When I taught middle school, I was a part of what we called "Team 8" which was where all the grade 8 teachers would come together on Monday morning to discuss the coming week and our students' needs. There were usually 4 or 5 of us. I taught half the kids science and language arts while someone else taught the other half. There was usually one math teacher for all 4 classes and two social teachers with two classes each.
When I taught grade 6 exclusively, I taught half of the grade 6s all their core subjects while my grade-level partner taught the other half. We were a two-man team that met daily to discuss our students and our teaching.
Now I teach at a children's psychiatric assessment unit where I'm the only teacher. I work with a multi-disciplinary team of nurses, doctors, recreation therapists, phycologists and social workers. I am in daily contact with my team to discuss our students' special needs.
As I enter my 12th year of teaching, these are the three teaching environments that I have had the pleasure of working in, and in each case I have had the opportunity to be a part of a work environment filled with professionals who were committed to help children. In each environment, efforts were made to help nurture a culture of collaboration. We were there to support each other.
But I have come to see a disturbing trend among some teachers' work environments. I've come to hear how some teachers feel like prisoners to their Professional Learning Communities.
Here's what I mean:
I have always been fortunate enough to be a part of a team where we respected each other enough to know that our instructional and assessment practices would differ based on our individual students' needs. But not all teachers are afforded this professional autonomy. In fact, for too many teachers the P in PLC doesn't seem to stand for Professional or Personal.
Some PLCs, grade level teams or subject departments operate in a manner that places standardization as their primary function. Some PLCs meet for no other reason than to arrive at a "consensus" for how all the teachers will instruct and assess their students. A kind of pseudo-democracy driven by majority rules is enforced to justify a consistent (read: standardized), one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning.
Some claim that the strength of this approach is to decrease the likelihood that a student or parent might complain about one teacher or favor another. Such complaints can be easily tossed aside because it is assumed that two different students with two different teachers are receiving an identical experience. Complaints simply aren't registered because the PLC makes each teacher interchangeable. In this scenario, fair and equal become the same thing.
But this is a farce.
We all know that each student's classroom experiences often hinge on their teacher's pedagogical beliefs. Even if two teachers are mandated to use the same course outline, grading scheme, disciplinary policy, seating arrangement, textbook and final exam, these two teachers will likely still offer two different learning experiences for their students.
This is unavoidably true because these two teachers will teach different students.
I'm all for teachers coming together to collaborate in an effort to improve, but that's not the same as having teachers come together to vote on their instructional and assessment practices. The idea that a teacher could some how meet each of their individual students' needs by voting with a committee of teachers, who may not even teach the same students, is a relic of the factory model of school.
In this system, the children are treated as if they were interchangeable widgets -- cogs in a machine where the machine's needs trump the needs of the learners' needs.
There's a lot wrong with a PLC that standardizes teaching and learning, but perhaps at the heart of the problem is a misguided belief that in order to provide an excellent education for all children, all children must get the same education. Ultimately, these dysfunctional PLCs fail because we know that we can't meet the needs of all learners by pretending all learners have the same needs.