Thursday, May 31, 2012

Professional Learning Community

DON'T imagine the staff room where you eat lunch with your fellow school staff.  Since most teachers eat their lunch in the classroom, it is quiet there during lunch time.  The staff room in Japan is larger than ours.  It is mostly separated from the hallway with a heavy sliding doors. An indescribable and almost mysterious air of dignity and respect seeps out through the crack of its entrance.  Instantly you would notice 20 or more desks and chairs, depending on the number of teachers, grouped by the grade level. Each teacher has a desk which is a metal office type.  For Japanese teachers, there is one office desk in the classroom and another one in the staff room.  You can work in either place.  But you have to serve tea to the senior teachers in the staff room if you are a younger teacher.  Of course I always preferred working in my classroom without serving tea for someone.  When a student visits a certain teacher in the staffroom, he announces at the door, "Please excuse me.  I would like to visit Mr. Yamada, please," with a lowest bow.  The teacher nearby would say, "You may."  Then this student responds, "Thank you very much," walking over to Mr. Yamada.  At the front end of the staff room is the big white board filled with busy schedules, yet they are not so scattered.  You might be thinking, "But you were in Japanese school many years ago.  Things must've changed."   My latest visit to the public school in Japan was two years ago.  It was same old same old.  People love their tradition there.  They love to show and receive respect the ways people have been doing for a long time.  Perhaps, though, they have more reasons to keep ancient routines than tradition.

Right in front of the white board, principal, assistant principal, and the curriculum head teacher, and business staff are sitting to start a staff meeting.  The assistant principal usually runs the meeting.  "Principal, please give us the initial message for us prior to the meeting," the assistant principal would say.  "Well, this year has been a tough order to protect our children from the common cold.  Please take care of yourselves by washing hands and gurgles as well," the principal ends his speech.  The assistant principal follows the agenda like; 1. Report from the school discipline committee, safety committee, academic committee, parent involvement committee, etc.  2. The planning for the upcoming open lessons in the professional development guided by the curriculum head teacher.  3. Sports Event instruction designed by the event committee, etc.  There are so many branches instead of the principal dictating approach.  Many different committees work together and collaborate with other committees to make their school run well.  The principal looks like he's almost about to fall sleep, therefore.  It takes forever to complete the all items in the agenda.  Though, there is no grouching even after 5:00 pm.  Their respectful and collaborative system is great, however, the lengthy meetings made me think, "Can we be more practical and productive?"  I even didn't have any kids to pick up from the daycare, but my time after school was valuable.  It was so unnatural to me just sitting and listening to the endless arguments over little things.  It seems like teachers had difficult time compromising.  I wanted to go back to my classroom to plan my lessons for tomorrow.  By the way, there is a teachers' meeting every morning for 10 minutes in addition to the weekly staff meeting.  While teachers are meeting in the staff room, children are working on their morning tasks independently.  Except some six graders are helping first graders most of the time, and 15 minutes of morning time is quiet without any supervision.  We cannot do it here in the U.S.

On the first staff meeting I attended in the U.S.  it was held in the library.  There were little tables and chairs nicely organized.  This room was like a Munchkin house.  The attendees are all larger than my size, and some of them are triple larger than me.  How could they fit in these munchkin chairs?  I hesitantly sat on the chair where Barbara asked me to sit.  Luckily, my bottom fit on the munchkin chair.  The young principal came in joyously and greeted to the staff from the door and walked directly to our table that has no more chair.  To my surprise, the principal started talking by sitting on the table!  If it's not a culture shock, what is?  Sitting on the munchkin chair is a shocking enough, but on the munchkin table?  I tried to look at his eyes, but only thing I could see was his nose holes from this position. At least I got a couple of lessons; A little rudeness is acceptable here (People even don't think it is rude anyway).  And I, as a monkey, should do as the other monkeys do.  I also learned quickly that I have to make my own coffee here.  But I didn't have to make coffee for anyone else.

Teachers kept interrupting (participating) the meeting, however, the direction was always coming from the principal.  There was no wonder why they want to share their comments and ask questions so often.  Among seven different buildings where I have worked in the U.S., only one school had staff lead staff meeting.  A few committee was functioning routinely and collaboratively like Japanese schools.  I was very amazed at this possibility.  Yet their meeting was dismissed by 4 pm most of the time.   Staff in this school even don't know Japanese style; it means staff lead system is not necessarily originated in Japan.  No matter which countries you teach, genuine educators seem to know the significance of Professional Learning Community.  And they make it happen. Together.  Furthermore, the effective Professional Learning Community is not designed by a single party.  The healthy and transparent communication between administration and staff is essential and rather critical because the relationship will soon be made with its success.  Teachers are no longer intimidated by knocking on the principal's door.  The principal should be a leader rather than a boss who can listen, guide, share, and organize a team cohesively.  Trust and respect are going to be built upon that fundamental relationship.  Once it's made, it will be as sturdy as pyramid, if not, Samurai Castle, not like a munchkin chair.   Dignity doesn't have to be on the special heavy sliding door.   Dignity is something you can feel during the first couple of dialogue you exchange among staff on the day you step into the school.