Teachers know that students learn best when they are actively engaged, rather than simply listening to lectures. And that’s also the way teachers learn, observed Liz Dowd, principal at St. Agnes School in Avon.
“Just like our students, when we are a part of the learning process, it sticks,” she remarked.
That’s one reason Dowd is a big fan of the virtual professional learning communities the Diocese of Rochester created for its Catholic-school teachers last year. These communities have enabled teachers to share with and learn from their peers at other schools.
Each virtual professional learning community comprises five or six teachers of the same grade level from Catholic schools throughout the diocese, with one of the teachers serving as the group’s facilitator. Groups also have been formed for the teachers of such special subjects such art, music and physical education.
Each of these 35 of these professional learning communities meets virtually via Zoom once a month “to talk about those things that are specific to their subject areas,” explained James Tauzel, diocesan superintendent of schools.
Such communities are especially valuable to teachers in Catholic-school settings, where it’s not unusual for there to be just one section of each grade, he added. Being the only teacher for your grade level can feel isolating, noted Mary Kate Koecheler, fifth-grade teacher at Seton Catholic School in Brighton.
Participation in virtual professional learning communities can alleviate such feelings of isolation, Tauzel said.
“We can connect second-grade teachers, for example, with other second-grade teachers so they can talk about just how second grade works, … the struggles that are unique to second-graders and how to be the best second-grade teacher you can be,” he said.
In previous years, the diocesan Catholic Schools Office had tried to facilitate teacher-to-teacher connections through in-person events, which teachers really enjoyed, Tauzel said. However, in order to attend the events, the teachers had to find substitutes to cover their classes, and since the Diocese of Rochester covers 12 counties, many had to drive quite a distance, he said.
When the pandemic forced schools to pivot to remote learning in the spring of 2020, teachers quickly became proficient Zoom users, and the creation of virtual professional learning communities seemed like a natural next step, Tauzel said.
“There’s a way for us to … make them able to connect in a meaningful way and still be respectful of their time,” he explained.
Teachers are encouraged to use their group meetings to share data and learn from each other, but they’re not assigned specific topics to discuss. The teachers know their students best and already have the skills and tools necessary to solve problems, if they’re given the space to do so, Tauzel explained.
“Rather than us telling them what we want them to work on, we say, ‘What do you see as the highest-priority need for the classes that you’re working with?’ It’s been kind of beautiful to see the spectrum of focal points that each group chose, but I’m confident that each one is doing good for our students,” he said.
The fifth-grade teachers in the group Koecheler facilitates, for example, have focused on math, dubbing their group the Math Miracle Makers, or M^3. They share such helpful math resources as test-preparation materials, games and websites; discuss the fact that students coming into their classrooms in the last two years seem to require more assistance than in previous years; and work together to map out reasonable goals for their classes.
The kindergarten teachers in the group Natalie Memmel facilitates, meanwhile, discuss their classroom celebrations and curriculum, data-driven instruction and best practices.
“It’s helpful to hear what other teachers are doing in their classroom. … It is also helping me understand how to use data in other ways and improve my instruction in the classroom,” said Memmel, a kindergarten teacher at St. Joseph School in Penfield.
The data being used is not limited to hard numbers like test scores, Tauzel added. It also includes teachers’ observations of what they’re seeing in their classrooms, especially in terms of social and emotional needs.
“Sometimes what we see in test results is different than what we see in the classroom,” he said. “To really get a real picture of what’s going on, we need to understand how that child behaves in the classroom, what frustrates them in the classroom, what excites them and what engages them. When we understand the whole picture, we can do a better job of supporting them.”