Michael Gilchrist's picture

As visual art specialists, we are often the only one at our school that teaches our discipline. It is essential to our professional growth to form groups with other visual art specialists to share and learn from each other. These are some guidelines and strategies I have found to be most successful.

Diversity of the group.

It is best if the group is an equal blend of experienced and inexperienced teachers. The inexperienced teachers can benefit from the vast knowledge and “tricks of the trade” that the experienced teachers have mastered. The experienced teachers can benefit from the new knowledge, fresh outlook and by reflecting on lessons that may need to be retired. A group dominated by one or the other could lead to a group that is less likely to share ideas.

No more peacocks.

Often in a group of peers we feel the need to let everyone know what a great job we are doing by having sharing meetings that are just “Look at what I did” meetings. Although sharing is essential, you should establish trust in your group first. The most beneficial groups I have been in started with people saying “I don’t know how to do this. I need help with this.” Admitting you are not a master of every medium known to man establishes trust amongst your peers and gives them an opportunity to share their expertise with you. It is such a relief to be in a group where people say “Does anyone know how to do this?” versus “Look what I can do.”

Share your strengths

After you have discovered what you need help with, then you mentor each other and learn what you need to know from one another. It is important that this comes after the step above so that everyone feels they will benefit from the meetings. If there is no one in your group that knows how to do the thing you need, seek outside help. There are specialists in every medium that would love to share with you and expand your knowledge.

Venting

Whenever teachers get together it is natural to start sharing complaints to a group you feel will uniquely understand what you are going through. Venting is a good thing within limits. You don't want it to take over the meeting and leave everyone feeling worse than when they arrived. We had something called "Playing the venting card". You were only allowed to use it once per meeting. It made people aware of how much they were complaining but also let them feel they were welcome to vent if needed.

Meet regularly

This is very difficult, especially since it will probably mean after school. Commit to meeting at least once a month. This is the minimum. You will learn the most through your shared experiences. If you meet less than once a month, it will be harder to maintain the trust and the professional momentum.

Field Trips

Not all of your meetings have to be about sharing lesson plans. Your group will benefit from going to art shows together, getting ideas and talking about what you saw. It is a non-competitive way to look at and share artwork. It will spark conversation and build trust amongst your members and it is FUN. One of my favorite trips with my team is to look at the art display at our state fair. We get to see art all the way from pre-kindergarten to the professional level from all across our state. It reminds us where we fit in the “big picture” and gives us lots of classroom ideas too. Plus there is always some deep-fried something we can try and laugh about together.

Grow.

Be open to new ideas. Mathematics has not changed that much in the last 100 years, but art is vital and ever-changing. Show up to every meeting ready to learn something new and ready to listen the ideas of others. Even after 20 years you can still learn something new and it will bring more joy into your work and ultimately to your students. Professionally, it can be fun and exciting because you are doing something new.

Professional Learning teams can be dull and dysfunctional, but they don’t have to be. I hope the above points will help you form and enjoy a professional learning team. If you are already a part of one, maybe it can help you “diagnose” your areas of need. In the end, I have found it is worth the time and effort.