NARRATOR: This is Spartan Chat. A podcast from Sycamore Community School District 427. Where we connect with you, to tell the stories of our community.
STEVE: Okay, so this is second podcast, really excited to have Jill Anderson and Justin Hames from our middle school to talk about professional learning communities. As the summer progresses, we'll talk more and more about professional learning communities with the community but also internally. And, professional learning communities have been in place in the District for a while. But, I think we're kind of at a place where reinventing them, looking at how they function and operate and just trying to find the pump a little bit, so to speak, is one of our goals for next year. So, thought it would be really valuable to have Jill and Justin join me and I'll let them introduce themselves. And, then we'll kind of launch into conversation about professional learning communities. So, Jill, you want to start us off?
JILL: Sure, my name is Jill Anderson. I work in the Allied Arts department at Sycamore Middle School with Journalism and TV production. And my experience from PLC started from the district I worked in prior to SMS. And, then it was really easy for me to get involved when the opportunity came here in Sycamore and be part of the coalition at the middle school.
JUSTIN: Yeah, and I'm Justin Hames. Just finished up my 11th year of teaching. I work with Jill actually coaching Cross Country, the middle school team. She and I and Ben Doty do that. I also teach science at the middle school. In the past I've taught language arts literature as well. And gosh, PLC, I think it first came on my radar when I entered the District. That was kind of the year, the District kind of rolled it out. And we've kind of been doing it for a decade now, but we discovered two-ish years ago at a training that there was just so much more that we could really be diving in and getting to know about PLC. And, so I guess perhaps that's why we're here today. That's what we're going to talk about, right?
STEVE: That is a great start right there. So, for parents or community members or people outside the world of education who approach you and say, "Okay, this PLC thing that the district is talking about. What is it? What do they do?" How would you explain it to a lay person?
JILL: Well, first of all, my husband always talks about how many acronyms and letters we have an education. So PLC stands for Professional Learning Community, I want to make that clear. If you were explaining it to someone in the community, there's what I know of it, five main components or five main elements that you've kind of put into this, it's a process. So, it's not something that you're going to walk in and visibly be able to see or identify in the sense of it's a meeting or it's something. But, you will see it. When you're doing it, you know it.
JUSTIN: It's kind of an adoption of a mindset. And, if I were to think of like core values that we plugged right around the PLC bubble, it would be culture, collaboration, communication. The three C's, I guess. But, I don't know the way I think of it is kind of the science of our profession. It's, let's try to find a way where we can live what we do rather than just talking about what we do in education. It's not about adding more to our plate, but figuring out a way we can work together to make things easier on our staff and our students and ultimately meet the goal of hopefully the learning outcomes for students is stronger. The intangibles, people are happier to be here because we've got a culture that is all about learning and creating a segment of that learning, but also kind of a data driven culture, where you're reacting to what's going well, what's not going well in your classroom, across the District, in your building, whatever. It's this idea where you're going to say, "Okay, we're going to be monitoring things all the time and trying to make PLC as good as it can be in a school district."
JILL: I think if you boil it down to the two things too, right, it's focused on student achievement and goals for our students and then also making us better teachers and having reflective conversations and using data to kind of drive that and evaluate that. Reflect on that. And, then put things into place so that we're better and our students are better.
STEVE: I think one of the things just from you talking at the recent board meeting about PLCs and how they've kind of evolved with the middle school. One of the things you talked about, and Jill you hit on this, it's not something you walk in and see. It's not necessarily a strategy of a program, it's a kind of change in mindset. Change in how you approach things and it's a process more than just a program. And, that question kind of came up at the board meeting and I think it was important to distinguish between what PLCs are, as a noun really. They're not really a noun, they're really a verb. It's something that you do, it's a process. So, I think you guys hit on that well.
JUSTIN: I mean, I think through no fault of anyone just the last 10 years, we all know what PLC stands for in this District. Professional Learning Community. But, one of the things that was a light bulb for us, when we went to the training two years ago, it was this idea that PLC is not a meeting. And currently, if I were to evaluate how it least we do it at the middle school, that's kind of how it's viewed. You box it into this 40 minute meeting, and that's when we talk about kids and share ideas and look at data. And, certainly those things should be happening in that meeting. But, there's not really this feeling, maybe we're moving in that direction. But at this point in time, there's not that feeling that the PLC is the whole organization. It's a lifestyle. It is this collective agreement of "this is how Sycamore Middle School, Sycamore School District chooses to do things." Am I right?
JILL: Yeah. It's funny that you bring that up. As recently as last week, I was having a conversation with a colleague who out loud said, "You know what? I really don't like PLC." And, I asked why, if she would share her feelings with me. And, it was boiled down to, it's a meeting where you sit and all we do is discuss the same things about standards over and over. So, we ended up talking for about two hours because I think that's the case. People think it's the meeting. It's the time that we've set aside to meet or it's the intervention time and that's all it is. Which is absolutely not the case. So just educating, I think part of what you said as well, Justin, about it being around for so long and us having bits and pieces in it, that's what's sticking out to people right now. So, it's making sure that we kind of reintroduce, those major parts and some other parts so that they know that the meetings are for reflection. They're for discussions, they're for collaboration. They are not the process in what we need to do.
JUSTIN: To me, it's also about building relationships with your colleagues that I think are so important. It's important for a teacher to feel valued in their workplace and feel validated by their colleagues and be able to be a support system for other colleagues too. We've all been a first year teacher at some point in time, and we know how beneficial it is to have other teachers mentor you and look out for you and be able to give you ideas that work in their classroom because you don't know. And, whether you're a first year teacher, 10 year, 30 year, on the verge of retirement, there are still things that you don't know. And, there's no greater gift than to have colleagues who are willing to work with you and be vulnerable maybe, or accept your ideas, or pass theirs on in a way that builds relationships too. You can't measure that. But, that's a culture thing that I really, really value.
STEVE: When I got into education, I can vividly remember sitting in my undergrad classes listening to the instructor talking and remind us, on day one, when we go in your classroom, there will be this desire to shut the door and do your thing in your classroom.
STEVE: And, if you do that, you become part of this isolation not only within your school but you isolate yourself from other teachers. I was really fortunate to work in a middle school and a different district where there was this great atmosphere and people drew you out. So, whether it was at lunch, at social events, whatever. There was this sense of community and culture which is something I've always felt like... I was really lucky to fall into. And, as I've grown in my career especially as an administrator and thought a lot about professional development over the years, some of the best learning that we do as educators is from each other. So, I think that's a big part of what PLCs can offer to your staff.
JUSTIN: And, this is probably a good point. I'm glad you bring that up because it's a balance. There are some teachers who, I don't blame them for thinking, "Wait, if I'm going to have to collaborate, I have to do it the other person's way all the time." No. It's a really good balance of being to do it how you do it because there are so many different personalities and teaching and you should teach to your strengths. Absolutely. That shows your passions. That shows what you're good. That shows what you like to do, because I believe your students are going to learn from you most when you're feeling the most engaged in the teaching process too. And that's going to look different, but they're also common things that work across the board. There are discussions that you can have... Where am I going with this? I guess my point is just, it's not taking away autonomy. It's kind of fostering that more by providing ideas from colleagues and through the conversations you have. You want to jump in with this before I talk for too long, Jill? Because, I know I can do that.
JILL: No, I agree and it's where you learn not only what you are great at, but what your colleagues are great at as well. So, when you're struggling, when something isn't working, when you're looking at that data, or you're looking at a classroom full of blank faces or frustrated kids, you know what? I know that Justin is really good at drawing this out or doing this. I'm going to go talk to him and figure out what I can do and things that I'm good at, so.
STEVE: That's not true at all. I've had a chance to be in Justin's classroom, that's not true at all.
JUSTIN: Oh, well.
STEVE: And, I think one of the other things, again as an administrator, now I have the opportunity to go visit classes whenever I want, when I have time. And, one of the things I'm always impressed by are the awesome things teachers are doing in their classroom. And yet, when I talk to them about those sorts of strategies like do you like the questions you asked or do you like this lab in your science class? Teachers are humble. They just think "Oh, this isn't special. This is something that anybody can do." And, in reality, I think when you have those conversations with your colleagues that you find out is that, "Wow, that is something different. I did put a different spin on that. I do have something to offer my colleagues during these conversations too." So, again, I think the best thing we can give new educators is an opportunity to talk with other educators. I do want to kind of circle back and just talk about the history of PLCs either in our District or really at the middle school because that's where your experience that you guys bring. But, then also, we talked about this kind of reinventing the process. Where do you see it going or where would you like to see it go maybe at the middle school? I'll ask Justin to start first.
JUSTIN: Gosh, well, history without belaboring it too much. I think I mentioned our first year, I remember sitting in the auditorium at the high school. I can't remember the speakers, I think they were from Deerfield or Stevenson, one of the schools that had already been doing PLC for a while. And, they came in and it was an exciting presentation. We were all kind of, "All right, let's go." A lot of us were, "Let's do this." And then we quickly at the middle school had a meeting time that started with once a week, some now it's twice a week. Where we're just, "Okay, 40 minutes, go talk about the talk." And, it was kind of awkward at first because I think people didn't really know how to utilize it and you heard words like common assessment, pacing guides, central standards. But, I think all different groups were in all different places and kind of wandering and not really sure where to go. And, then in 2019 there was a solution tree workshop that a bunch of teachers went to and I was at the middle school livestream and we just saw speaker after speaker talk about PLC. And that was a kind of, "Whoa" moment for a lot of the school. "Oh, we get it now. We're not doing it correctly." And a lot of our mindset was we're doing things that are in the right direction, but we're still probably considered an emerging school. We have a long way to go. And this is kind of where I'd like to get Jill's perspective because you came from Aurora and you kind of saw how they rolled out PLC. So, I only have our District's experience. You can kind of contrast outlook there to hear a little bit.
JILL: Well, I'll stick to Sycamore in the moment in 2019 right. After we'd sat through that institute, there were a group of us that I think just thought, "This is what our school needs. We're in a place right now, this is what needs to happen." And, we sat for an hour maybe after the training? And, there were six or seven of us that just were really inspired and motivated and just had this conversation as teachers that this is what we need to make sure is happening or gets started here at the middle school. And, that's how the coalition came was from that. And that next year I mean, Matt Moore really kind of spearheaded a lot of that, that first year.
JUSTIN: Yes, and Kevin.
JILL: Yeah. And, Kevin and yourself, but I mean, he really took the lead in getting that ball rolling to make sure that it was going to be in place. And, then from there, we have just kind of grown. So, from my standpoint, that's really where it was born at the middle school and this District besides the meeting time that we have.
JUSTIN: Yeah, I don't know why I didn't mention the PLC coalition. There's this voluntary group of teachers that just felt so struck by what we heard at the training and realizing what we could do with PLC and to use the words Jill said, what we needed. That we chose to form this coalition, we called it. In which we are going to start to evaluate the current state of the PLC at the middle school. And, it started right away where, "We need a mission statement. Yeah. We got the district mission statement, but we need something that we can identify with at the middle school." Because the philosophies there are different. You go underneath the big mission statement, but we need something that... So, we started surveying staff on that. We realized that we're all over the place, we can't do this right now. We asked, Jill and I, we did a presentation, not long before COVID hit that year, in which we got staff up moving, writing down culture values that they wanted to be more intentional about what workplace. So, everything from collaboration to positivity to growth, accountability. These were the words that staff wrote down and were saying, "We need to work on these values and our culture. This is what I want Sycamore Middle School to be." And, that was kind of where we're, "Okay, this is culture first. We can't grow a plant in toxic soil." Not saying that the middle school is a toxic place to work. I love working at it, but if the soil is not cultivated for PLC to truly grow and be what it could be, it's not going to work. People aren't going to understand where it's coming from, they're going to think it's just another thing that we have to do. Those of us who've been around a long time. "Oh, I did this 15 years ago. Why am I doing it again?" But yeah, so that's... I guess where we feel we spent a lot of time is focusing on culture. Coming out with a newsletter that kind of celebrates what staff is doing. Trying to create a building wide PLC where we can showcase, "Hey, here's what the music department is doing during the pandemic to connect with kids. Could you imagine teaching music when everybody's on Google meet? Here's what they're doing." And, interviewing them. Or "Here's what Adam Lang and Jessica Tadey are doing to try to expand the way they're connecting with students during that time." There was a time where everything just kind of fragmented because we were all trying to just keep our heads above water and connect with kids. That's where we really took a turn and focused on culture. I guess.
JILL: Yeah, I think that's one of those elements is norms and shared identity. And, that's what we realized we needed. We didn't feel we had a shared identity as a whole. So, that's where it began.
STEVE: Justin, you touched on this past year through COVID and things were just out of whack. What was the value of PLCs? You touched on it a little bit, but I'll ask both of you to expand on it just a little bit. How valuable were the PLCs? What was the coalition during the last school year when, I think a lot of the teachers felt like, how long you been teaching? I know I felt like a first year administrator all over again. I think there were a lot of teachers, regardless of years of experience felt like first year teachers all over again. What value did PLC add or what help did the PLC provide to help get you through last year?
JILL: Can I jump in?
JUSTIN: Yeah, please do.
JILL: Okay. Well I think after everybody got their bearings with what this year was going to be, probably around Christmas is when we started talking and chirping again and kind of trying to figure that out, "what will be our role this year? We haven't been heard. We should kind of reestablish our presence." And I will say, I think it was the newsletter. That this year was exactly what we needed a perfect way that wasn't adding more, but still sharing and giving that information to our staff in a way that was different. We weren't at the staff meetings presenting each week. We had that ball rolling and it was going really well. So we had to continue to do that. And Justin, I really think the newsletters are what our mark was this year.
JUSTIN: Yeah. Gosh. I mean, it kind of was cliche at the beginning of the pandemic when everybody said, "We're all in this together." But, we were. Everybody felt a similar feeling at the beginning of this year. I remember those three or four or five, can't remember. There was a week of institute training before the year started. It felt like we were all cramming before. And it was... It's stressful and kind of don't know what's going to happen, but there's a certain comradery that was occurring in that moment. At least that's how I felt. In a weird way, I was able to sense colleagues having my back this year with PLC, I don't know. When I went to the conference two years ago, I remember them using a distinct analogy in which they compare, sorry if I'm digressing here, but Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. And, they put their championships up on the board and they say, "Why do you think Tiger was able to win championships so much earlier than Jordan?" Arguably, these are both the two best players to play their sport of all time, but what was different about Jordan? Well, you don't have to think more deeply than Jordan was playing a team sport. And, it wasn't until there was truly some good leadership and a great team built around him in which that really took off. He was clearly one of the greatest players right away. But to obtain that ultimate goal, he could be as great as he individually wanted to be. It still didn't get the organization to where they needed to be until they truly had a team built around that. And, I don't know, on a very simple level that's PLC to me. If you have a strong team. If you have colleagues that you can rely on to support you and share ideas during a really difficult time, regardless of what's being said in the media or out there on social media or whatever. These are the people that I'm kind of going to war with, we're getting through this together and we're going to think, This is who I'm doing it for. My students, of course, but the colleagues that work with," and I don't know. I don't think that's a grandiose thing to kind of have a connection to kind of make. To me, that's kind of how this year felt. If we can figure out a way to keep people connected and talking, only some good can come out of that.
STEVE: I think the team analogy is a really good one. I've always valued team work and you can only go so far as an individual. Let's go back to your, Michael Jordan example and the goals that those teams were so great. The makeup of those teams changed over the years over those six championships. But, every year there were people that were playing specific roles. Jordan was a scorer, he was a great defender, he had all this talent, but all those other players played different roles. And, I was really lucky to be able to sit in a PLC meeting in the spring, in late winter, early spring, just to sit and listen to the group in the room and hear the conversation and the discussion and what was going on. And, you can tell the same thing is happening. Everybody kind of had different goals. Everybody had a place, had a niche where they fit in and were part of a collective team that was working together. I felt then during that meeting, as well as in the board meeting the other night, as well as just kind of sitting here with you guys. You can kind of feel that energy and what's going on in that shift in culture, that belief in what you're doing. And, the desire for that to continue to go. So, that kind of leads to my next question, which is where would you like to see PLCs go in the future? Whether it's next year, three years, five years down the line, where do you see the future of PLCs? How do you see it changing? Staying the same?
JUSTIN: You or me?
JILL: Give it to me.
JUSTIN: I feel like I should stop talking for a while.
JUSTIN: Well, you know, yeah.
JILL: You've done really well.
JUSTIN: Have I?
JUSTIN: Thank you.
JILL: Yeah, don't be so self conscious.
JUSTIN: You can be honest, I'm holding me accountable for us talking so much.
JILL: You know I would. I think one thing, Steve that you hit on, was the knowing your roles. And, it's something that we talked a lot about at the end of the school year is defining those in our building with other groups and committees. PLC can't do this by itself. The coalition can't just be the one. We want to connect some of those other committees into some of the elements and things that need to happen with data collection, with SEL and the social emotional parts with our culture and kind of build those together. So, identifying roles is a big one. And, then another one that I've been very vocal about is action. I'm not just talking about part of a 10 year span, that's a really long time. And, I'm always the one coming from the other district — it was up and running within three years. We need action and things to start happening and not just talking and discussing.
JUSTIN: Yeah, I mean, I don't... I want to be careful I don't just answer this for myself, but if I could speak for a lot of the coalition conversations that we've had. We met every Friday this year and those weren't meetings that we felt exhausted by, we felt energy from them. But, it was a lot of talking, a we're ready for action. Like Jill said. You think of the central questions from PLC, "What is it we want our students to learn? How are we going to know if they know it? What we're going to do when they don't?" And, "How are we going to extend it when they got it?" And, that... Two things we've talked about a lot is identifying our central standards is something that it just has to. We got to get that done. Just to get people on the same page and knowing what the roles are of departments and what students are truly learning across the board at the middle school. One of the things I think that this year forced us to do is cut down and we realized by looking at our map data, "Wow, look how much we cut out and our students are still growing and learning." It kind of made us realize, well, maybe depth of learning is more important than trying to cover everything. It's okay. Give yourself permission to cut stuff out. So, I think departments really have to be intentional about identifying what those essential things are across the board. Some are there some aren't. Then the other thing that we've circled around for years the middle school is, how do we do intervention? And that's been a tough topic to talk about because people have different opinions on how that should be set up. Should it be a period within the day? Is it something that you hire positions for? How does this look? What's this look like in my own classroom? But it's just, we action from that standpoint because having students slip when they're not understanding your essential standards, that to me is unacceptable. And, it can't be any one person just saying we're going to do this. It has to be a building-wide and District-wide commitment to really get something solidified. That's a plan towards an intervention.
STEVE: From the District-level that's something I've heard pretty consistently. Not that we're not doing that, but that there is room for improvement, supporting students providing interventions. But, we can fit this into the next level.
STEVE: And, maybe some of that is just getting a handle on what the structure of providing interventions throughout the districts. But, then also we've got room to grow and how do we change things a little bit to provide the students what they need to be successful. So, that's really kind of come out of I would say this, the second semester of this previous school year, just through those conversations with teachers, with administrators, local board members. And, so that will definitely be a topic of conversation, hopefully a topic of action for next year. And, I think one of the last things I'll come to add and then ask you guys if you have anything else to add. Again, during the board meeting, there was this question, I can't remember what the question was, but kind of led me to share with the board, the group that was there, PLC is like many other things. There's never going to be a point which, "Okay, we're done. You can cross that off the list. PLC's done all the work that it needs to do. We can move onto something else." It really is something that's going to be ongoing. We may not know what it needs to look like in five years, but I have a belief that it still needs to exist in five years because there will be another challenge. There will be other work to do. And, as long as there's that collaboration piece in place, PLCs will be kind of on strategy and process of the District. So, we've covered a ton of ground. I appreciate your guys' time. Before we kind of wrap up, is there anything about PLCs that we've not touched on that you want to share either with the staff within the District or the community that you might be able to talk about?
JUSTIN: I would just emphasize what we just kind of spoke. A word that I remember writing down and I said at the board meeting last week was for us at the middle school, it's been kind of a cognitive dissonance journey. Like when you are confronted with new information that reveals some systems that are going well within your organization, but some that aren't. What are you going to do about it? You have to react to the science of our profession. And, when we realized that there are gaps or there's room for improvement or things that we could improve upon as an organization, the question turns to us as educators. The administrators. Everybody that's a part of this PLC in this District. What are we going to do about it? Do we choose to throw up our blinders and say, "No, the way we did it for the last five years or 10 years or whatever, that's worked. That's okay with me." Or are we going to choose to adopt the mindset? We are always going to be analyzing this machine, and looking for ways to improve it so that it can keep chugging down the road in a positive direction rather than getting derailed. Because, when you choose to not, you just stop. You stop dead in your tracks and you become okay with not making progress. Well, the world's going to keep going and our students are going to have to go into that world. And, I want to make sure that... I want to work in a district that has the mindset to be the next groundbreaking thing. We want to make sure that we are positioned to best meet the needs of our learners in 2021. And, then the year after that in 2022. To always be evolving to make sure that we're operating on the highest level that we can be. And, realizing it's okay to admit when we're not doing something well. What's not okay is to just avoid it. Let the elephant in the room continue to live there rather than bringing it to light doing something about it.
JILL: Well said. Yup. Ditto.
STEVE: Well, listen, I appreciate your guys' time. We talked a lot about PLCs and one of the things that we'll talk about with and share with the community is that these late starts that we're going to start on Thursday mornings, that's what we're going to be doing during that time. And, yes, that is meeting time. We talked about earlier, we don't just want it to be a meeting, we want it to be a common time for conversation, collaboration. There are action plans. There's action being done. So, this late start is going to be something new for District, for our community and we realize that there's to be challenges for families, but hopefully this has just been a little bit about why that time is going to be so valuable. Jill and Justin, I really appreciate your time. Hope you have a great rest of the summer and thank you very much.
JILL: Thanks for having me.
JUSTIN: Yeah, thank you. This was fun.
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