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Teaching, Workplace Wellness

Learning Together

One school’s success with teacher learning cohorts

Technology integration and inclusionary teaching practices have been important educational priorities in Newfoundland and Labrador for some years now. These issues have saturated the educational agendas of many jurisdictions for decades. Effective and efficient technology integration that leads to increased student achievement, in particular, is one goal that seems elusive to implement on a wide scale.

One school has met this challenge by developing and implementing a professional learning community based on a sustained, supported and systematic approach.Amalgamated Academy is a Grade 4-9 school in rural Bay Roberts, N.L. With a student population of approximately 720 and 50 staff members, it is one of the largest schools outside of the capital city of St. John’s. This unique mix of elementary and intermediate has many challenges, but also presents many opportunities for developing cross-grade level interactions between our students and staff.

 For most of its history, Amalgamated Academy has relied on isolated professional learning sessions that had no sustained connection through the school year. Over the last three years, however, we have developed a professional learning community based on small staff cohorts with common interests. With concerted effort and the support of our administration, our cohort initiative has been the catalyst for significant cultural change regarding technology integration and inclusionary practice.

The cohort structure

The cohort structure is the backbone of professional learning at the school. Just as teachers want to create engaging student-centred learning opportunities, we wanted the cohorts to be engaging and centred on teacher professional learning. This is achieved through the voluntary nature of the cohorts. Participation is optional; however teachers do commit to the cohort for the duration of the school year to ensure a sustained effort.

At the beginning of the year, during our first school-based professional development (PD) day, cohort members meet and determine their first goal. Within the one-year time frame teachers aim to complete multiple goals that they set for themselves. We ensure that the goals are focused and attainable, so that teachers experience success. Goal selection is, however, teacher driven and this choice is imperative. Allowing teachers to choose goals most relevant to them gives them ownership. The nature of group participation and the formal recording of goals lends accountability to participants. Each subsequent school PD day acts as a check-in for members. During these check-ins, teachers share triumphs and tribulations as they reflect on their progress. Members complete formal reflections and use them as a springboard for professional discussions. These check-ins act as deadlines for the completion of one goal and the initiation of the next, building on the first.

Most important is what happens in between these check-ins. The lead teachers and cohort mentors regularly assist members with goal completion. This can involve providing in-class support with the implementation of a new strategy or use of technology, gathering resources or searching out answers. Mentors also help teachers stay focused to ensure a sustained effort. Most importantly, the mentors and other cohort members support each other and remove the sense of isolation often experienced by teachers in the classroom.

Administrative support

The success experienced at Amalgamated Academy would not have occurred without support and encouragement from the administration. Our administrators recognize the value of informal leaders as a link that helps connect teachers and school-based professional learning sessions. They are comfortable placing the responsibility of professional learning in the hands of teachers. Teachers are not told what they need for PD, but rather are given the opportunity to pursue areas of interest within the school’s growth and development plan, which in turn supports the larger district level strategic plan. Our administrators also advocate for time and resources with district personnel. Like most schools, ours is a busy place and time is a valued commodity. By utilizing existing professional learning structures, such as our three school-based days and two district days, we have been able to virtually eliminate the need for extra time.

The technology cohort in action

But how does this structure work in real life? Why would teachers buy in to this program of professional learning? As many of us know, just developing policies and structures without providing authentic supports can be counterproductive.

Intrinsic motivation, choice, relevance to daily practice and a strong framework of support are all important for increasing staff engagement in Amalgamated Academy’s cohort initiative. A closer look at our first cohort – the technology cohort – is used to offer an example of how this works in real life and why teachers buy in at the school level.

There is no lack of technology infrastructure at Amalgamated Academy; however, equitable integration of technology across the entire staff has been difficult to achieve, and sustained professional learning around the effective integration of technology was missing. During the 2010-2011 school year, we approached the administration with the idea of utilizing the open source Moodle (www.moodle.org) Learning Management System as the focus for a teacher collaboration initiative on meaningful technology integration. The school had been using this resource off and on for a number of years with a handful of teachers, but our hope was to increase the proficiency and develop a capacity among our staff to utilize the Moodle framework in a constructive way. Moodle offered us the ability to connect with students, parents and the community through a current technological channel. Its integrated platform for developing electronic learning environments can be tailored to the individual school or teacher, and many common Web 2.0 technologies, such as wikis, forums and blogs, are available in this system without having to worry about the headaches associated with managing multiple user accounts across a plethora of sites and services. If a teacher can learn how to effectively use this interface, we argued, they would also gain valuable general technology skills that would transfer to many other areas outside of their Moodle use. The administration agreed with our idea and we began to organize for the next year.

Without a strong framework and cohort structure, the chances of our entire staff buying in and utilizing this resource in a meaningful way was low. We’ve seen this with other technological initiatives over the years, as early adopters push forward and the rest follow slowly in their wake or paddle in the opposite direction. One of the reasons for our high success rate in teacher engagement during the first year of our Moodle cohort was the voluntary nature of the engagement. We explained the expectations and structure to our staff during the latter part of the 2010-2011 school year, and were delighted when the majority of our staff decided to join. The next factor was the role of individual choice during participation.

As a member of our Moodle cohort, there were no limitations on the goals that a teacher could set, but we did have expectations. Their goals had to be meaningful, achievable and specific to their individual situation. Superfluous language was discouraged in favour of clear, concise statements that were grounded in the practical application of integrating technology into a lesson to meet course organization or curriculum outcomes. Within the framework of trying to increase the role of technology integration into their daily lessons, teachers actively linked their goals to everyday challenges. As the completion of each goal built on and supported their next goal, they were able to increase their technological and pedagogical skill set through the year.

Changing your pedagogical approach is not an easy task. Most of us already have an underlying approach to our teaching practice that has become almost as ingrained as a religious belief. Participating in our Moodle cohort gave teachers a way to examine their pedagogy in a safe and supported environment. The final factor in our success would be that support. No one was alone; we all had a group of colleagues and friends to rely on.

Perhaps the greatest measure of success of that first year of the Moodle cohort was the launch of a second cohort the following year with a focus on inclusionary teaching practices. Teachers had expressed that they wanted to create more inclusive classrooms but had not been able to do so as they felt foundational supports were lacking. They recognized that the support and accountability that they saw as a Moodle cohort member was what they needed to implement teaching strategies to create inclusive learning environments for their students.

Since the 2012-2013 school year, we’ve continued to run both cohorts with much success, and the participation rate by teachers in the cohorts has increased by close to 75 percent. When we meet and share during the year, a great sense of community is captured by our forum posts as individuals identify similar difficulties and encourage one another to carry forward with the assurance that someone will be there to help them through. We have built a positive group identity of being part of a cohort, all working individually, but together, toward the greater common goal of improving our school. This sense of belonging, community and common purpose is the greatest key to our success. It has changed our school culture and positively impacted student learning.

What teachers tell us about professional learning cohorts

“The goals I set were things I wanted to do so it wasn’t another thing I had to do.”

“I find the cohort structure good because the support is motivational and makes you more accountable.”

“Yes, I do feel more confident in my ability with Moodle. After experimenting and developing with different interactive lessons through Moodle, I have gained a greater understanding and appreciation of its use.”

“One major challenge was convincing myself of its benefit and taking the time to start the first lesson. One major triumph was experiencing how well students responded to the activities.”

 

En BrefL’effet de l’apprentissage professionnel réalisé isolément sur l’évolution des pratiques pédagogiques peut être minime, mais c’est le principal mode accessible aux enseignants. Grâce à une démarche systématique, persistante et soutenue de l’apprentissage professionnel, le personnel enseignant de l’Amalgamated Academy à Bay Roberts, Terre-Neuve-et-Labrador, a surmonté plusieurs des problèmes liés à l’isolement de l’apprentissage professionnel. En composant des regroupements de cohortes multi-années axés sur l’intégration technologique et les pratiques pédagogiques inclusives, le personnel de l’Amalgamated Academy a obtenu un grand succès en relativement peu de temps, sans grever les ressources de l’école et du conseil scolaire. Ce succès découle d’un cadre simple de collaboration et de soutien entre pairs.

 

Photo: Olivier Lantzendorffer (iStock)

First published in Education Canada, March 2015

Meet the Expert(s)

Sonya Burden

Sonya Burden

Sonya Burden, BSc, BEd, MEd, is a science teacher at Amalgamated Academy in Bay Roberts, N.L. She can be reached at sonyaburden@nlesd.ca

Sonya Burden BSc, BEd is currently completing an MEd at Memorial University and is a science teacher at Amalgamated Academy in Bay Roberts, N.L. She is the lead teacher of the school’s inclusive education cohort and can be reached at sonyaburden@nlesd.ca

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david gill

David Gill

David Gill, BA, BEd, MEd, is currently on leave from his position as learning resource and technology education teacher at Amalgamated Academy in Bay Roberts, N.L. and is serving as Assistant Professor of Technology Education at Memorial University in St. John’s. N.L. Contact him at dgill@mun.ca

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