Emily Weiskopf •
Lake County School district • 2021
Reflections from another PLC Institute
I just got back from another PLC institute. I am not sure exactly how many I have attended. I have lost count at this point. But, on the 2nd day, one of my colleagues who was experiencing the institute for the first time, stopped me in between sessions and said, “Emily, I have heard these same beliefs from you since you came to our district for the past year. I have to ask you, did you have these beliefs before you came to one of these or did you attend one of these and then take on the beliefs?”
And, I stood there, thinking, because I wasn’t really sure. Over the next day and half, I pondered her question. On the drive home today, where I often find myself pondering my life’s journey both professionally and personally, I tried to bring coherence to some thoughts around her question. In their roughest form, here they are:
I experienced pieces and parts of the PLC process from the day I began my teaching career. My first job at Pontiac Elementary School in Pontiac, SC introduced me to a group of first grade teachers who were quite a force to be reckoned with. And, from day one, they treated me as an equal and not only allowed me to provide input but expected it. We planned every week together, the lessons we would teach, pacing out each subject and each day. We decided what assignments we would have students complete to show understanding, and we looked at/or developed the common assessment we would all give at the end of each unit. Now, granted, this was 1992, there really weren’t state standards, our assignments were mostly worksheets and we taught mostly from the adopted curriculum and textbooks. But, when we ventured off the district curriculum, we all ventured together. We tried new ideas out together, we taught each other strategies, we traded kids and listened to their reading to make sure that we all had the same expectations at the same time of the year on what first graders should be able to know and do. We looked at our common assessments and we adjusted our instruction. We all took responsibility for each other and all of our students.
In 1997, I moved to Colorado where I became a third grade teacher for a few years and then later became the Instructional Resource Teacher, which was basically a position in which I oversaw all of the instruction in the building, supported teachers with best practices, and led data and intervention team meetings at Columbine Elementary. This school was probably the most amazing place for students and faculty that I have ever encountered. The school was a full inclusion school and there were no textbooks. We taught students, not curriculum. Differentiation was a way of life rather than a strategy. Every Friday, the principal, guidance counselor, a few ESE teachers, and myself would sit in a room and discuss what was working and what was not and set plans in motion to ensure success for all adults and students. We set up remediation and enrichment groups, we developed expectations for personal and social responsibilities that required students to score themselves and set goals, we created common reading and writing rubrics, scored papers together across grade levels and developed our own writing continuum. I learned the power of creating a culture of learning for adults each week and how easy it is to give up faculty meetings. This is where I saw the mantra ALL means ALL actually lived out by each and every one of us day in and day out. These were the days of the first state standards and first years of state testing. And, this was the first time, I saw all this work result in high levels of student learning. Our state reading scores rose from 79% to 98% at the Proficient or Advanced levels over 3 years.
In 2001, life moved me to Springfield, MO where I became an instructional specialist for school improvement and this is where I met Rick Dufour and Bob Eaker for the first time. I became a member of the Missouri Leadership Academy. Rick and Bob spoke a few times over this year to our group. At the same time, Rick was doing some work with developing common assessments at Kickapoo High School in my district. I had the opportunity to experience his work with teachers and later visited Stevenson High School to see his vision in action. Two things happened during the next couple of years. One, I finally had a systems approach and a set of beliefs to ground my experiences over the last decade and, two, I had developed a mad crush on Rick Dufour. Any educator who spoke truth to power like he did AND wore a turtleneck with a sports coat was a man of my dreams. He was, and remains, my one and only edu-lebrity crush. It’s his common sense approach to doing what’s best for students that has made me a disciple of the work every since. I continued to learn from him in any way and any chance I could. I have read every book he has written, I went to every session he did at NSDC/Learning Forward, I attend every PLC institute that I can afford, and tell every leader and teacher to do the same. I know every one of Bob’s jokes-I have literally heard the toothpick fort story for 17 years now, I know every video he is going to use, and can almost recite Rick’s opening keynote “In Praise of American Educators” line by line. I wish I had the algebra teacher grading skit on video because I need it every year when I work with school leaders and teachers. The last few years I have followed from afar Rick’s battle with cancer and admired greatly his tenacity and willingness to seek alternative treatments and continue to fight. I cried, BIG tears, when Rick, Bob and Becky walked out hand in hand in Jacksonville November of 2017. And, I knew then that I had seen the last keynote that Rick would ever give. What an honor it is to have that memory. A part of my soul mourns for him, for Becky, for his best friend Bob, for his colleagues on the PLC team, for people like me that he doesn’t even realize he has influenced greatly, but mostly for all the educators that will never get to sit at his feet and learn from him like I did.
I have watched the work evolve over time, yet am comforted by the fact that the fundamental principles and four questions remain constant. I have put these principles into practice in schools as a district improvement specialist, and as a building principal myself. I have experienced the journey of collaboratively creating a culture for both adults and students that allowed for high levels of learning for all. This work has become the core of my existence, I can no longer separate myself from the work of creating places where every leader wants to lead, every teacher and student wants to learn and where every parent wants their child to be.
One day, I might apply to join the PLC team. I think I have many examples of strategies, anecdotes of challenges that come with this work, and success stories to share at the school level. But, I want ONE more story-I want to see success in a district system-a large struggling district system. It’s a story that is often missing from the institute. That’s my work of today, tomorrow, and over the next several years. And, it’s a large challenge for both me, and those I work with. This week’s institute allowed 48 of my new district’s leaders to experience what I fondly call “church for educators”. We were able to listen to Becky, Bob, and a few new voices talk about the why and how of the work. Truth- I missed Rick’s physical presence in the room, I am sure everyone did. But, his words and wisdom were still evident through the voices of other disciples like myself. So, my answer to the question of, “Did I have the professional learning community process beliefs before or after I attended an institute?” is still hard to determine. But, I do know this for sure. I believe in THIS work. I believe it is the RIGHT work…for leaders, for teachers, but most importantly for students.