The term professional learning community (PLC) has been around since the 1960s as a tool to find a way to battle the isolation teachers face in their classrooms or schools. We know that educators learning from one another can have a deep impact on student learning, and since the late 1990s, countless books and a wealth of research all point to the positive power of developing collaborative relationships between educators.
In healthy school environments, educators interact with grade level teams, departments, and colleagues across the school and the district. There are some great models and guidelines for these PLCs(e.g. from Ontario, Victoria & Wales) that are helping develop systematic approaches to creating strong learning communities within schools. Building a vision that connects educators within your school is a powerful way to help deprivatize what is happening in classrooms, help teachers build vertical and horizontal classroom relationships, and it models how teams work collaboratively for students.
However, what if we decided to move beyond this traditional school “siloed” approach to PLCs? Imagine if we took the opportunity to extend a hand to other schools in our area to say, “We want to learn from you and with you!” What would the impact on educators who are a part of this community of learners be? How would it impact student learning? Is it possible to truly connect large numbers of teachers across schools to build a community of sharing, learning and collaborating?
With these questions in mind, LEVEL 5, a professional learning hub for sparking educational innovation, along with a small group of educators from Bahrain set out to activate the educational community within this small country. The mission was to create a thriving network of like-minded educators sharing practice and learning from one another across a wide range of schools. The following steps share how we approached the challenge, and how you might be able to replicate the process in your community.
Step 1: Take the Leap
The first step we took was to reach out. We visited other campuses, asked for tours of programs, engaged local universities, got ideas, listened to how things are done across the island, and encouraged great ideas on visits. Our goal was to build relationships. We thought that it would be better to go out first rather than invite other schools in. It helped us show that we were interested in learning from them and that we were willing to put the time into building a collaborative relationship.
One important piece to ensure these new relationships are fostered is to extend the invite back out to have a similar experience at your school. This encourages both continued dialogue and connection between the two schools.
Step 2: Carve Out Time
After we began building these relationships between schools and educators, we carved out time to get a larger group together to meet and chat about possibilities to extended this new learning community.
This can be done through formal, planned meeting times where inter-school connections can flourish. It can also be done without any mention of school through social events, such as staff sports competitions, book clubs or a simple BBQ. Friendships between teachers lay the groundwork for collaboration and sharing better than any email chain ever can.
Step 3: Open Communication
Providing platforms to communicate between schools helps foster continued relationships. Email is a good starting point, but finding a quick, effective form of communication for your context can be powerful.
We created an island-wide educator WhatsApp group, Facebook group, and common Twitter and Instagram hashtag (#bahrainedu) that is open for all to share professional learning opportunities, upcoming social gatherings, and great practices happening within classrooms. These groups have helped develop connections between educators and are growing daily. While there is still work to be done, educators are beginning to slowly open up to the idea of deprivatizing what they are doing in their classrooms.
Step 4: Create Opportunities to Share
To fully galvanize a community of schools, it is important next to design opportunities that allow educators to share practice from their classrooms and schools. TeachMeets, Ed Camps, or Hackathons are all great events that get educators from your area in the same room sharing, building relationships and learning from one another.
Make it fun, engaging, and unique. This will draw people back for your follow up events, which should be hosted at different schools that participate in the events. This helps build equity in the community of schools.
In Bahrain, we decided to run TeachMeets after developing our community relationships to begin getting educators together. At first, we thought we would get around 30–40 educators joining us, but we were pleasantly surprised when around 80 educators came on a Monday evening. The second TeachMeet we hosted two months later drew around 175 educators, and we believe it will continue to grow. It has taken a full year, but we feel that we now have the beginnings of an activated community of educators in Bahrain.
Impact on the Educational Community
We’ve seen a number of benefits from deliberately creating a professional learning community that extends beyond our school. One of the impacts that we didn’t expect when starting this initiative was the empowerment of educators. The TeachMeets have provided a platform for educators to share in front of a group and an opportunity to step out of their comfort zones and be an “expert”. This has been a powerful way for educators to build confidence and showcase the amazing things they are doing in their schools.
This community is focused on spreading innovative practices in education to help students grow and learn. We know that when we help teachers grow, it can have a bigger impact on student learning. Therefore, we decided to share all the presentations and material after the events. We have already seen that these ideas are being used in classrooms around the island. Educators are also beginning to open up their classrooms to the learning community through social media.
Our next TeachMeet is set for September, and we already have teachers signing up to attend. We will also be hosting new events, such as poetry evenings, PechaKucha nights, cardboard construction challenges, and much more to continue to activate the educational community here in Bahrain and help teachers share, learn, and collaborate with one another for the years to come.