Friday, February 13, 2015

Where Does the Introverted Teacher Fit? Reflections on my journey in a Professional Learning Community

Professional Learning Community. In my district the term has become so common that it's practically lost meaning. Every school has a PLC these days but what it actually looks like seems to vary from school to school. The term in many ways leaves educators with a vague feeling of something they have been told to do but may or may not understand.

I work in what feels like THE Professional Learning Community. We opened our doors three years ago and before the building was finished, before all the teachers were hired, the school was operating under the ideas behind the concept. For us it is not a vague idea or an educational trend but a way of life. You rarely hear the term inside the school because it is just what we do. It's no longer a thing in itself, it is a part of the building.

If I am honest I must admit that in many ways my journey within this PLC structure has been rocky. I came from an amazing school that I feel was torn apart by the district mandating the PLC path. There were of course many reasons for the changes that came to the school, but like a child trying to understand his parents' divorce, I grabbed onto one tangible, intrusive change and held on tight.

The first year at my school I was teaching in our Intellectual Disabilities program. I loved it, but was frustrated by the PLC culture because I very much felt apart from what was happening with the rest of the school. It felt isolating and almost as though it had created a popular clique between my team and the rest of the school. In March, after one meaningful conversation with the administration we changed our structure and found a way to include our team in grade level planning meetings. I started to warm up more to the idea of this PLC. I started to see the value. Once my team was included in the planning meetings I saw the level of achievement of my students rise. OK, there was something here.

The following year I was no longer in the Intellectual Disabilities program, but was a part of the special education team that supported the rest of the school. I experienced the PLC through a different lens, and one that often left me struggling with how I felt about it. I saw the value and watched achievement rise, but something wasn't sitting right. After a few months I realized the problem. Being an introvert in a Professional Learning Community is extremely difficult.

Our meetings involve a lot of people. The four grade level team teachers, the reading or math specialist, the grade level ESOL teacher, the special education teacher, the gifted and talented teacher, technology specialist, the administration, and often visitors from other schools. We plan everything together, laying out the plans for the week in an online notebook. It's amazing and efficient in a lot of ways, but as someone who often thinks before she speaks, it is wildly intimidating. There is a lot to discuss, not much time to discuss it in, and many people want the opportunity to weigh in. People tend to talk over each other, or politely pause to allow someone to finish speaking without fully listening to what was said. For those quieter, more reserved teachers it can feel like those who speak the most become viewed as the ones with all the answers, and those who speak the least are seen as not a true member of the team, or just along for the ride. It can be uncomfortable leaving those meetings week after week feeling like you aren't able to contribute because although you had something to offer you were not able to get a word in edgewise, and when you did it wasn't taken seriously.

We teach our students to listen to one another and respect each other.
Are we modeling that in how we treat one another?
Of course, with time and relationship building everyone can become comfortable at the table. As people get to know one another more they will grow to have mutual respect. But relationship building takes time and often is not something we have time for on a day to day basis. And relationship building cannot come from those amazing ice breakers people so often want us to do as educators- you know, the ones third graders love but make us feel ridiculous as adults. I have never heard of a real relationship blossoming from playing "stand up, hand up, pair up". You want to lose an introvert's interest in a topic or professional development? Forced participation is always the answer.

Giving teachers time to form real relationships is not easy. We barely have time to plan, let alone to sit down and bond. Yet any good working relationship has to be formed over time. True collaboration cannot just happen by lighting a match. I am sure this is a problem in all fields, and one that all introverts struggle with. The book Quiet, by Susan Cain provides an excellent example of the struggles that introverts can feel in the work place. What's different with education is that it was not always this way. As the field becomes more and more collaborative the introverts that were doing wonderful lessons with great results in their own classrooms are being viewed as not being team players. The collaborative structure, which often forces wonderful, yet introverted teachers out of their comfort zones, can be quieting quality voices. Often these voices have creative solutions and meaningful insights to their team's work, yet are not comfortable in the new collaborative culture.

Three years into this Professional Learning Community I have become a true believer. It is incredible to see the success our students have. The results speak for themselves. The structure also promotes fast problem solving that benefits everyone. I've been amazed at how issues that can cripple other schools are solved in a ten minute meeting where people put their heads together. As I become more comfortable in the school I no longer feel the frustrations I felt last year as an introvert with my internal struggle of how to participate in the meeting. But I watch others struggle, their excellent, thoughtful voices quieted. As a field we must continue to promote collaboration. It is absolutely, without a doubt the key to student success. But we should be examining our collaborative practices and asking ourselves whether or not we have truly collaborative teams or if we are inadvertently creating structures where some teachers openly share ideas and other just nod and smile. We need to ask ourselves what we can do to promote better collaboration and respect on our teams, even when our precious planning time as educators is limited.


Herding.cats said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for articulating this. I left my PLC meeting yesterday feeling dissatisfied, but not knowing why. You put your finger on the problem! I love my team teachers, love the problem-solving and focus on moving students forward, but often feel like my ideas get pushed aside because they aren't the first or loudest. We recognize different learning pathways for students--but we are not always as sensitive with each other.

Thank you also for this blog--I'm a frequent reader, occasional commenter, and I appreciate your thoughtful take on the issues that face us all, no matter where or what we teach. Nice to know we're not alone!

Luanne Lewis said...

Protocols - Read the Power of Protocols and try one.

Rayanne Pirozzi said...

The same thoughts have been rattling around inside my head. It is reassuring to hear another teacher voice their struggles with collaboration and being an introvert. I also believe in the power of collaboration but find myself uncomfortable with the practice given time constraints and meeting frameworks. I often feel put on the spot to share my thinking when I need more time to think about what I am thinking!