You’d be hard pressed to look through any educational journal or website without coming across the phrase “best practice”. These classroom or school-based approaches are proven to be effective in a range of settings and supported by research studies. Educators that want to improve in some way can simply search for a best practice in (fill in the blank) and voila! And that’s a good thing, right? With time being such a limited resource, why reinvent the wheel when I can use a strategy that has already been successful for someone else?
Here’s why: reading about someone else’s best practice might indeed help me figure out how to work more effectively with my struggling readers, unmotivated 7th graders, or disengaged high school seniors. But someone else’s proven strategy is not going create a sustained change in my classroom. In order for that to happen, I need to spend more time critically examining my own worst practices and less time googling around for someone else’s best ones. Without a regular habit of reflecting on the things that don’t work in my classroom, I will never deeply understand how to design learning activities that do. I am not suggesting an oh-woe-is-me approach to teaching, but rather a rigorous, structured, supportive school culture that expect all teacher and administrators to share their most troubling work; their worst practices.
So how do we create this shift in school culture? It takes practice. As educators, we spend most of our professional hours in our classrooms or offices, isolated from our colleagues. When we do have the opportunity to share our work, we are usually invited to present our best work. So it’s not a coincidence that most educators have not developed a tolerance for the discomfort that arises when sharing their challenges with colleagues. This tolerance can be developed, however, within the safety and support of a well-developed professional learning community.
The term “professional learning community” has, unfortunately, become a generic descriptor for any time a group of educators are in a room together. I’ve heard from countless educators that PLCs don’t work; that teachers don’t feel safe in them; that the focus is on quantitative data rather than on the qualities of relationships or learning environments. Unless a PLC is structured in such a way that all members are encouraged to take risks and share their most challenging work within the group, there will be no change in practice.
If we want our schools to become places in which every single educator has the agency and the motivation to make critical improvements, we need to de-privatize our practices and invite our trusted colleagues in to help us grapple. Until educators are regularly sharing their difficulties with their colleagues and gleaning new insights, they will never arrive at an authentic best practice.