Just a Word, Please?

I really have something on my mind lately: Teachers need time for professional conversations with colleagues. I’m not talking about mandated conversations chosen by administrators for PLCs or Professional Development. I’m talking about giving teachers unstructured time to develop strategies around their problems of practice—and trusting that they will use their time wisely.

Sadly, I feel like these unstructured opportunities decrease every single year. I recently heard an administrator say: “You can’t just give teachers time to talk without structure or they won’t do anything.” I have to strongly, strongly disagree with this statement. I disagree because I hear teachers having strategic, problem-solving conversations every chance they can get! And teachers in my circle keep saying, “I wish we had more time to talk like this.” I completely agree.

Etiene Wenger (1998) has a theory about groups of people working together called “Communities of Practice.” A Community of Practice occurs when a group of people has similar terminology (shared repertoire), goals (joint enterprise), and desire to be together (mutual engagement). The bottom line to this theory is that people with similar experiences have a way of understanding each other that no one else can match. This is so true of teachers. If you’ve ever told a funny classroom story to a colleague who nearly peed her pants laughing—and then retold the story to your dad and he barely raised an eyebrow—you know exactly what I mean. Some people just don’t get what it’s like to be a teacher today.

Teachers crave time to talk with other teachers about things that are affecting them in the classroom. Instead of providing teachers time to generate their own ideas and solutions, a great amount of teacher Professional Development stems from the “banking” model of education: the idea that instructional coaches and administrators are the ultimate authority who share their knowledge while teachers watch and learn the information. Boring! I think this teaching mentality is outdated in both classrooms and teacher Professional Development. Teachers don’t need other experts to generate these golden nuggets of knowledge—especially when the knowledge is transmitted through a lame PowerPoint. The teachers in my context have great ideas! Just like students, they would prefer to generate and share their own knowledge to develop new understandings.

Overall, I think that teachers need more unstructured time during the workday to collaborate with their grade levels or content areas. Years ago, Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) popped up with this core value; but many administrators took over PLCs to facilitate their agenda, taking control away from the teachers. Now, the idea of “Communities of Practice” seems to be catching on. Once again, teachers have little control over the content of these meetings because administrators predetermine the tasks for the group.

It seems like there is a distrust of teachers to be professional with their time. Where does this come from? Is it the era of accountability looming over us…the shrinking budget for Professional Development…the de-professionalization of teachers in the media? Without unstructured time for discussion, there is little time for reflection about the complex aspects of the job—things administrators may not remember to put on the agenda.

But I think it’s time for some change. If administrators start giving teachers some unstructured time for reflective practice—I think they might be pleasantly surprised by the outcomes.


Jess Ledbetter

Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms.

Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

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