Teachers filled the auditorium, dancing to the beat of the music in a unique spin on musical chairs that had teachers crowd-sourcing essential questions for serving students with diverse needs. Others gathered in a break out session, the tang of onion and lime wafting into the air as educators mixed up batches of pico de gallo while learning about Universal Design for Learning. Others still shared real stories about family engagement and empathy journeys with their peers. It was a refreshing take on professional development and it was all part of the Essex County Learning Community (ECLC) Summer Institute.
ECLC is a new community-driven approach to change, a cross-district network of educators from Beverly, Danvers, Gloucester, Haverhill, Rockport, and Swampscott Public Schools that is facilitated by New Profit and the Center for Collaborative Education, and funded by the Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation. ECLC’s charter is to better serve the growing number of students with learning differences. Teachers serving students with diverse learning needs face unique challenges within their classrooms and their administrations. How do teachers tackle systemic hurdles while also ensuring that their learner’s unique needs are met? The Essex County Learning Community seeks to give educators valuable resources, research-based practices, and experiences to help them succeed in this goal.
“There's a nice sort of balance of support and accountability I think with this learning community,” says Jennifer Lovell, a 4th-grade teacher from Danvers. ECLC educators see the community as a rare opportunity to pool resources and experiences while driving progress and accountability.
“They're bringing in really phenomenal resources to get us thinking along the right path, but there's also this accountability piece where you've got [the CCE coaches] checking in with you all the time which I love and I think we need,” says Marianne Mourikas, a Beverly Public Schools teacher, “it's something that, when you're in a district, you don't have that outside partner sort of saying, ’Come on, get going.’ So that's been really valuable.”
Teachers at the summer institute were eager to dive into the work. CCE District and School Design Senior Director Ramona Trevino reflects, “I was inspired by the commitment of all participants, especially teachers. The level of engagement and depth of discussions validated our purpose and mission. Participants left with support from network colleagues and a sense that they are not alone in their quest to resolve dilemmas.”
Teachers were given valuable resources from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and Transcend Education's Jenee Henry Wood, giving structure to the discussions of the day. Dedicated clinic times gave small groups of teachers the chance to ask experts in the field, including Bob Cunningham, renowned leader and advocate for students with learning disabilities, and Gabrielle Schlichtman, Executive Director for EdTogether, their most pressing questions about their practice. Judy Elliott’s rousing keynote speech at the start of the institute focused on a Multi-tiered System of Support, showing teachers how they can make effective change in their schools by taking small steps. The session had participants laughing, clapping, and moving around the room (all before coffee-break, an impressive feat indeed) and teachers would often recall that particular session throughout the rest of the institute.
But perhaps the biggest takeaway of the day is the power of collaboration. Time and again, teachers emphasized the value of building connections with educators they might not normally talk to in their day-to-day work.
“I love the fact that our neighboring districts are here. We never talk to people in next door districts,” Lovell shares. “We're all doing the same thing. We're all having the same dilemmas, yet we never share.”
While it’s easy to get lost in all the talk of protocols and systems, at the heart of it all are the learners these educators are serving throughout the year. “It's all about the students,” says Julie Smith, principal at Centerville Elementary School in Beverly. “It comes down to that. Just making sure that we can give them the best learning experience.”
“We want to see kids value themselves. I think it's about honoring the strengths that all kids have so that we can support them in feeling good about their assets,” Maeve Moore, a teacher at Beverly Public Schools sums up the mission of ECLC. “I think that we do a lot in schools to make kids feel bad about themselves. I think [we should try] to shift the work so that we can honor where kids are and move them along so that they feel valued.”