The potential of Teacher Learning Communities in education

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Schools are increasingly embracing the idea of giving their teachers time to share best practice, learn together and improve their skills as a group. Amy Benziane discusses Teacher Learning Communities and the approaches that have proved successful in her

Something I have always valued is the opportunity to network with other teachers. 

For me, the chance to meet with colleagues always seems to strike a great balance between discussing our plans for embedding newly found pedagogy and showing off our latest zany idea (whether it went well or badly!) within a supportive environment.

My ability to trial other teachers’ ideas and report back to colleagues at my own school has proven to be as fun as it is useful to developing my practice.

Networking and sharing

Within our school, the communication and the sharing of ideas is refreshingly effective. We have weekly Butterflies and “Tuesday Teaching Treats” (based on developing literacy and effective teaching strategies).

These help foster a community of teachers willing to try new approaches copied from their peers – it is allowed now we are grown-ups!

I have found that setting aside time to sit down and discuss new ideas in depth is even more important in order to understanding the reasoning behind why such a technique is so useful and successful. 

Evidence-based

The premise of our Teacher Learning Community (TLC) is that we all commit to reading a book that will make our lives easier by making our work more effective. This doesn’t seem like such a chore, does it?

Since its inauguration, colleagues have gathered to discuss Alistair Smith’s High Performers, Visible Learning for Teachers by Professor John Hattie, Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, and, this year’s focus, Professor Carol Dweck’s Mindset. All are well worth a read if you haven’t already delved into them.

“No man is an island”

The prospect of high quality biscuits and tea at the end of a long day is not the only draw to the library, where our TLC is hosted. Instead, the opportunity to discuss and reflect on my own practice in a non-judgemental space is the attraction. 

I enjoy attending and engaging with the texts and colleagues, actively creating a positive environment for all teachers to come together. 

Regardless of “status” within the school, we assemble with one shared objective: to expand our ideas about teaching, making use of our own expertise and that of published writers.

In our first meeting we pick the “best” ideas from the text, the ones that are most applicable to our needs and discuss our reaction to these. The TLCs that follow also offer an opportunity to consider how we might implement the ideas and we reflect on what has worked and the modifications we made.

This long-term dialogue about creative teaching and learning is one of the reasons my school is such a professionally stimulating one to be a part of. 

Online TLCs 

As well as the traditional learning communities, of the more casual staffroom discussions and organised after school time, the ability to interact with other professionals across the country has been invaluable. A month ago I did not fully understand what a Twitter hashtag was or even considered using Twitter for educational reasons. I decided that I needed more time discussing my ideas and so, like many, I turned to the internet to fill the void.

Searching Twitter for the word “teacher” presents you with a myriad of choices of education-focused accounts to “follow”. A month later, my feed is filled with fellow teachers tweeting ideas and queries to all those savvy enough to respond.

Before I have even arrived at the bus stop in the morning, I have two new teaching ideas and someone has contacted me to tell me they’ve used something I suggested less than 48 hours ago. Thanks to the technology available at my fingertips, I am able to delve into a world of teaching strategies suggested by fellow “tweetchers” from across the world. 

It’s like my own school community, only I bring my own tea and the ideas are shared instantly around the world for anyone to engage with. My school is relaunching our approach to Twitter by creating an Online TLC, bringing colleagues together remotely by “retweeting” ideas, focusing around one topic per week. For most, picking up their SmartPhone and sending or reading a tweet is not a chore. Twitter is a way of developing a community of teachers who always want to improve.

The growth mindset 

“It’s not about immediate perfection it’s about learning something overtime confronting a challenge and making progress.” Prof Dweck.

At a recent school performance, I sat enthralled by the students’ mastery of their instruments, internally berating myself at even thinking: “Wow! They were born to do this! What talent!”

With the help of our TLC, I have been retraining myself and anyone in close proximity to me to believe in the power of growth. To me, the idea of growth is key to delivering effective CPD. If teachers and students alike agree that their ability today is not their final grading but a stepping-stone towards what they will eventually master, then they will truly achieve.

For this academic year, the community will be working on developing students’ (and teachers’) belief in their own power to progress. In doing so we have been trialling Prof Dweck’s ideas on framing tasks and focusing on the way we praise students.

We have all heard of and understand that stereotypes can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. But what can we do about it? “What level did you get?” “How many did you get right?” 

Working with the rest of the Growth TLC Team, we are aiming to remove such language from our classrooms. Instead, replacing it with challenge-focused phrases. For example, when tasks are completed, rather than always focusing on the end product (more often than not, the level or grade), the process and journey the student went through to complete it is given more importance. Concentrating on effort means that all students are able to reflect on what they have achieved and feel successful about it – providing they have put in the work. We have been continuously modelling phrases that focus on effort, such as:

  • I am very proud of you for not giving up – and look what you have to show for it!

  • I want you to remember for a moment how challenging this was when you began. Look at how far you have come.

The more I use them with the students, the more I can hear them saying similar things. For example, in our “What Went Well” sections of peer-marking, I am noticing phrases such as:

  • You used a thesaurus to try to get your vocab better.

  • You didn’t talk to me today because you were sooo on task. Well done!

Such comments help me to see how the students are appreciating the value of hard work rather than just attempting to attach a level to a piece of work. 

In order to stress that a piece of work is not a masterpiece as soon as we complete it, I have been trialling a few methods of reflective writing (mostly stolen from the wise folk on Twitter). 

These methods usually focus on reflection and time – it is not about what you can produce in 20 minutes, or how many lines you can fill, it is about “quality not quantity”.

Students hear this all the time but I do not think those in my class had ever been explicitly taught how to really improve the quality of their work. Looking at models and improving them, being comfortable being critical of someone else’s work and using that as a basis for moving onto our own work was the first step. 

I think this process can be applied to our work as teachers. First we need to recognise that there are things we do well, and things we can improve on and spend quality time doing so.

Developing a community of learners

Over the last few months I have learned of various ways to access CPD without having to spend a penny on it or filling out a single request form. 

Why not set up your own TLC? Perhaps you already have a base of colleagues you can turn to for professional chats, in which case perhaps all you will need to do is pick a piece of research and suggest they read it too. 

If you are feeling like you are the only one out there interested in pedagogy then be brave, invite others to share some biscuits and a chat about their favourite teaching strategy, and suggest the idea of reading an interesting article and coming together again to discuss their thoughts.

TeachMeets are also worth considering. As well as drawing on imaginative experts within school, I have found it great to get together with teachers working nearby who are also keen to learn, such as this network in Peterborough (http://teachmeet.pbworks.com/)

And finally, don’t forget Twitter. Have a look at who @SecEd_Education follows and who follows them, for example, for some great ideas. 

Get yourself involved in some of the weekly chats such as #ukedchat or #sltchat (there is a help section to guide you through using hashtags thankfully).

I will leave you with the thoughts of creativity expert Kirby Ferguson in his TED talk (the link to the video is below): “We are not self-made. We are dependent on one another. Admitting this to ourselves isn’t an embrace of mediocrity and derivativeness, it’s a liberation from our misconceptions.”

  • Amy Benziane is teaching and learning co-ordinator within the English department at Woodside High School in north London. Prior to joining Woodside, she spent two years teaching in the North West as part of Teach First’s Leadership Development Programme.

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