For several years, teachers at Leysin American School (LAS) have formed their own professional learning groups on topics of interest to them.
In the final weeks of the school year, the research department brings the faculty together so the groups can easily share their learning with each other.
We start with a shout out for all types of professional learning. Then at least one member of each professional learning group sits at a station with information about the major takeaways of their meetings. The rest of us visit the stations in a loosely coordinated exchange of accomplishments, ideas, and future goals. It’s informal and informational both.
Faculty start arriving in the library early. Aaron, our coordinator today, has organized croissants, juice, and coffee. Faculty naturally form groups of three and four. The French teachers are speaking French to my left, a bit further away three faculty members are talking with our current visiting scholar, Bilge, a professor from Türkiye. Some people take seats near the screen – we’ll be starting with faculty recognitions soon. Some take the more comfortable couches and easy chairs at the back of the room, by the windows, where a few of the stations will be located.
Aaron gets our attention and asks faculty to stand who, during the course of the academic year, were involved in any of these activities:
- professional learning communities for teachers in their first year at LAS;
- attending or presenting at a conference;
- professional meetings, job-alikes, workshops, and certificate courses online;
- IB or AP training;
- school accreditation;
- publishing blogs, articles, and book chapters;
- working on a project as a resident scholar (long term passion projects);
- graduate work; and
- learning French (LAS is located in Suisse Romande).
A few of these opportunities were pursued by just two or three faculty members, e.g. graduate work and being on a NEASC accreditation team. Most of these activities were pursued by ten or more teaching faculty (out of approximately 50 teachers with partial or full teaching loads).
Nicola, in charge of our resident scholar program, announces next the passion projects for the coming academic year. Faculty members with accepted proposals will be exploring simulations in history class, reading across the curriculum, flipped math classrooms, the use of graphic novels for world language learning, and executive functioning. These are year-long projects that represent the best features of professional learning – these faculty members will be working with a great deal of autonomy as they collaborate with others, learning directly in their own classroom or work setting, over a significant stretch of time. They will receive a stipend for their work and several of them are likely present or publish their work during the course of the next academic year.
We moved quickly, the meeting started less than ten minutes ago. Aaron and Nicola now turn the meeting over to individual professional learning groups. Each group posts at least one of their members at their station and they begin sharing their experiences as the rest of us choose whom we would like to speak to. I visit the stations, too, taking notes.
Four faculty members continued a peer coaching model initiated by a faculty member the previous year. The teacher at the station expresses how she doesn’t know how to balance the need for further trust in the students, something she would like to do, with the need to prepare them well for the assessments of the off-the-shelf curriculum she is working with. Another member from the group mentions how helpful the videos were, since we don’t often have an option to see ourselves teaching, nor to debrief our teaching with colleagues. She reports that she changed how she asks students questions, from “do you have any questions?” to “what is your main question right now.”
“It makes a difference,” she tells me and the others at her station.
Tech for learning
Three faculty members chose to work on aspects of technology for their own classes with the support of the coordinator for educational technology, Keri. Keri often provided individual assistance, helping faculty members with tools like Kahoot for world language classes and AssessPrep in an English class. Faculty members interested in tech supported each other. One member left the group during the year because she was also pursuing a graduate degree. The consensus was that what was accomplished was worthwhile, but that more could have been accomplished, too.
A group working on assessment Identified needed changes to the system we adopted over the last five years. They identified two main problem areas. We are running a standards system … sorta. There are inconsistencies across departments and even within departments. Secondly, while the teachers in this group were able to identify the main issues, they didn’t feel they were in a position to effect change in assessment practices across the school. An administrator hears their concerns during the course of the session. Perhaps this is the little push that is needed to move concerns about the assessment system higher up on the priority list for next year.
Practices for exceptional learners
Much of the conversations of faculty members in this group focused on how to provide additional assistance for students in ESL, math, and science, by considering ways in which to bolster academic support during evening study halls. (LAS is a boarding school.) How best can the school differentiate instruction by providing one-on-one tutoring to those who need it, not just those who can afford it? The group has focused on gathering further information through surveys, taking their work into the next academic year.
Building connections with the local community
For the second year in a row a group of faculty members have chosen to work on bringing our school into closer communication and collaboration with the local community and other potential partners in our region of Switzerland. Our teachers have become more involved with volunteer activities (seed swaps, eco projects, repair clinics, volunteerism) in our town, with other international schools (SDG simulation and badminton leagues), and with universities both in Zurich and Lausanne. Being a good community member – and leveraging the resources around us – is a rising tide floating all of our boats.
This is the largest professional learning group, with nearly twenty active members. The group scheduled meetings at various times throughout the year, sometimes with just a few members attending, sometimes with nearly everyone. They felt that the successes of the committee (e.g. the gender inclusive restrooms on campus, the progress on a new inclusion policy, more inclusive English/French internal communication) were a tribute to the many people involved and the sure hand of the experienced leader of the group, Nunana. Because there was so much interest in being involved with the DEIJ group, they have often worked in self-organized subcommittees this past year, too.
Theory of Knowledge
This group was mainly composed of faculty members who teach either the IB course Theory of Knowledge (TOK) or the parallel course Foundations of Learning and Knowledge (FOLK). They formed a group which ran, in essence, TOK/FOLK department meetings. Since TOK and FOLK teachers tend to work across multiple departments, they hadn’t been able to meet regularly as a group for several years.
The group focused on developing a shared understanding of TOK and FOLK assessment – mirroring one of the other professional learning groups. They’ve also begun work on adapting the TOK and FOLK curriculum to next year’s new school schedule and are making improvements to the unit planners for FOLK to maintain its vitality and rigor. The faculty members continue to integrate in-class instruction with the autumn TOK/FOLK senior cultural trips. The focus this year has been developing reference materials and activities for students to complete during their visits to Florence, Rome, and Venice.
A current TOK examiner for the IB, the school librarian, and a member of the Social Studies department joined the group to improve understanding of the fit of the courses across the school curriculum.
Writing across the curriculum
This interdisciplinary group had several quotes from participants at their station. This one resonated with me: “Once we stopped worrying about having an end product we were able to focus on having meaningful conversations.” Wow. Is it okay to have professional learning that doesn’t have an end product? I realized right away that I was asking myself the wrong question. With a bit of reflection I changed my own query to: In what ways are meaningful conversations between colleagues a valuable end product? Bingo.
Innovative teaching and learning
In recent years, the school committed to furthering innovative programming. The idea is both appealing and broad. A few teachers were excited to come together to puzzle out what exactly a commitment to innovative teaching and learning might be.
They concluded that there are lots of existing pockets of creative teaching and learning. What is needed is a coordinated vision, which they felt they could contribute when they first created their group. However, they haven’t yet been able to gain much traction. In their case, meaningful conversations didn’t seem like enough, because the group had expectations of influencing the direction of programming. Perhaps their input will still deliver value; they intend to share their work to date with those who are in leadership positions. The showcase activity this morning contributes to that effort.
For nearly an hour faculty members have learned from each other, talked about issues that they chose to work on themselves, and shared successes and frustration in the honest way one can when you are able to select your conversational topics and partners. No doubt there were also side conversations, related both to work and play, as people moved among the stations and the table of croissants and other refreshments.
Faculty members finished with a short feedback form they picked up from a QR code and the library emptied. Classes are starting soon. Aaron, Nicola, and I debriefed as we stacked chairs and cleaned up. What sticks in my mind is this:
If we would like creative teaching and learning to continue spreading through our classes, we need to be modeling exactly that when we meet as a faculty. While self-directed professional learning groups, filled with autonomy and collaboration, are by no means the only way to run one’s professional development program, the model certainly provides a good based for all of us, full of differentiation and inquiry. The library this morning was filled with talk, discussion, trust, agency, support, dissent, success, and failure. This is learning.