Professional learning communities (PLC) build a space and time for colleagues to collectively further learning in their field. Strong professional learning communities have several significant benefits in any field. Strong PLCs:
a.) Build a culture of giving and receiving feedback
b.) Provide a safe space to improve skills in cultural competence
c.) Encourage professionals to stay up to date in their fields
The dynamism of environmental education makes it a unique professional field. Many programs are short-term teaching experiences. Whether a four-day residential outdoor school, a half-day field trip, or classroom visits, the temporary nature of environmental teaching can have unique impacts on educators. Because of the numbered days, most environmental educators work very long shifts, often up to twelve or thirteen hours at a time. Additionally, many environmental educators teach a similar curriculum repeatedly to new sets of students. Finally, it can be difficult to build strong connections with students who are only in programs for a few hours or days at a time. This intensity of working hours, repetition of content, and barriers to building long-term connections with students can lead to educators burn out or become complacent in their work.
Strong professional learning communities are thus particularly useful in the field of environmental education. In addition to the general benefits of professional learning communities listed above, some of the most impactful benefits of PLCs in environmental education are described below.
Accountability for professional growth
Establishing a professional learning community holds educators accountable for setting and working toward professional goals. One way that this can be accomplished is through peer observation. Setting up a practice of observation and feedback benefits the observed and the observer in several ways. The observer has the opportunity to see a different perspective on the curriculum that they have become used to. This allows the observer to look for different connections made between themes and lessons, and strengthen the connections they draw in their own teaching. The person being observed benefits by identifying their teaching goals frequently, and by having consistent evidence of their strengths and areas of growth. Building a habit of setting goals encourages educators to critically evaluate their own skills and dispositions in regards to teaching. With the support of a peer observer, an educator can set actionable steps to achieve goals, leading to more growth more quickly. Peer observation also provides a safe space for professionals to practice giving and receiving feedback respectfully and effectively, a skill that is important in any field they may wish to pursue in the future.
A strong PLC in environmental education also creates space to discuss and practices skills in cultural competence. This particular skill set can often be an emotionally charged journey, and the ability to safely make mistakes is an important part of moving forward. Designating a time to discuss specific scenarios, and share useful videos, stories, and teaching materials helps educators to be more aware of their cultural lens and how to make space for more culturally diverse teaching and learning.
Increased content knowledge
Staying up to date in the field of environmental education leads to more diverse content for students and decreases the probability of becoming complacent with curriculum. Educators can broaden their content knowledge by meeting regularly with a PLC to discuss established practices that they find useful, articles about innovative programs and even engage in their own scientific field projects.
Environmental education is also a unique teaching setting as content is intertwined with the ever-changing natural world. Quality environmental teaching draws on these changes to reinforce curriculum goals. Participating in a PLC allows educators to share experiences with phenology, specific scientific knowledge, and to gather a higher quantity of data for field investigations. Committing a PLC meeting to discussion of seed-dispersal lessons for example, can encourage educators with little experience teaching about plants to try something new, and simultaneously allow those with more experience to share resources and perspectives on one topic. By bringing in multiple voices, educators can expand their teaching into new reaches, decreasing their risk for burnout and enriching the student experience.
Finally, professional learning communities are one way for educators to take care of themselves emotionally and physically. Strong PLCs take the time to get to know each other on a personal level, adding an element of fun to the workweek, and fostering stronger working relationships. In a residential graduate setting for example, personal connections build empathy between peers sharing an intensive common experience. PLCs can support individuals in times of stress, and celebrate together in times of success. This camaraderie plays a major role in avoiding teacher burnout.