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ASSUMPTION – In small school districts, teachers can feel isolated from others who teach in their subject area. They might be the only reading teacher or science teacher in their building.

While the occasional conference can provide a place to meet others, it's not the same as collaborating with colleagues.

“At a conference, it's someone standing in front of you telling you what to do,” said Nicole Cunningham, who teaches literature to sixth, seventh and eighth grades at Okaw Valley Middle School.

When Central A&M Middle School Principal Ryan Scott, Moulton Middle School Principal Russ Tomblin and Okaw Valley Middle School Principal Ross Forlines all took a class together, they began talking about the problems a small district presents, and a top concern was that teachers don't have the professional development and collaboration opportunities they would in a larger district.

The obvious answer, Scott said, was to create a professional learning community among small districts to allow teachers to get together.

Cunningham is the only literature teacher in her building, she said, so the chance to exchange ideas with the literature teachers from the other districts is a boon to her.

“I talk to other teachers, even if they're not in my (subject) area,” said Renee Oldham, who teaches reading at Central A&M Middle School. But while that gives her a chance to talk about general lesson planning and classroom management issues, it doesn't provide the subject-specific methods of teaching that are possible with colleagues in the same field.

Nathan Bohannon, who teaches seventh and eighth language arts at Central A&M, told colleagues in his small group how he gradually introduces research and outlines over the weeks prior to the eighth-grade research paper assignment, giving the students plenty of opportunity to practice those skills before the pressure of producing a research paper is upon them. By the time they begin their research paper project, making an outline and tackling a big paper is far less intimidating.

The science and math teachers met in September and have already expressed interest in doing that again in the spring, Scott said.

“Our overall goal and objective is to serve as a resource to each other, because we're all teaching the same thing,” he said. “The same standards to the same basic student population, with the same assessment to prove whether our students are proficient. We're all in the trenches with similar goals and resources, so we might as well help each other, because we're kind of limited and isolated.”

One teacher might have an especially effective way of teaching a concept and can share that with the others, while another might be struggling with that very thing, and when they can consult with each other, students and teachers alike will benefit.

“The whole idea behind it was, we're a little school,” Forlines said. “Some schools have three or four reading teachers, and they can meet every day and talk about it. I have a single one. Our idea was, we wanted to create a community where now we can have my teacher and whatever struggles she's having, and she can have 10 or 11 people to bounce an idea off of.

“We're all in the same boat with small schools, struggling economies; we're teaching same stuff to similar demographics, so why not share?”

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