According to the OESO, the teaching profession is a fairly individual profession in many countries, but Dutch scientists say that schools can only continuously improve if teachers and school leaders tackle educational issues together. At Vathorst College it’s common practice: leadership is shared and teachers form professional learning communities. How do they do it?
What is a professional learning community?
If teachers and school leaders learn and tackle educational issues together, this is known as ‘a professional learning community’. Vathorst College’s employees (approximately 1000 pupils, from vmbo-t to vwo) don’t know any better. From day one, developing together has been a leading principle. Principal Jasmijn Hamakers-Kester says: “When it comes to educational development, the following goes: 1 + 1 = 3. Together you achieve more than alone, we see this every day in a real-life situation.”
Less hierarchy, more expertise
Just like any other school, Vathorst College has a formal school management team with clear powers. Principal Jasmijn Kester is supported by four vice-principals, but a large part of the leadership is covered within the professional learning communities which all teachers are part of. This leadership isn’t based on hierarchy, but on expertise, talent and quality.
Leaders in the learning house
This informal leadership is predominantly shaped in the school’s ‘learning houses’. A ‘learning house’ is the size of several classrooms. It’s the home base of several classes that are taught simultaneously by multiple teachers. Only specific subjects (science, arts, PE) have separate classrooms. As a team, the teachers of each learning house shape their own education, teach and work on improvements. They’re given a large degree of autonomy and take turns in fulfilling the leadership role.
Beyond the learning houses, teachers are also given ample opportunity to take the lead. For example, they can apply for the role of coordinator as Teijl van Beest has done. He describes his role as the coordinator of self-responsible learning as follows: “Together with my fellow coordinator, I am responsible for making proposals in the field of self-responsible learning, in order to improve education. (…) Each year I formulate objectives.”
Another typical feature of Vathorst College is that teachers take time to reflect together. It’s common practice to be filmed while teaching every so often. Afterwards, teachers have a discussion with a colleague who has been trained up to be a ‘footage coach’ on how to improve their teaching skills. “This can be quite confrontational,” says teacher Ingrid van Dongen, “but when you discuss it with colleagues, you get tips that help you perform better.” On top of this, the school frequently invites external speakers and the school is a member of ASHOKA Changemaker Schools, an international network of schools for societal change.
A collective dream
Can the Vathorst way of working also be realised at other schools? A lot depends on the school leader, according to scientists. At Vathorst, Kester actively looked for a shared vision. “What is our dream? This is where it all starts”, she says. “You have to analyse this together and translate it to your teaching practice. Within this framework, you can subsequently assess whether certain ideas match with the school and whether you can facilitate people. I literally ask what teachers need. (…). That is my role, to help realise ideas.” Kester and her vice-principals also come up with ideas, such as those formulated in the ASHOKA network, for instance.
Collaboration is a must
According to the scientists, Vathorst’s second secret is that teachers share common ideals. They want to work with children from a positive perspective, help children get the best out of themselves, and enter in a professional dialogue based on equality. To do so, they’re not afraid to make radical choices in the teaching practice and they collaborate on making improvements. The fact that Vathorst’s structure leaves them no other choice but to collaborate, (they don’t have their own classroom, but are together in the learning house) gives learning together an extra impulse. As teacher Ingrid van Dongen puts it: “You cannot hide behind the walls of your classroom.”
It’s all right to make mistakes
A third key to this success lies in the work culture. Scientists typify it as a culture in which it’s all right to make mistakes and new ideas are welcomed. Both the teachers and the school leaders at Vathorst say it’s important to reflect on their own work and provide feedback to each other. Teacher Femke Pool: “You see so much of each other. In three weeks’ time, I have learnt more from my colleagues here than I have in all the years at my previous school combined.”
Want to do a bit extra
Not every teacher will feel at home at Vathorst. The ideal candidate is someone who enjoys taking the initiative, is flexible and continually wants to and is able to collaborate with colleagues. Teacher Ingrid Hordijk describes it like this: “Here, colleagues have no trouble doing a bit extra, because they feel partly responsible for where the school is headed.” The only disadvantage of this type of teacher in this type of professional environment is that there is a constant risk of high work pressure, but by now this is also being looked into.
Recommendations for professional learning communities and distributed leadership at your school
- Create practices that make collaboration inevitable.
- Communicate through a professional dialogue.
- Make radical decisions about the educational practice in line with the school’s vision.
- Discuss what it means to be a professional at your school.
(Source: Welten Institute, 2016)