When a teacher leader approached the Grand Rapids Christian High School faculty in 2012 about “the PLC” (professional learning community) process, we were convinced that this was another educational initiative, an acronym even, that would fade away if we just waited it out. We were being asked to work collaboratively in our teams (departments) and center our work around four questions:
What do we want students to know/be able to do?
How will we know they’ve learned it?
What do we do if they don’t learn it?
What do we do if they already know it?
Those questions were logical questions to ask, but our meetings didn’t feel productive. We knew we were teaching the same things we’d always taught, and we knew what our tests looked like. We also felt strongly that it was the student’s responsibility to prepare well and that learning would come for those who just worked harder. Our team meetings felt like a waste of time that could be better used prepping in our own classrooms.
Professional Learning Teams (PLTs)
I was asked to attend a PLC Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, to represent teachers. I thought “Sure, I’ll go to Phoenix in February!” So I traveled to Phoenix with around forty educators from our district. I was more excited about the comradery with colleagues and sightseeing than I was about the content of the conference. I remember listening to the keynote speaker and being convicted that many of the principles and beliefs that were being presented should be of the utmost importance to me as a Christian educator! The speaker talked about how each child was different and had unique gifts and challenges. He talked about the belief that all students could learn if we worked together as a team. He brought to light some damaging, archaic practices that we were still using. He spoke of the real-life consequences that our students and society would face if students failed. I was challenged, convicted, and re-inspired as an educator. It all made so much sense to me. What our school had been trying to do alone couldn’t and shouldn’t be done alone. To sum it up, our school had been more focused on teaching than on learning.
We are now all-in on collaboration at Grand Rapids Christian High. We realized that this PLC process is not a program that gets implemented but rather a new way to think about education. We built a master schedule that not only provided time for teacher collaboration but also required collaboration. Each Monday morning our PLTs meet from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., and we have a late start for students. These are not traditional department meetings that focus on budget, awards, responsibilities, or even lesson plans. They focus on student learning and are guided by the four questions. These four questions, which before seemed so obvious and easy to answer, have come to life and drive all the work we do in our teams. We have realized that the work we once hoped would eventually be finished, will never be finished. Working in collaborative teams to make sure that all students learn at high levels is ongoing and has given our work in Christian education renewed purpose.
Questions That Drive PLTs
The first question, “What do we want students to know/be able to do?,” goes much deeper than choosing a textbook or simply making a list of standards to be covered.
Brad Mockabee is in his 20th year at Grand Rapids Christian High School and his first year as principal. Over the last 20 years, Brad has served in many roles at GRCHS including Spanish teacher, head football coach, Winterim coordinator, and dean of curriculum.