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Building Professional Learning with Community

By Fay Leong
Building Professional Learning with Community

This school year, Shanghai American School’s new Office for Educational Programs and Student Learning took a new look at professional development through Superintendent Richard Mueller’s lens of “Building Community.” We replaced the term professional development with professional learning, and adopted a cohort approach towards creating learning opportunities.
Since 2012, we have concentrated on identifying and developing sustainable approaches to learning that have a real impact in the classroom. Three of our key components are: utilizing collaborative frameworks, building mentorship through empowering teacher leaders, and developing partnerships with consultants.
Collaborative frameworks for teaching and learning are beginning to have a real impact, in our classrooms and throughout our community. Dufour (2004) argues that if a community truly embodies “learning for all” and pledges to work towards student success, “profound changes take place.” We define community as all learners: our students, our teachers, our support staff, and our parents. This year, our School on a Mission Day involved all 650 members of our whole school community in building prosthetic hands for the Helping Hands organization. We have embarked on a journey toward creating cultures of thinking, creativity, compassion, and courage.
We began with developing an understanding of how professional learning communities (PLC) operate. Dufour et al. (2010) describe PLCs as “an ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry to (improve learning).”
The days of operating in isolation are over. In a collaborative partnership, or a true learning community, all individuals have knowledge to share. All divisions are exploring ways to develop more effective collaborative teams. Schedules have been restructured to allow teachers common planning time. Team goals are encouraged as part of the annual performance evaluation processes. Critical Friends protocols continue to support effective discussion within teams across our community.
We are also working to develop teacher leadership in our community. We have been strongly influenced by Bruce Joyce and Beverley Showers’ (2002) research that indicates that peer coaching (with follow up) is far more effective than presentation of theory. This approach works hand-in-hand with identifying consultants with particular expertise that will help us build capacity in-house. Rather than send individuals away for isolated workshops, we have focused on building partnerships to enhance ongoing learning.
One example is our ongoing work with the Buck Institute, who have trained teams of teachers and administrators in Project Based Learning (PBL) strategies. Beyond our dedicated professional learning days, we also hold two afternoon “Teachers Teaching Teachers” sessions annually. During this time, teachers offer peer workshops on particular aspects of expertise.
Our journey to transform the traditional systems of learning into constructivist learner-centric approaches that embed 21st-century learning competencies within a dynamic curriculum is an exciting one. “We cannot change what we do until we change how we think, and we cannot change how we think until we change who we are” (Marshall 1999). We believe that it truly takes a village to raise an individual. This is our village.
Fay Leong is Associate Director of Educational Programs and Student Learning at Shanghai American School, Pudong Campus.

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