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From 22 until 25 August 2017, the University of Rwanda, College of Education (UR-CE) hosted the 7thDistance Education and Teacher Education in Africa (DETA) conference in Kigali.  The conference theme was Getting practical about Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 in Teacher Education in Africa.

On 24 August, VVOB Rwanda organized a symposium on Developing Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).  Stefaan Vande Walle, education advisor at VVOB Rwanda, gave an overview of recent research on PLCs and VVOB’s activities and lessons learned about PLCs in South Africa and Rwanda.  The presentation was followed by a panel discussion with members from South Africa and Rwanda:

  • Mr Rabotapi, Chief Director Teacher Development at the Department of Basic Education in South Africa
  • Mr Mokoena, Chief Education Specialist from Thabo Mofutsanyane District, Free State Department of Education
  • Mr Rukyeba, Director of the School Leadership and Management Unit, Rwanda Education Board.
  • Ms Nadine Umurerwa, Sector Education Officer in Rugendabari Sector, Muhanga District, Southern Province.

The panelists touched upon a wide variety of issues that affect the implementation of PLCs, including:

Balance between external input via resource people and internal learning among members. 

PLCs could benefit greatly from resource people that can “feed” the PLC with novel insights.  On the other hand, it was argued that bringing all members of a PLC up to the level of the best performing member in a PLC would already constitute a sizable improvement.

Strategies to overcome practical challenges

In contrast to Rwanda, many schools in South Africa operate in remote areas. This hampers collaboration of educators in inter-school PLCs, especially in the case of PLCs for principals. One of the strategies to overcome this challenge is the use of social media. Mr Mokoena showcased how principals use WhatsApp to engage in meaningful discussions related to leading learning in their schools.

Balance between providing guidance and monitoring by higher administrative levels and relying on the self-driven nature of PLCs.  

All panelists agreed that PLCs should not be made compulsory for educators.  The role of the national and provincial levels should lie in raising awareness, supporting and sharing good practices.  The DBE sets national norms and standards in the Integrated Strategic Planning Framework for Teacher Education and Development. ISPFTED is the roadmap for teacher development and empowers teachers by giving them more responsibility over their professional development.  In monitoring PLCs, a fine balance should be struck between controlling and supporting.

SEOs in Rwanda and Circuit Managers in South Africa need to keep schools responsible for the quality of teaching and learning that takes place and as such can require teachers and head teachers to plan professional development.  PLCs can be suggested to them as an effective and cost-efficient way to do this.  The South African panelists gave the example of the 9+1 (4+1) programme.  In this programme, teachers spend 9 (or 4 days) teaching and 1 day working together to prepare and reflect.  Starting from national priorities, provincial authorities encourage and provide the space for teachers to work together, with clear accountability measures in place.

Mutual trust as a condition for honest conversations

Mr Rukyeba stressed that PLCs can only be successful if members have the right mindset.  They should have the inherent desire to improve their practice and be willing to share their expertise.  Mr Rabotapi acknowledged that many teachers are still very protective and suspicious about outsiders coming into their class or school.  Ms Umurerwa recalled how in the initial stages of the PLC, head teachers were competing.  Gradually, they learned to cooperate and several members took up leadership roles depending on each member’s strengths and weaknesses.  In fact, PLCs could be an instrument across the full life cycle of a teacher, starting with pre-service teacher training, during induction and throughout their careers as teachers or head teachers.  This will help us to institutionalize PLCs and make sure that they are second nature to the teaching profession.