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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Successful Math and Science Teacher Collaboration: The Administrator's Role

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Teachers working together who has the time? That is where the administrator comes in to play. During my doctoral research, I discovered that the school administrator is a critical factor in successful math and science teacher collaboration.

The following is a conversation I observed in a program called Mix It Up, Correlated Math and Science:

Science teacher: So how are we going to present change over time in science and math?

Math teacher: Well, in math we would do some graphing of bank account growth, but that is not very interesting by itself.

Science teacher: Ok, in science we could watch things grow and measure them, but it takes a long time.

Principal: We don't have a lot of time.

Science Teacher: Time...What if we watched time-lapsed films and stopped the films to measure them?

Math teacher: Wow do I have the perfect video for middle school students! I saw one last week on YouTube about a white tail dead deer decomposition and how the scavengers work together to reduce the carcass to bones.

Science teacher: Sounds pretty gross, but the kids would love it! Well, most of them would.

Principal: How do we measure and graph that though? You don't know the scale or time frame. What would you be measuring anyway?

Science teacher: You have a point... What about one of those system games fish pond ecosystem or CDC handshake epidemic? We could graph the results from each cycle?

Math teacher: I think I like that more. It means the students would be more active than they would be if they were simply watching a movie. We might use the movie to introduce the topic though -- they would love that.

Through focus group conversations of schools doing math and science teacher collaboration, I discovered four behavioral priorities for administrators that might help foster and sustain these critical collaborations.

Recommendations

Based on data from my research, the four recommendations that follow would be beneficial to all administrators implementing math and science teacher collaboration and could be beneficial to administrators implementing collaborations with teachers of other disciplines or professional learning communities (PLCs) in general. The recommendations consist of establishing processes of communication, being involved in teacher collaborations, promoting professional development, and creating a school time structure that allows for teacher collaboration.

Recommendation #1: Effective Communication

Communication effectiveness depends on the quality of the message and the method of communication. Administrators should consider both what they want to communicate and what is the best way to communicate that message to math and science teacher teams. In the data from this study, teachers and effective administrators referred to communication as two-way and most often as face-to-face, as in a formal staff meeting, collaboration, or even a classroom visit. In the focus group conversations, electronic communication was mainly reserved for communicating updates, reports, and calendaring.

The method of the communication should be collaborative rather than directive; meaning that communications typically start out with a question, "What do you think?" rather than, "You need to do this..." Teachers expressed appreciation for administrators who communicated a clear vision and expectations of performance. While expression of a clear vision might seem directive in nature, it in fact, provides a foundation upon which teachers can build relationships of trust with the administrator because they know what he or she wants and expects. The other message that administrators should deliver is supportive feedback, both in terms of what is going well and what is not going so well.

Recommendation #2: Time to Collaborate

Participants of the study suggested that the administrator should make available at least 55 minutes during the school-day for math and science teachers to collaborate on data disaggregation, coordinated lessons, evaluations, and teacher skill building. Assigning common planning periods can most effectively do this. Other ideas included once a week starting later so teachers can attend collaboration sessions, adjusting the class schedule as if for a rally by shaving off a few minutes from each session, or early release so teachers do not have to stay after school. The administrator should also plan for at least a half day once each six weeks for math and science teachers to engage in deep planning of standards alignment, sequencing and evaluations.

Recommendation #3: Administrator Involvement

Administrator time is stretched thin with all of the duties for which they are responsible, but showing an effort to engage in teacher collaborations with the teachers sends the message of the importance of the collaborations and promotes more effective collaborations as a result. While in the collaboration, the administrator is expected to be a team member, not simply an observer, and not the leader of the team. Electronic collaborations can include the administrator in the same fashion. If the administrator cannot make the meeting, he or she should provide notice to the team and a request for notes from the meeting.

Participants in the study I conducted noted that when the administrators were a part of the planning of collaborated lessons, they knew what is going on in the classrooms and had a better idea of how to help. On the teacher side, knowing that the administrator knows what is supposed to be done helps keep standards high and allows teachers and administrators a greater degree of cooperation and conversation about the results.

Recommendation #4: Professional Development

The teachers also expressed concern over the types of professional development typically employed in their schools. Too often the professional development provided was a one-session workshop on a process or skill and after the training it was never referenced again. Topics of these workshops tended to be overly broad so as to be applicable to all teachers at all grade levels. Yet what the teachers desired most was professional development that was specific to the current needs of their students and their classrooms. While they appreciated it when the administrator supported them by sending them to conferences and workshops, the most powerful professional development was job-embedded and data-driven.

Job-embedded professional development included providing substitutes for teachers to see exemplary teachers in action and providing time for math and science teachers to collaborate. The ultimate goal of math and science teacher collaboration should be to improve the teaching capacity of math and science teachers. Administrators should provide professional development in their faculty meetings and in-service days in which they model the expected behaviors that they want the teachers to use.

What successes have you had as an administrator supporting teacher collaboration? As a teacher, what best practices have you seen from administrative support of teacher collaboration? Please share in the comments section below.

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