Peer learning cycle

“The group will find an invisible idea.” How does a group of teachers find something that is invisible?

You’ve seen me write in this space all year about how our children grow and develop. Two weeks ago, I wrote about “parents growing together,” and how our school partners with the Parents Association to provide space and time for this important work.  A school community is like a triangle – our three legs are children, parents, and staff – and I believe that one leg cannot grow without the other. 

So, how do we facilitate the growth of our teaching staff?

After hearing feedback from teachers, looking through relevant research and literature, meeting with outside professionals, and discussing as a Leadership Team (four teachers and the administrative team), we arrived at what we have termed the Peer Learning Cycle.

The Peer Learning Cycle (PLC) is a unique approach to professional development, synthesizing discrete elements of a number of research- and empirically-backed models found in K-12 schools. The PLC puts teachers into small peer groups who observe each other at work in the classroom and then regularly meet to critically discuss their observations.  The goals are to (I) deprivatize our teaching practice, (II) enhance our level of professionalism, and (III) increase levels of consistency from class to class.  We have not found any other early childhood environment taking this approach to professional development, and are excited to see where it leads us.

Two existing approaches to professional development in a school setting guided the way for our process.  Instructional Rounds in Education, developed by a group of professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is modeled after medical rounds and has principals and teachers from multiple schools within a district observe each other’s teachers at work and then pool their observations together in an objective way.  Those observations are then used to develop data and evidence of student learning, leading to the group developing “next steps” for the school to take to further that learning.  Critical Friends Groups, existing in different forms in schools across the country, asks teachers to break down the silos that often exist between classrooms by observing each other at work and using those observations to critically examine their own practice. However, neither Instructional Rounds nor Critical Friends fit the specific needs of our professional community.  

Which leaves us with the Peer Learning Cycle: something we have never tried before; something we have never seen someone else try before.  We are going on what author, consultant, and nursery parent-alum Dov Seidman might call a TRIP.  He writes that Trust leads to Risk, which leads to Innovation, and ultimately Progress.  Our journey of professional growth begins with Trust in each other, and allows us to take that big leap into the uncomfortable unknown. 

Trust allows us to feel vulnerable and supported at the same time.  When we launched the PLC, our whole staff discussed a longer excerpt from author and research professor Brene Brown that ended with, “We believe growth and learning are uncomfortable so it’s going to happen here – you’re going to feel that way. We want you to know that it’s normal and it’s an expectation here. You’re not alone and we ask that you stay open and lean into it.” Our small groups of teachers have followed through on the promise of trust and vulnerability. 

After we read the Brown quote, one teacher remarked, “Being vulnerable is not the same as being scared or weak – it is opening up the path to possibilities. It’s not going to be comfortable.” We have accepted that our growth will at times be uncomfortable.  It will require us to critically examine our own professional practice, to ask hard questions, and ultimately, to elevate each other.  Having other teachers observe me, another teacher said, “Might help me take more risks along the way – knowing that others are watching and helping me.”  By opening the door on growth and discomfort, and being there to support each other, we can examine old ways in new lights. Or, as one teacher put it, “Even something we’re good at; I never think it is a closed topic.”  In one recent meeting, a teacher remarked, “I came back to my classroom saying, oh my God, there’s so much independence going on [in their classroom] and so many new things for us to do and try [in our classroom].”

Our discussions in peer learning groups have sometimes been recursive, begging the question of what exactly we are seeking to create.  One of our teachers grabbed hold of this uncertainty and said, “The group will find an invisible idea.”

So this, then, is how we facilitate the growth of our teachers: using trust to allow for vulnerability, allowing us to share our practice and examine others’.  There are many invisible ideas out there.  I believe our path of growth is leading our teachers to find those as of yet undescribed ideas that will better their own practice. 

By piecing together the growth that our students, parents, and teachers experience, we are able to grow as a community and not disparate parts.

Shabbat shalom,

Noah