What does a dedicated professional learning community look like, and how do we cultivate and facilitate it in our school? Is it possible to have a professional learning model in a comprehensive high school that is individualized, differentiated, and effective?
Bringing Professional Development to Life
Spring Valley High School in Las Vegas is a comprehensive high school of about 2,500 students. There are 115 teachers, including 12 National Board-Certified teachers. On Spring Valley High’s 2019 annual teacher survey, 95 percent of the faculty indicated that they would like to see a change in professional development for the following school year. The teachers discussed the need for a personalized and differentiated program that would help them gain a more in-depth knowledge of their content area, develop their action research skills, sharpen their professional writing skills, and add to their curriculum vitae.
Thus, the idea for the Spring Valley Writers’ Guild (SVWG) was born.
The SVWG cultivates a true community of learners supporting each other through the often tedious processes of research and writing, facilitating professional learning and growth on topics of interest. This is done through supportive peer collaboration, where engaged educators hold each other accountable for self-identified professional learning goals. Through the end-of-year research colloquium, teachers present their findings to their colleagues, which generates more interest, confidence, and community development in their buildings.
Building Professional Skills
The goal of the SVWG is to help participants gain an appreciation and further understanding of how research informs practice and how collaborative discourse contributes to praxis. The effectiveness of the course relies on active participation and collaborative contributions. During the year, participants in the SVWG work their way through the following action steps:
- Participants identify an area of interest and do scholarly background research.
- From this research, participants create and develop their own evaluative project, including a timeline of benchmarks.
- Participants present their proposals to the other participants for review and discussion.
- Participants progressively work toward an intended end result of a published article, a professional presentation, or grant funding.
- Participants engage in collaborative discourse with their colleagues and present their progress to the group.
- Participants are strongly encouraged to join a professional educational organization in their content area.
- At year’s end, participants present their findings at a schoolwide research colloquium.
Through the review and writing process applications, the SVWG is designed to promote and support professional efficacy while developing an awareness of professional responsibility. In examination of educational practices, policies, and principles through publication submissions in journals, scholarly reviews, and articles, SVWG offers professional support and guidance in a collegial collaboration throughout the writing and publication process to ensure authentic professional growth while furthering the dialogues of educational advocacy and pedagogical precepts.
Implementing a writers’ guild requires a combination of a coordinator and facilitator role. As the coordinator, you will need to preplan, publicize, organize and set the schedule, find a meeting space, ensure participants have access to necessary resources, and set up and run the research colloquium at the end of the year. Once the logistics are organized, your role as a facilitator begins. You run the meetings and facilitate each member’s journey through the action steps.
One crucial aspect of preplanning is determining which model or models you will implement at your site. It should be personalized and differentiated to meet the needs of your individual school and setting. We have explored several implementation options. Each will be discussed below in relation to Clark County School District and Nevada state requirements.
Possible Implementation Models
- As a voluntary group: Interested educators just need to commit to being a part of the guild. With this option, there are no contractual or external requirements to be met. Depending on your local requirements, participants may be able to count their participation toward evaluation.
- As a separate professional learning community (PLC): In Nevada, teachers are given common planning time to meet with their PLC groups, which consist of educators teaching in the same cohort group, subject area, or course. In this sense, it might be difficult to have the guild count as a separate PLC because guild members will not all be in the same subject areas, and guild PLC meeting times might conflict with other PLC group meeting times. You may need to gain approval from your local governing body, schedule meeting times in balance with other required meetings, and enforce follow-through.
- As part of teacher evaluation: Participation in the guild can quite easily fit into whatever evaluation tool is used by your school. Nevada teachers are evaluated using the Nevada Educator Performance Framework (NEPF), which includes instructional standards and professional responsibilities. Participants in the SVWG submit their experiences as evidence of several of the NEPF professional responsibilities.You’ll need to do some preplanning with your local agency to ensure that teachers will be able to count their participation to meet some of the evaluation requirements in your school/district/state. Once you have secured approval, provide the teachers with a list of what requirements can be met and counted by participation in the guild, as well as any documentation that may need to be submitted by the teacher for verification of participation.
- Tied to teacher professional growth plans (PGP): Many districts require that each teacher has their own plan for professional growth, or some equivalent. Teachers in Clark County School District in Nevada are required to submit a PGP to their immediate supervisor for approval at the beginning of each school year. Teachers may need to do some preplanning with their local agency to ensure they will be able to count their participation toward their PGP. Depending on the school, this may involve documentation or preapproval by the supervisor.
- Professional Development Education (PDE) course/credit units (CUs): One popular way to offer the guild is as a PDE course through which participants may earn CUs toward salary and step advancement. We found this to be the most challenging option to implement because all PDE courses and CU offerings must be submitted, reviewed, and approved by a district board, and it varies from district to district. In Clark County School District, the approval process involves submitting a detailed course narrative.
Additionally, there must be an authorized PDE instructor to “teach” the course, which involves a separate process for authorization. Several districts run their PDE through a local college or university partner. If your district is one of these, this could be a wonderful opportunity to build and strengthen that relationship.
One thing we were required to submit with our course narrative was a brief statement of which of the Nevada Professional Learning Standards would be met by the SVWG. While the professional learning standards will be different for each state, most states have some sort of equivalent set of standards. For Nevada standards, the SVWG offers professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students in these ways:
- Learning communities: Occurs within learning communities committed to continuous improvement, collective responsibility, and goal alignment. The SVWG models an effective learning community as stated, and the educators involved can implement aspects of this model in their own praxis.
- Leadership: Requires skillful and informed leaders who develop capacity, advocate, and create supportive growth systems for professional learning. The SVWG builds a supportive capacity for professional growth and development and develops leadership skills for each participant.
- Data: Uses various sources and types of student, educator, and system data to plan, assess, and evaluate professional learning. Participants in the SVWG focus on data-based planning and evaluation processes.
- Learning designs: Integrates theories, research, and models of human learning to achieve its intended outcomes. Participants in the SVWG integrate the learning models and theories they found through independent research and collegial discourse into their projects.
- Outcomes: Aligns its outcomes with educator performance and student curriculum standards. Independent projects developed by SVWG participants focus on aligned outcomes.
For many years, education has been searching for the “magic bullet.” Educators and researchers have explored educational psychology, learning theories, varied curricula, different instructional methodologies, and external factors. The one thing that remains clear is that individual learners have individual needs. When considering teacher professional development, why would that be any different?
Benjamin Feinstein, PhD, is the president of the Nevada Association of IB World Schools and the assistant principal of Spring Valley High School in Las Vegas.