emerging leaders? Are we reaching out to different people than we generally do when we’re on the school campus, or the same ones? These “think abouts” and conversation starters are the foundation for effective collective learning in a collaborative environment that PLCs and CoPs promise. In today’s COVID-19 world, educators may find that they are, indeed, reaching out to not just their team but also to others who have specific knowledge or experience with a particular problem of practice.

Recently a school leader told us that her faculty was learning just how much they appreciate one another in this time. She said she heard a chorus of “I couldn’t do it without them” from both veteran and newly minted teachers. Demonstrating trust, appreciation, vulnerability, and support for and with each other during our conversations with peers is key to strengthening professional relationships and advancing our collaborative expertise.

Here are a few tips we’ve gathered from our conversations lately with teachers and school leaders, to help you solidify your team relationships even while physically distanced:

  1. Set aside 15 minutes every day to capture your experiences with specific online lessons and tools being used. How are they working/not working with your students? If questions arise, write them down and then ask colleagues about their experiences.
  2. Schedule an hour-long weekly online meeting with your CoP or PLC team. Use the time to ask questions of one another and learn from each others’ experiences. The theme of the questions—or problems of practice—is teacher-driven, which will increase the likelihood that the new knowledge is useful for practice.
  3. Text a colleague every other day with messages of hope, gratitude, support, or encouragement. If you’re not sure what to say, pick a line from a song that conveys the intent of your message.
  4. Above all . . . KEEP TEACHING! Interacting with students raises educators’ spirits. Remember what called you to the profession; focus on that, and it’ll help you retain your sense of purpose and direction.

In a future post, we’ll discuss how to generate new knowledge during this time and how to use it when classes reconvene in the fall. We’ll offer action research strategies to use while we all commune with one another in this COVID-19 world.

Dale Lewis is executive director of research, evaluation, and technical assistance at McREL International. Lisa Jones is a managing researcher at McREL International.

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