The continuous professional development of teachers usually takes the form of single or multiple day trainings, workshops and /or conferences. However, we should not overlook the potential of the informal discussions between colleagues, the everyday exchange of experiences within the professional collective, the peer observation and all the other means of learning and professional development involving our fellow teachers. Learning communities are space for exchanging ideas and learning among the colleagues. As a part of the USAID Readers are Leaders Project, learning communities have been established and are fully running in 65 primary schools in the country. Recently, we have published a manual with all the necessary guidelines and materials for establishing and maintaining learning communities in hope that a greater number of schools will self-initiate the creation of a learning community within their own school. The electronic form of the manual is available HERE, and our project team is available to all those who would like to set up their own learning community. We talked with Aleksandra Pavlovska about the activities and the benefits of the learning community membership. Aleksandra is a lower primary teacher in the Hristian Karpos school in Kumanovo where she has been working for more than eight years. The school’s learning community, whose coordinator is Aleksandra, has been active since 2015..
Aleksаndra, the learning community in your school has been active since 2015. How many members does it have, how often do you meet, and what are some issues you mostly discuss about?
Hristian Karpos primary school from Kumanovo has 80 teachers in total, 36 out of which are lower primary teachers, and all of them are members of the learning community. We usually meet once a month, but should a need occur we also meet in a lesser interval. The meetings are always constructive and what we do is to openly discuss and suggest ways to face certain challenges in the teaching practice. We usually discuss ongoing activities, use of new or improved teaching strategies, new instruments and surveys.
What is your role as a coordinator of the learning community?
My role in the learning community is to encourage, guide, assist, collaborate, share with and learn from the lower primary teachers in my school. Equally important is the cooperation with the colleagues from other schools in the town and beyond. I frequently meet with colleagues to discuss and share ideas and examples of positive school practice, and to organize co-teaching hours with the colleagues from the other schools in the town. I then share the acquired knowledge and experience with the members of our learning community by organizing open and peer-observed classes, meetings, mentoring sessions, project activities, research activities and alike.
What is a professional development portfolio? What proof of professional development it may have and how it can be useful to teachers?
Speaking from personal experience I can say that teachers are overburdened with a great deal of administrative duties and are literally overloaded with tons of paperwork frequently unaware of it or of its purpose. I believe that each teacher should have tools, instruments, plans systematically organized in one single portfolio. It will serve to improve teacher’s individual competencies and student success, rather than “to be there just for the sake of it” or just because “someone made me do a portfolio”. The portfolio should be a well-organized database of various documents and proofs (training certificates, plans for personal development, self-reflection notes, SWOT analysis and such) that will provide us with a clear picture of where we are, and analyze these documents and proofs so that we know where we need to move next in reach our potentials in professional context.
What type of development activity have you been working on?
The development activity being undertaken at the moment is titled “Playful math” and has multiple objectives like: improve the meta-cognition of students, help them develop love for math, help them realize that math is all around us, help them use logical thinking while doing math problems. In addition, it also has the end of expanding the data basis of positive math practice in the school through enriching it with new teaching instruments, techniques and lesson plans that can be used by other teachers in the school.
What type of development activities have been created by some of your colleagues - members of the learning community?
Given that our learning community comprises of 36 teachers who are experienced, dedicated and innovative individuals, true professionals in their field of expertise, the bulk of its activities consist of various actions aimed to improve language and math skills. Part of these activities are: improving students’ knowledge of number sequences, improving techniques for adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, acquiring practical knowledge of geometrical figures and bodies, improving the skills necessary for solving textual assignments, improving reading skills, reading comprehension skills, writing, increase interest for reading.
Which are the greatest challenges and the greatest benefits that you both faced and gained functioning as a learning community in your school?
At the very beginning of our work as a learning community we were confronted with a plethora of questions like why a learning community, what is a learning community, do we have to be members of it, what EXTRA duties are we to undertake? In due time, things have settled down since this is not something new or something EXTRA but merely an organized and systematic action, support and collaboration between teachers within the school and a networking and cooperation with teachers from other schools. The tools offered in the manual are mostly graphic organizers that facilitate our administrative duties, encouraging more teachers to openly speak about the challenges they are confronted with and helping deepen and strengthen the collaboration between the teachers in the school.
What are some of the benefits of these activities for the students? Have you noticed any improvement in their reading or math skills being a result of these activities?
Each teacher evidences the achievements of their students in forms of anecdotal notes, analysis, or “aha-moments”. We are proud of the achievements and we spend time discussing them on our meetings. A proof of the achievements are the student competition prizes, early literacy and numeracy assessment results, and the pleasure we have noticed among our students. And you know the saying, a happy student is a successful student.
What are the future plans of your learning community?
We plan to maintain the same dynamics and to also:
-Undertake activities for identifying and applying a systematized, well-conceived, individual approach in the work with children with special educational needs (talented students as well as students learning difficulties) together with the school experts and parents;
-Expand the data basis of positive practice within the school and beyond;
-Regularly revise teachers’ planning of the development activities and extend them through the inclusion of clearly defined activities;
-Encourage parents’ inclusion in the learning community through personal suggestions, examples, and positive practice in the working with children at home.