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Late starts and professional learning communities help teachers help students

When people pull up our district calendars, an often-heard initial reaction is that it looks like a patchwork quilt, with many different color-coded events. While our parents are probably quite familiar with our "quilt," some may wonder why we have late-start Wednesdays and the seemingly myriad other professional development days. For working families and families with day care needs, these days may seem a convenience or luxury for educators, and an inconvenience for families who must make arrangements around the school calendar.

Teaching is a profession. All professionals need time and opportunities to update, to train, to interact with other professionals, to hone their craft, to reflect on their work, to get better. This is what professional development days, late starts, and professional learning communities accomplish. Parents may have been more comfortable with full professional development days, rather than late starts, and may wonder why we changed. Regardless of the profession, when adult learners are asked to change and improve practice, the research is clear. One-shot "dumps" of new practice or research on new practices will not change professional practice. Professionals need opportunities to:

-- Become aware of different/best practices;

-- Observe others modeling new or different practices;

-- Have opportunities to practice;

-- Receive feedback;

-- Reflect and interact with others.

Such professional development must be distributed over time and in a number of different formats or venues; it can't be jammed into a day. Some of it has to happen while students are away, allowing teachers to concentrate on the initiative or best practice being deployed; and some of it must happen with students present so teachers can observe and be observed with students. Many of our teachers are now engaged in "learning walks," where they have the opportunity to observe others, be observed, debrief and reflect on their practice. This might bring to mind "rounds" that most of us are familiar with from the medical profession through television or even from our own experiences in a hospital as a patient, being visited by a group of physicians, residents or practitioners who are learning, practicing, improving their professional knowledge and practice.

Professional learning communities, or communities of professional practice, which meet on late-start Wednesdays and at other times, are opportunities for teachers to engage with one another in focusing on each of these questions:

-- What do our standards and our curriculum expect students to know and be able to do?

-- How will we know if they can do it? (What measures, what common rubrics will we all use to evaluate student work?)

-- What will we do for students who already can do what is expected?

-- What will we do to support and help students who have not achieved the standards?

When teachers have the opportunity to meet regularly, examine student work, agree on common metrics for evaluating student work, reflect on effective resources and practices that address standards, share practices that help students who are not yet successful, and discuss resources, activities and practices that might help enrich more advanced students, everyone benefits. There is an old adage that sometimes, to improve production, the lumberjack actually has to stop sawing and sharpen the saw. Though there are no trees being felled while the saw is sharpened, productivity and effectiveness are enhanced in the long run, more so than if he just kept sawing. Professional development days, late-start Wednesdays, professional learning community meetings, learning walks and the professional development and coursework in which teachers engage during the school year and over the summer are all ways that the saw gets sharpened.

We are proud of our teachers in West Fargo Public Schools, and the many ways in which they are advancing their profession and improving their practice for the benefit of West Fargo Public Schools' children!