Professional Learning Communities

Division Directors' Blog
Posted on March 13, 2014
by Julie Schlossinger, Lower School Director

Independent schools are just that–independent. We have the freedom to direct and develop our own curriculum, and because of our small class sizes and tight-knit community, also the ability to focus on specific strengths or needs of students. This freedom, however, requires tremendous work and the support of fellow teachers to ensure that we are working collaboratively toward the common goal of ensuring that all of our students are learning. To achieve this goal, we’ve created a professional learning community in lower school, embracing a concept developed in the 60’s in response to the increasing isolation and pressure educators felt while implementing curriculum, assessment, and pacing. I’ve written this blog to shed light on exactly how we get from broad curricular goals to individualized instruction so that our students will, “Learn More.”

The term professional learning community (PLC) has been around for over 40 years. Susan Rosenholtz, a researcher in the 1960’s, coined the phrase and emphasized a need to help schools become “learning-enriched”, characterized by “collective commitments to student learning in collaborative settings.” Her research showed that, “Teacher collaboration linked to shared goals focused on student achievement led to greater certainty about what was effective, higher levels of teacher commitment, and ultimately, greater gains in student achievement.”

What does our PLC look like, exactly? At lower school faculty meetings, you might see grade-level teachers sitting together, surrounded by books, debating whether a certain skill is relevant and supports previous learning, or repetitive and non-essential. At the same time, you might see another team building new assessments from the ground up. At the core of this and many other examples, is the process of collaborative exchange and debate focused on essential student learning, rather than teaching.

Once the teachers agree upon the essential learning for their unit, they create common formative assessments, which are created collaboratively by a team of teachers responsible for the same grade level or course. Common formative assessments identify: (1) individual students who need additional time and support for learning; (2) the teaching strategies most effective in helping students acquire the intended knowledge and skills; (3) program concerns or areas in which students generally are having difficulty achieving the intended standard; and (4) students ready to take their learning to the next level.

The next step in the PLC process is for grade-level teachers to analyze the results of the assessment and create a multi-tiered plan that is timely and directive. Students who met the learning goal would meet with one teacher to enrich their learning and take it to the next level, while those students who did not meet the learning goal would work with another teacher who would re-teach and provide support and time to practice.

At the core of what we do in the lower school here at VMS and what you do at home is a shared goal of nurturing children and encouraging growth. I’m often asked for specific examples of how we deliver differentiated learning. Our professional learning community provides both the tools and the support for teachers to translate the deep, caring relationships they’ve built with students into truly individualized instruction and ultimately, the end result of learning more.

About Vail Mountain School

Founded in 1962, Vail Mountain School is a K-12, coed, independent school in Vail, Colorado. Our philosophy is to provide a demanding, college preparatory, liberal arts education in an atmosphere of mutual respect between faculty and students, where nurturing a healthy self-concept and stimulating academic inquiry are parallel objectives. Intentionally designed cross-age programs promote role modeling, responsibility, self confidence, and a sense of community. Our location in the Rocky Mountains allows us to integrate the outdoors into the academic and cultural fabric of the school through hut trips, all-school Ski Fridays, and other experiential learning opportunities. The result: our graduates possess a quiet confidence that serves them well in college and in life—confidence to assert themselves in their first college level essays; to raise their hand in a class of hundreds; to live on their own for the first time, to meet with and engage their professors; and to lead among their peers.