Another Nail in the Career Teacher Path

Once again the political and uniformed parties hammer is out to drive another nail in the coffin of career teachers in an attack on teacher tenure using scare tactics and misinformation.  A New York lawsuit against teacher tenure is fast becoming a popular step in the building of presidential platforms calling for educational reform.  Everyone wants a scalpel in the operation of dissecting education but nobody seems to have an idea of what they’re looking for.  As it is the prospect of becoming a teacher is a difficult process even for the most qualified, but the job comes with an automatic caveat.  You might get hired but not into a career path but rather a 9 to 10 month temp position.

The idea of a career is one where after years of study or experience or both, you achieve a position with a company you would  like to work for and stay with as you learn and grow.  Once hired in most career path positions, the expectation is that you will continue to work there until you fail to meet expectations or you decide to move on to another company or position.  Most would balk at the idea of being hired into a position where the job is essentially for a 10 month period with no guarantee of continued employment.  In fact many schools do not make the decision to continue a teacher until the last monthUnknown of the school year when they are either notified by the principal they are no longer need or (gasp) nobody says anything to you and that lets you know that you are safe for another year!  Teachers whisper to each other behind their closed doors asking if anyone been called to the principal’s office! Ludicrous, unprofessional, juvenile behavior  that is prevalent in many schools’ systems.  Tenure gave teachers a goal to shoot for;  survive three years of this type of behavior and you’ll be rewarded with a system of tenure.

Tenure was never developed to provide perverts, ineffective slackers, uneducated dolts a place to hide.  The legal system did that.  The legal system so tangled the arms of the educational system, already a joke of a “system” that individuals who managed to survive three years and achieve tenure and then took advantage of an ineffective management system managed to hide in plain sight.  Quite frankly most educational systems can’t manage a school’s schedule no less the personnel who educate your kids.  In most county central school offices there are people who really operate around the teachers: They run in fear of the parents and public at large and often operate as if the main reason they exist and the central office is even there is for its own survival, not to assist the teachers in the education of the students.  Laughably, the one section of the central office established to help teachers, be their advisor, assist them in improving their teaching skills is the least effective.  In one school district I worked each year the center point of our summer professional development was the same professional development we had received the year before, and the year before that!  They never paid attention to the fact that the training and trainer they were using were the same we had the previous year, until by the third year even the person hired commented that it was really odd to come back and do the same thing three years in a row.

Tenure has been abused.  County educational systems are often incapable of behaving professionally (check and see how many relatives are working together in the school system) because many of them have not been in a school since escaping school to work at the central office.  So if we want to really work at helping students, improving student scores, encouraging children to do and give their best we need to have professional management and leadership in county central offices, or get rid of them.  Start with mandating that office staff are qualified for the position and not somebody’s sister.  Public revelation of the central office’s distribution of funds; not allowing special friends,  relatives/favorite principals, or alma-mater schools receiving a disproportional amount of the annual budget.  Implement a standard employment practice contract statewide ensuring all teachers are protected from unscrupulous hiring practices; enhance the professionalism of the system by treating teachers with mature, responsible and professional behavior that starts at the top and is reflected in the behavior of the central office.  Don’t believe me?  Try a completely anonymous and independent survey of teachers and ask them about how they are treated, how the central office treats them, about professional behavior.  Then let’s have a mature discussion about tenure and teacher career paths.

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Education’s Netflix Moment

Education find itself at a critical juncture. Fettered to old school calendars, schedules, methodologies, social significance, state and national testing mandates, it is measured as a community and found wanting. Every other organism changes to fit into the current environ but education. Everyone outside the system feels qualified to pass judgement. The public calls for change. Demands it. Yet still wants snow days. A parent’s recent comment was just add the days on the end of the school year! What’s the big deal? Got to have a summer vacation, fall break, holidays off, spring break. Need to get your kid his lunch? Just make an announcement disrupting class, it’s only school? Threat of snow? Yes, out of school but they must go to work, mall, the basketball game. What can local education administrations do? What do they have power over to make the type of impact demanded by the public?
Ever wonder how many actual school days a teacher effectively gets to teach? I did, several times. The average is 150 to the end of school: That is not an effective number in and of itself because as many a senior in high school will ask you immediately after taking whatever final exam is required, why am I here? Their gpa is reported in the spring, the ACTs were taken the year before, the state tests were in March or April, so why delay the agony, strain the very limits of teacher classroom management skills and disturb the school environment with a quarter of the school’s population really upset at being required to sit in classes that make no “real time” sense just to “wait it out” until the end of the official school calendar year? Yet from April through the end of May or beginning of June we force students to sit in classes where the videos play, nap time is normal, and not much of anything is accomplished.
If you were to ask every student in school if they got up at 4 this morning to feed the chickens, and when they got home do they have farm chores, do they plant during spring break? Do they harvest during fall break? My guess is perhaps not, yet we have an entire school working around their calendar. State tests occur in March and April primarily. That is for the state’s convenience, not the schools. In a heated debated at a school board meeting recently in a community suburb of Nashville, TN., the local small business leaders had formed a coalition against proposed changes made to the school’s calendar because they relied on the part time workers and the change would negatively affect their business. The entire length, breath, and depth of the school calendar is in the local school authority’s power to change. Here is a place that right now much good can be done to eliminate the worry about providing students and teachers with enough preparatory time to become successful at taking these state tests and to bring the school into a more realistic schedule reflecting today’s values.
First a test. This test determines whether your district needs go any further. The first and most important question to ask is, is the primary goal of school a social developmental staging area with educational benefits secondary, or is education, specifically academics, the primary goal? If it is a social development staging area go no further, keep the pep rallies, sports focus, existing school calendars and beg out of national testing and evaluations.
If it is academics then the next question is, does this ( social v. academics) apply across the board, K-12? To me I don’t think so but that’s a subject for another time. With academics as the school’s focus (duh) then the business of identifying a start & end date of school is next for the traditional calendar and if there must be specific dates it should revolve around the final testing dates for the school year as dictated by the state. The school calendar as a whole ought to take a holistic view of academics and begin building the senior class for the next year for example, in late April or early May after the annual tests with the current year seniors out of the building, the juniors “move-up” and the next school year begins! (I’ve actually seen this practiced at one high school) The summer ” break” should not be dictated by parental vacation needs as much as school building maintenance and education cycle schedules. With this approach, with school running year-round, a better prepared student body can take the ACT test in March of every year that impacts not only college entry but future employment possibilities. This schedule does not include snow days. This schedule has plenty of preparatory time for all students to meet the requirements of the scheduled testings despite weather issues.
If the school system is inflexible in changing the actual calendar, they can still change the promotion of students schedule to allow them to begin classes in late Spring in their new grades thus eliminating the dreaded ” Senioritis” a disease that spreads throughout the school building infecting students and faculty alike. Elimination of “snow days” by requiring every teacher to have on-line coursework established that students will do during the course of the academic year because it is a CCSS converted into a “flipped” classroom reserved for those days lost to weather. If there are no lost weather days the “flipped” classes are still used because they are an integral part of their curriculum!
Across the nation there are a number of school districts rebelling against increased standards and the rebellion is based on simple truths: They cannot accomplish the current curriculum given the schools already crowded calendar how can they “do more with less” time available?
There is not a business that can successfully operate and produce if they had to operate under the conditions that teachers currently must utilize. If you want a quality student product you must look at the amount of time put into the production, the education time, allotted for the student. Fall, winter, spring and summer breaks are archaic. Constant classroom interruption for class rings, pictures, assemblies for sports, recovery time from school breaks, weather issues, are educational mine fields. A year round schedule that would accommodate educational needs, professional development for teachers, first designed to maximize student learning and not student social advancement, is the first step in reaching the goals the nation so desperately needs.

“I Told You So!”

When my son was in high school in Europe in DoDDS, I had the pleasure of sitting on the school board as an American advisor from time to time and throughly enjoyed the process. The search for academically rich content, hiring of educators well versed in their field, the expansion of operating hours for students and parents to use the school facility in the evenings. All wonderful and enjoyable meetings and professional staff members.

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When I retired and accepted the challenge of teaching in an American high school system I was faced with a puzzling dilemma. First off I wanted to join the school board and was told teachers were not allowed to be members (where do they get their inside expertise?) I was fortunate to teach in the same high school my daughters attended; perhaps fortunate is not the best choice of words. My daughter’s Algebra teacher sat behind his desk reading the sports pages while students flipped overhead slides, worked the problems, turned in the work sheets, then slept. He was a football coach. The “current events” class teacher was the lead basketball coach. They received the daily newspaper and read the sports pages diligently. The head of the English department, with woefully old textbooks, students seating in ill repair, was the head football coach. The football field was beautiful. I struggled for the first two years doing the very best I could as professionally as possible all the while screaming inside about the futility of the school system. Why doesn’t somebody stop the music! All the principals in the county and all the assistant principals were coaches, present and past.
I recently read a book by Amanday Riply titled “The Smartest Kids in The World” and I watched a video of her in a debate with others about why sports ought to be eliminated from high schools, a mantra I’ve cried for years. Speaking against this notion was a former director of athletics from Alexandria Vergina, and also he happened to be the former mayor of Alexandria, Verginia. As he spoke he outlined almost perfectly (and of course inadvertently) the case against school sports: He spoke of saving ones and twos. When Amanda spoke it was of thousands. While in the Washington Post an amazing lament by a wonderful teacher who could no longer take the frustration of the educational system.
Amanda Ripley’s debate as informative as it was is not the fodder for a similar discussion about any rural school in the south — no siree buddy! It is football that is king. It is football on the signs leading into the town, on the water tower, all over the side of parents’ cars and the high school itself looks more like an athletic club than anything remotely academic. Even their school colors/theme/jackets/yearbook everything about the school from an outside point of view screams this is an athletic facility first and foremost. As I debate this issue internally, and as a retired teacher and now an education connsultant, I realize that this issue is much bigger than high school, this is all about big business and big money. And on that note I’lll have to turn away from this issue for the moment because quite frankly, I don’t think there is a workable solution, not at this time.

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Of course the “End Is (not) Near”! I believe as Amanda Ripley states so well in her book “The Smartest Kids In The World” that as Finland went in the early 70s, so goes the United States today. I do believe we are at a pivitol point; the point where the control over classrooms and their content changes from individual teachers to national directives. Where everyone will be sooner or later singing the same song from the same book at virtually the same time from Alaska to Florida. Where for the foreseeable future teachers will become classroom managers and facilitators until this country makes to next step in improving the quality of educators in this country. There is a difference between teachers and educators and I think the time is fast approaching us as a country and as individual educational systems/counties to support the re imagination of the professional educator testing and licensing program and give the control of educating our children back to the classroom professional. The only way therefore to fix the system, is to fix the teacher certification and training system. To make becoming a teacher a professional educator, a master in their field, a current researcher and contributor, a professor by all accounts.

Rural Towns, School Sports, Pride

The police had the sidewalks cordoned off just a few days ago, the firetrucks were in the lead, and the street was lined with parents and supporters of the team as they departed school at 10:30 in the morning, the week prior to testing, for the teams’ match. Most stores in town were offering some special sale pricing this week as the team had been departing at different times over the past two weeks depending on the game’s location. The town council met and decided to ask the various city shops, especially in the historic district of town, to remain open and perhaps place displays outside their shops because the TV crews would certainly be in town if the town turned on their charm.
The TV crews did show and the town appeared twice on the major channels and on a few of the smaller ones in the closest major city news station. The TV showed the town all decorated, the charted busses for the team right behind the firetrucks leading the parade, followed by the band and others in the older school busses and parent vehicles.

In this town, the priority list was Sports, Jesus, Walmart, Family, and way down the line after any number of other items, education.

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The High School’s test results the following week were particularly dismal. On reflection months later, the committee assigned to review the data along with the administration, agreed that for the most part the school needs to focus more on reading. Target those teachers with the most amount of students that failed to demonstrate progress and get them help. Hire a consultant to tackle the difficult math scores and improve their numbers. They also felt a disconnect with the community; parental involvement in high school was just poor and that was, as far as the committee was concerned and the administration, the central problem. Add to that the need for additional teachers (despite the four coaches on staff filling teaching positions as ISS teachers, study hall, weight training, current events, etc., etc., all with 4th block as their planning/take care of the field time.)
As I sat in these meetings, later watching the evening news and seeing the various school parades, reviewing the test data, I most often times had to bite my tongue, to keep from screaming, what I believe to be, the obvious. We cannot effectively change high school educational success without changing high school — period.

If you look at the changes facing education these days, top to bottom, you’d see that the target for these changes, the focal point, the one with the most institutional resistance, and the one with the greatest inbred social dichotomy to face, are high schools. High school teachers must completely transform their teaching methodology. Elementary teachers are still seen by their students as the font of all knowledge (cue soft music, crayons, butterflies); high school teachers without an iPad or Google Glasses are seen as disconnected, clumsy, uneducated(cue acid rock, dirty chalk boards, old school teacher’s lounge). Established, understood, comfortable, high school curriculum is thrown out the window and completely revised. High School educational time in-the-seat is now too valuable to waste on pep rallies, bus send off’s, study halls, and anything other than instructional time.

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How do we do this? As an institution high school is what we talk about. It is THE reunion. It is the most influential social morphing 4 years of most everyone’s life! Movies are made about it: I did not say the singular movie but the plural movies and many of them blockbusters. It is the music of our youth, the foundation of our religion, the beginning of our family, the origin of our job. Many a “clumsy” high school teacher helped us through this minefield of life our parents knew nothing about.

So what is it going to be America? If you want high school the way it used to be, then you’ll need to back off the national standards and accept the fact that in today’s world your kids will be unable to compete on the same level as those from most other states and countries. If you want your high school to accept the challenge of today’s employment and higher educational needs then you’ll have to help out. Remember — that’s your kid in the first place, not the school’s, so these kids are your responsibility to get them off to work or higher education. To do that you need to realize that high school is about education, not pompoms. Sports are great don’t get me wrong. So are many other worthwhile school and community based organizations (KEY Club comes to mind) that operate outside regular school hours and their teacher/sponsor work after school with no pay to support. No time off for any sport or activity; no 4th block “special” classes for athletes that many school boards shamefully allow student athletes to take every year and receive a full credit for attending the class (weight lifting comes to mind), no coaches hired for those “make-up” classes; instead, teachers hired who, after school, also can coach a sport. And all this is going to cost you some time. I don’t know if you’ve ever taken a close look at your school board, but if I were a betting man I’d bet that for the most part they are old white men. And probably (but this has been changing recently) your high school principal/assistant principals are former coaches. Now right off the bat I’d like to say (like Seinfeld) “… there’s nothing wrong with that!” and there is not — as long as the person who is the administrator is trained in the latest in educational methodology, understands teachers needs and the proper and fair evaluation process, is comfortable with students, understands their needs, works with student council, meets and encourages parental participation in school. Sound like your administrator or school board member? No? Then get rid of them.

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That’s really the choice. There is no compromise. You cannot have your cake and eat it too! There will be many who will try and sell you a proposal that can modify your schedule to allow for both but I promise you, if you subtract from academics to add to anything else you lose; most schools have already subtracted so much from their academics that over the past eight years at various high schools I have asked teachers to tell me how many truly effective days they had to teach each year. Cutting out the pep rally, the assemblies, the class rings, the games, etc., etc., what was the bottom line. The numbers were interesting because I failed to consider not only the time of the year you ask the question, but what period of the day do we take an average from? If it’s last class period then the total effective school day numbers will be horrible. Parents pull kids out early, sports leave early, assemblies, fire drills, early release weather days, all impact last period more than any other. If you ask the question during the rocking chair time period between Thanksgiving and Christmas then teachers remember all the incidental times kids miss their class for some holiday event or special, than if you ask them just before end of course testing in the spring, when things are hectic and the holidays are a distant memory. The average number of effective high school days turned out to be151 as an average out of 180. The lower end numbers hovered around 130, the upper end around 170 (interestingly those teachers submitting the higher numbers were those with AP type classes.) So the number 151 converts to an effective teaching year percentage of 84% — a “B” in anyone’s grade-book and a low “B” at that. So to start off with, as a professional educator you’re going into a new school year already facing an institutional challenge of failed promise on the part of the school system to provide you with enough days to effectively “teach” a student when you only get them for approximately 84% of the time. By the way, this count does not include those days I like to call “bruised” days. Teachers know, those “hangover” days from the game, big vacation weekend, school scandal, or the day before the main event — anything but the task at hand gets covered on those days.

Sounds like too much can’t do and not enough can-do! Well like I used to “coach” my students before approaching my coach principal; have the answer/solution before asking the question/permission. The tough part is the recognition of what type of school are we? Walk through the hallways, walk out front, look in the newspapers, and review the yearbook. If there’s more about some inflated object that people pass, punt, kick, hit with a club than there is about the school’s success taking the ACT test or end of course testing, then you need to change. Evaluate “who” is on your faculty starting at the top. The “Good-ole-boy” system is not getting students scholarships and jobs, it’s keeping good-ole-boys and their families employed! Get rid of them. “Teachers” filling positions of no significance because of their familial relationship to some bozo in the central office or the school board but occupying a valuable spot that could otherwise be used to hire a “real” teacher for AP math or history, make the change. Sit down with the entire faculty, all at once or in chunks, and look at the calendar for the year. With the exception of the weather and natural disasters the school controls the daily activity. You have 180 days to produce a successful student, not a day more so use every day. Eliminate any event that would otherwise interrupt academic time plain and simple. Enlist and support parental involvement; if they’ll come out in the cold and pouring rain to watch a bus with darkened out windows blowing diesel smoke pass them by early in the morning in numbers equal to or greater than the total school population, then possibly there’s a vibrant PTO just waiting to be asked inside.

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Decade’s Day

All schools, high schools especially, have these type days during homecoming week. Pajama day, Opposite Day, Sports Team Day, etc., etc. When you are “decades” old however, the costumes/decades seem to all blend together.

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Here’s a couple of school spirited high school counselors!

I’ve been looking for someone from my decade.

Sometimes the decades get mashed together.

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Of course a Poodle Skirt hits the 50’s decade right on target.

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I think that was my shirt she got from Goodwill!

One of the Junior’s asked me what “decade” I was looking for? Whimsically I told him about the 60’s, Sachem High School in Lake Ronkonkoma, and mini-skirts and micro-mini’s and a 12th grade math teacher I once had a serious crush on … good grief where did all those years go Miss Gemmel?

“College and Career Ready”

I’m really struggling with this phrase College and Career Ready used so frequently and easily throughtout the state of Tennessee especially in light of the attack on “career” type CTE classes — many of these classes being eliminated/reduced across the state. Some view and define the phrase as a charge to make sure that students are ready first for college and then after college ready for their career. Other educators (and here’s where I fit in!) see the phrase with two distinct charges; the preparation of students to be College Ready and preparing students to be Career Ready
College preparation is both the function of using CCSS to help students gain and understand subject knowledge in preparation for college level work, but also the task of understanding the “how” college functions. The fact that most classes do not meet everyday, that one class may be on the other side of the campus, what a “lab” class is, dorm room living, and the list goes on. How well do we prepare our students for college? How much do they understand about the process, the link between a future career and the degree required for that career? Using the Counseling and Postsecondary School Culture barometer from NYC schools, it is very interesting to see how infrequently we as professional educators “counsel” our own students in college expectations. The belief is that this counseling must be done somewhere along the line, someone other than me is responsible, the guidance office must take care of all of that. However, as this pulse of the school sampling often reveals, is that no-one is guiding our students on their future path when it is everyone’s responsibility not just the guidance office.
Career preparation on the other hand is two-fold: Those on the college path must understand the requirements for their chosen future career and those who elect to go into the existing workforce need to understand the how-to of interviews, professional dress, and resumes to mention a few skills. Realistically step back and look at the graduating class and estimate how many will go to and complete college, and how many will either drop out, enter the work-force directly, work and go to a tech school, enter the military, and then ask yourself how are we preparing the students for this “career” path? Are our students really “Career Ready?”
I’m worried about Tennessee. I’m concerned that we are focusing too much light on the college path that we are neglecting the path that many of our students will take. In so doing we are slowly eliminating those “career enhancing” classes like cosmetology, carpentry, plumbing, auto work, electronics, that we are pulling the “career” rug out from underneath a large population of students and forcing them into college level classes where they will not be successful.
If anything we need as much focus if not more on the Career Ready part of the phrase than ever before. We need technical school information, we need hands on CTE classes to teach the reality of math and business classes to demonstrate the requirement to be able to read and understand non-fiction because life is non-fiction. These needs are required life skills, not optional and “Career Ready” classes need as much focus as “College Ready” classes. Come-on Tennessee, let’s take back the lead in school-to-work education.

PLC/r

PLC/r = PLCm + PLCi

The traditional model of a PLC involves the meeting of teachers in like disciplines and or like grade levels. The idea is that this helps them focus on their issues given the similarity of the disciplines or the grade level, in some cases both. As a Professional Learning Community the main idea is that as a group of for example math teachers we can best evaluate and model best practices to each other because we share the same discipline and in many cases the same or similar students. Building relationships in this setting is easier given the similarity of the discipline or students and this is especially helpful in high school where conversations between colleagues used to be held primarily after faculty meetings or informally in hallway discussions. So the PLC premise is built primarily on school systems with either sufficient financial resources to accommodate the process or with a deep enough pool of teachers who can watch each others classes for a brief period of time and there are enough colleagues in the same discipline and or grade level to accommodate the PLC meeting.
In rural schools throughout this country PLCs falter or collapse completely as schools, primarily those schools with a small faculty and student body try to imitate larger schools PLC implementation process. Many rural schools have perhaps one or two 7th grade math teachers in the complete school system. The entire math department in a school may consist of just a few individuals without a common planning time so the only method to their meeting as a math centered PLC would be to hire subs to cover their classes, a plan most rural schools cannot afford to implement. An alternative to the PLC process as presented is a PLC/r or a rural PLC program. A rural PLC or PLC/r simply means that we’ve taken the framework of the traditional PLC and modified (PLCm) that framework to allow all disciplines and supporting staff to join in the PLC meetings lending it to more of a totally integrated (PLCi) meeting. Therefore in the rural communities across this country PLCs can work and can be successful by just accepting the fact that the modification of the PLC does not detract from the form and function of the PLC but rather presents a new and perhaps better way to get the faculty working together and sharing knowledge while meeting in these PLC/r during a more convenient and affordable times.
While PLCs are designed around individual disciplines and grade level meetings, this mix of disciplines and grade level teachers in PLC/r’s bring to the stage a whole new view of shared teaching and shared experiences. The idea is two fold. First to grow unity within the group each PLC reflects on their school and asks themselves what could they do as a small group to help the school become a better place for faculty, staff, or students? The second part is to share and discover as a faculty the professional development they need this school year.
The first part of the group work involves the development of a team goal. This team goal must be one that the team feels they can accomplish during the year or the semester depending on school scheduling. For example the development of a parent newsletter, improving faculty intra-communication, development of display boards showing student testing progress, all are small and achievable faculty goals that are relatively easy to implement and will give the team a sense of accomplishment at a very early stage of the PLC/r. Team goals are transferrable to the next year or next semester; some team goals become projects for the freshman – senior class or a school club to take on each year. It does not have to be a big item with multiple layers of tasks but should be the simple and easily implemented. A great example of an easy to do and implement program is a truly effective one called Word of the Day/Word of the Week (WOD/WOW) program I’ve outline in an earlier blog. Once this program is generated and installed it is an easily maintained program with demonstrated results in raising ACT and end of the year testing scores.
The second part of the PLC/r is the most important to the faculty and the student body and that is the practical application and shared knowledge and skills of a blended faculty working on better understanding themselves, In this era of implementation of Common Core and PARCC testing transition there are worlds of change and improvements we don’t necessarily get to practice individually just due to time constraints or the lack of knowledge about the subject. But with team leadership and shared responsibility the PLC/r can soon consider alternative methods of exploring professional development. Central to the PLC concept is that we as a group of professional educators need time to share and collaborate with colleagues and the PLC/r actually enhances this experience by allowing the involvement of all disciplines and grade level teachers to interact with each others and therefore share a broader range of knowledge than just their own discipline or grade level knowledge. During a recent PLC meeting where one of the professional practices we were using called Professional Rounds, the PLC/r was visiting the local elementary school. This PLC consisted of primarily middle and high school teachers. They were visiting a first grade class and they were amazed at the amount of time the kids spent using the Smart Board and how well they used it. At the next PLC meeting the following week while reflecting on that experience the high school teachers were stunned at the fact that these little kids could use the Smart Boards but many at their school were just using them as white boards due to either lack of training or did not see the usefulness of the equipment. Then they discovered that amongst their group was a teacher with expertise on Smart Boards. The next few PLCs were then conducted using a Smart Board.
PLC/r have the power to markedly change faculties. They are the least intrusive method of advancing teacher knowledge through collaboration especially in rural school settings.