Peering Into a Community of Practice

Over the past year I have had the opportunity to be drenched in happiness while working with Facilitating Teachers in Pitt County, and it has been exciting to watch the transformation of our teacher leaders in this new role.  While there are so many incredible Communities of Practice (CoP’s) at work in Pitt County Schools, I would like to highlight one in particular.

Julie Howard and Samantha Miller are both facilitating teachers at WH Robinson.  Julie is the AIG teacher, while Samantha teaches fifth grade ELA/SS. Between the two of their CoPs, they have a group of six collaborating teachers with whom they work.   Julie and Samantha were originally interested in becoming Facilitating Teachers in an effort to extend their leadership capabilities and influence beyond their individual classroom and their school.  

Although Samantha and Julie have worked with each other before, they have found tremendous value in the way they now collaborate.  When asked what makes it different than collaborating within PLCs or grade level meetings, both agreed it was the way in which they conduct their CoP meetings.  They both credit being given “tools” in which the quality of interactions are much different. They both are intentional about setting norms for meetings, which they review and honor at each meeting.  Another thing they both identified as most valuable was the idea that that they have intentional protocols in place. For example, everyone has the opportunity to be actively involved by bringing research-based ideas to the table, where they engage in dialogue .  They have learned to delve into the hard-to-talk about details of student learning and its connection to teachers teaching and assessing. Both agreed these new protocols have transformed the way they interact with each other, which has brought a renewed level of energy and enthusiasm to the team.  They now have common language that is intentional, where they have the capacity to reach greater levels of inquiry.

To have a Facilitating Teacher schools had to identify a problem of practice they wanted to address.  WH Robinson used EOG, DCA’s, and CFA’s to identify their problem of practice, which revealed a trend in students struggling with informational texts across grade levels.Both CoP’s have engaged in research to learn as much as they could about why their students might be struggling with informational texts.  Quite frequently Julie and Samantha collaborated with each other and shared research they had found on the subject. Both stated the research “helped us dig down and decide what to focus on, which led us to looking at content vs. academic vocabulary.” They both realized they were finding similar research and thought maybe they should combine their CoP’s together to discuss the research.  So they did.

Amazing things happened once this group of 2nd – 5th grade teachers got together!  A vision emerged to vertically align content and academic vocabulary. A goal they had was to implement common language among teachers and students spanning all grade levels.  Miller explains, “it is so exciting to see forward progression, and it is so exciting because sometimes we teachers feel so powerless to make change happen and now to be able to roll this out in that spectrum is HUGE!”   When we talked it was obvious to me that this sense of achievement and fulfillment was real, this thought of impacting so many students at her school. She further explained that what they have been trying to accomplish is “authentic, real, and our administration is on board.”  Both teachers explained often teachers do things that simply appear to be recycled, but being part of this initiative they feel they are on a new track, with a purpose and direction. Both Julie and Samantha value the time they spend with their CoPs. Too often teachers rarely plan vertically, let alone implement strategies that span all grade levels, but this is changing at WHR.

These teams of teachers decided to begin using common academic and content vocabulary across grade levels in a structured, intentional way where they could gather data.   They both noted the students were beginning to apply the vocabulary in context. Miller stated, “we moved beyond memorizing vocabulary to using vocabulary in a meaningful way in which we scaffolded it for our students.”   Both Howard and Miller credited their CoP members for being on board and being willing to try new things. They collectively felt safe sharing ideas and asking questions about what the strategy might look like in a 2nd grade classroom vs. a 5th grade classroom.   

When asked about what successes their CoPs have experienced, six themes emerged:

  • Sharing a common vision;
  • Valuing trusting relationships;
  • Understanding that they could combine their CoPs;
  • Trying new strategies;
  • Consensus of how to gather data;
  • The importance of going slow to get it right.

Both teachers cited their success in building their CoPs by already having rapport and trust established from years of working together, though it was deepend as a result of the intentional strategies they used this year.  Miller stated, “our CoPs are functioning really well because every teacher has an open mind, and they are invested in addressing our problem of practice.” When asked about the culture of the CoP she explained, “The culture is so comfortable and positive and open minded and knowledgeable.  It ranges in years of experience and spans across grade levels”. It is obvious they share a belief they can positively influence student outcomes, and they are working to do that. Both facilitating teachers feel they have an attainable vision. They used the analogy “we are not floating around on an island; we are a mountain, we have PURPOSE!”

It would seem to me that all the teachers in these two CoPs are experiencing happiness in their profession.  Research has shown that when teachers collectively invest in their students, there is a correlation between success and higher achievement, and all indicators right now are that at WHR this is true.

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