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Lessons from a Learning Journey

By Denny Berry

About eight years ago I was driving to Philadelphia from my school district in Fairfax County Public Schools to attend a conference. I was a high school assistant principal, and with me was my high school principal, the special educator department chair, the science department chair, and the social studies department chair.

We called ourselves the Philly Five. Each of us, in our different roles, was trying to ensure the best for our students. We were trying to do the difficult work of creating a culture that supported the learning of all 1,200 of our students from diverse families, backgrounds, and abilities.

What we didn't fully understand then was that we had not learned enough to accomplish what we wanted. We didn't understand what those hours in a car going to and from a conference would mean to our students. We had no idea how the conversations we had about professional learning communities would impact each of us, as individuals and as a collective group, as we returned to our schools and school system. We did not understand that while the books we were reading informed us, information was not enough. It would take trying and failing, and trying and failing, and then learning enough as educators to somewhat succeed.

We did not understand that at the heart of the learning community concept is an acceptance that we, the adults, had to learn and keep on learning, so that our students could do the same.

I tell this story because I have come to believe that many well-intentioned educators who truly want all of their students to succeed in a learning community culture do not fully understand the commitment that takes. For me, almost nine years after that car ride, there is still so much to learn.

With that said, I have learned a lot over these years.

I have learned that making time for conversations with committed educational professionals matters. I have learned that leadership makes a difference.

I have learned that reading the very best in professional learning does inform and can help as we seek to support our students to achieve their best. And I have learned that reading words on a page is nothing without action.

I have learned that it can be and continues to be difficult for adults to admit a lack of understanding, a lack of perceived ability, and a lack of willingness ensure continuous learning for adults and students. It can be quite difficult to admit that we do not know enough.

The Learning Forward standard on learning communities tells educators that we must continue to learn if we are to achieve the gold standard: all students achieving at high levels.

If we talk to each other and find the time, if we read with each other and figure how it works in our contexts, if we commit to learning with each other and understanding that we are all still learning forever, we can do this.

The school we represented on that drive has become a great success story. George C. Marshall High School has defied the odds with students achieving at high levels as measured by standardized tests on the Virginia Standards of Learning and the International Baccalaureate, despite increasing English as Second Language population and students from poverty. The current principal is a graduate of Learning Forward's Academy program.

Of the original Philly Five, one teacher has retired. Two remain at the school, with one earning the highest leadership award afforded teacher leaders in our 177,000-student strong school system. The former principal of the Philly Five, also a graduate of Learning Forward's Academy Program, leads a cluster of 22 schools with 23,000 students, and I was happy to serve as the director of those schools with her as a graduate of the Academy Program and a coach for Academy 2010.

Our story is one of many. And our story informs what we can and must do as educators who believe in the Learning Forward standard that proposes learning communities as a critical way to ensuring success for all students.

Denny Berry served as the Director of Cluster VI Schools for Fairfax County Public Schools until August 2012. She is now an assistant professor in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.

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