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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Making the Most Out of Teacher Collaboration

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
How stupid could I have been! I should have taken the time and effort to collaborate!

I remember feeling so frustrated about classroom discipline that I had decided to teach college instead of high school. My teaching career began in the tiny town of Patagonia, Arizona. Looking back, I had an ideal situation: class sizes of no more than 15 students, in a small community where everyone knows everyone, and a four-day work week! I now wonder how different things would have been if I had taken the initiative and sought advice, wisdom, and assistance from the other experienced teachers.

Nope, I was intent on saving the world by myself. What did I need from my fellow teachers?

A lot of help! What did they need from me? Being a newbie, I couldn't really share pedagogy, but what they could have used to their benefit was my eagerness, energy, and enthusiasm.

Avoiding Teacher Isolation

Perhaps I am an extreme example of what not to do, but I have witnessed a general sense that teachers, when it comes to their performance in the classroom, tend to stick to themselves. This could be because of self-consciousness or embarrassment, but the attitude of professional privacy is not conducive to professional development. I was lucky to have a mentor in my next school that knew what teaching was all about. He would actually seek me out, ask me for advice and would share what he was working on in his classroom. I felt comfortable doing the same with him. I learned a lot from him. I could have learned even more if I had realized how much my professional development depended on effective teacher collaboration.

Personal Steps to Effective Collaboration

If I had it to do again, this is what I would do to get the most out of my formal and informal collaborations with other teachers:

  • Build relationships
  • Observe the best
  • Ask questions
  • Share
  • Come prepared

First of all, I would get to know them and not wait for them to get to know me. Even though I might be overwhelmed with paperwork, planning and preparing, I need to be with other teachers, not by myself. I must seek them out, spend time with them, help them, and build relationships. One of the benefits of this is that rather than simply having the other teachers know me as the "new guy," or the "weird guy," they will know my name and consider me a colleague.

Secondly, I would observe as many teachers as possible, and seek out the ones that I would like to emulate, regardless of the academic discipline in which they teach. I would arrange to visit teachers on my conference periods to watch them and see how they go about the business of teaching and learning, looking for things that I could use. Afterward, it would be beneficial to ask them questions about how to imitate what I saw, though care must be taken to not be inquisitorial, or judgmental.

Thirdly, I would develop a list of "how to" and "why for" questions regarding student data, instruction, discipline, etc. that I would ask these colleagues on my own. In those cases where I am lucky enough to have formal opportunities to collaborate, I would bring my list of questions pertinent to the agenda in order to pick the groups' collective brain for answers.

Fourthly, rather than wracking my brain for answers that others have already solved, I would share my frustrations, with these colleagues and get the answers I need quickly so I can go on to other important matters. In my informal meetings with teacher colleagues and in the formal "collaboration" meetings, I must be prepared to share what I have learned. Though my idea may not be 100 percent useful, it may spark other ideas from which the other teachers may synthesize even more powerful ideas. Common lesson planning is powerful especially when combined with common assessments, but even if all I do is share them with a colleague, I find that they always have a suggestion for improvement and can save me embarrassment and frustration by correcting mistakes in content or judgment.

Preparation is Key

Finally, and especially in formal collaboration meetings, but not solely, I would have to be prepared. What I mean by this is that one of the reasons that schools do not improve as fast as we would like them to is that when teachers get together for a purpose, rarely has research been done by the teachers, neither have ideas been mapped out prior to the meeting. So everyone in the meeting is flat-footed, and in the course of the short meeting, they are expected to come up with some grandiose solution from the top of their heads.

I remember spending a summer doing this for "restructuring" and the best that 100 educators could come up with were portfolios and an advisory period! So, for formal meetings, I would look at the agenda and do some thinking and research so I have some valuable things to share.

My experience has been that my preparation sparks much deeper conversation, more complete answers and better solutions. For informal collaborations, before I attempted to try out any new idea, I would ask one of my esteemed colleagues what they thought of it. In terms of assessments, the easiest way to improve the validity of the assessment is to have a colleague or group of colleagues review it. Of course, this assumes that I am on the ball enough to have prepared my assessment before I begin instruction (Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins of Understanding By Design would be proud).

What does this add up to? Teachers must take the bull by horns, and be deliberate in how we collaborate (i.e. work together in the business of teaching and learning). Michael Fullan, author of Change Forces, states emphatically that every teacher "...must be a change agent." The skills of individual and collective inquiry, as well as moral resolve that Fullan refers to do not come from the administration, they have to come from the true instructional leaders of the school: the teachers.

What have you found works best to get the most out of collaborating with other teachers?

Comments (35)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Christy:

Thanks for trying to collaborate. The more deliberate the collaboration, the more successful it will be. Small schools have the challenge that typically one or two teachers teach one grade level. It is hard to have a content oriented collaboration with just one or two teachers. I would suggest that you broaden your scope a bit and invite different grade level teachers to a meeting. Make the agenda about topics such as: Student Motivation, Checking for Understanding, Student Engagement, Alternatives to Lectures, and Effective Homework to name just a few. These topics are valuable to all grades. Come prepared with your own research on these ideas. Share what you know, then act like a sponge. If you as a teachers start this, then it is more likely that the other teachers will not be suspicious and will participate energetically. It is likely that they feel isolated like you do.

In terms of your initial topic, you are asking the right questions. All teachers should be interested in student motivation. Much of motivation depends on what you believe about students and how they learn. If you believe that students just need to listen and pay attention in order to learn, then no matter what, you are going to have a hard time motivating students. If you believe that students learn best when they interact and participate in the learning process, then motivation almost takes care of itself. But even then, some students require the personal touch in order to be motivated. That is when you dig deeper to try to understand how that student thinks and what are the motivational buttons.

One of the biggest reasons to collaborate is to get together with your colleagues that also teach the same students and you all plan out a way to try to reach them; how to get them as excited and enthused about learning as you all are. You can create your own collaboration group, or even a PLC if you are willing to make the commitments.

Good luck!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]I teach at a small school. I find it hard to find time to do a lot of collaboration. I am always interested in what other teachers have to say. One of my main interests is ways to increase student motivation. Could anyone assist me with tips of how to do this?[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Jatkins:

Congratulations on reaching Nirvana!
I am interested in your comment of the change between elementary and secondary schools. What do you think made the difference? How has your teaching been enhanced because of these professional associations and collaborations? Just curious?

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]I recently transferred to the secondary level after many years of working with elementary students. Now, I am in a much better position to collaborate with my fellow staff members and I find it to be such a enriching experience for all involved. It is unfortunate that so much educators are limited by scheduling constraints and collaboration is not always possible. I'm just happy to currently be in a better situation which allows for collaborative planning.[/quote]

Tiffany's picture

Jenna-
I was in a similar situation a few years ago......our K-1 grade level team decided to have the First grade teachers let the Kindergarten teachers know what they would like to have the students know by the time they come to First grade. Letter-sound recognition, basic sight words, basic math addition/subtraction, etc. This really gave the Kindergarten teachers some goals to set, and a way to monitor the progress of their students during the year. It also allowed the First grade teachers to have a much better starting point for the beginning of the next school year.

Jennifer's picture
Jennifer
Third Grade Teacher from Illinois

Professional Learning Communities are highly supported in my elementary building. Our PLCs take place within our grade level teams. I feel that I have been blessed with a wonderful team. My third grade team consists of myself and two other teachers. We are all very similar in our teaching styles and get along great. Despite time constraints during the week, we work very hard to make sure to find a little time each day to talk with each other. Without having a common planning period, we usually end up having our important conversations during our thirty minute lunch period. We work closely together to ensure that our students are meeting the expectations set forth not only by ourselves but by the school district as well. We tend look at skills where most of our students are struggling and then choose a particular skill to focu on. In the few days that follow, we spend our lunch periods discussing how we plan on addressing the skill that we have chosen to work on (strategies, lessons, activities, etc.). We usually focus on that skill for about two weeks. During those two weeks, it is not uncommon for us to have conversations about what we have tried and worked or, at times, didn't work. If our students do not make the gains that we expected, we then have to have those difficult decisions about why the students did not gain enough and what more can we do. As a team we work very well together to focus on helping our students succeed. I could not be more happy to collaborate with such a wonderful team of teachers.

Kristen's picture
Kristen
Elementary Teacher

I am in my second year of teaching and having the opportunity to talk and collaborate with experienced teachers has taught me more than I ever imagined. At my school, we have many programs that provide teachers with excellent student data. From tracking student behavior, to literacy and math assessments, we have so much information at our fingertips to make data-driven decisions. However, finding the time to meet with other teachers to analyze this data is the hard part. I would love to be able to meet with my grade-level team or other grade-level teachers to discuss what is working, what is not working, what we can change, etc,. Because we do not have set times to meet as teams, a group of teachers at my school came together to start a book study group. The book study group I joined was made up of 7-8 teachers, ranging from grades K-5. We read a book that focused on literacy centers at the elementary level. This book was an excellent book, providing us with many great ideas and strategies to create/manage effective literacy centers. I learned a lot from the book, however, what I learned from the other teachers was even more valuable. If you are having trouble collaborating with teachers at your school or feel as if you are not being given this opportunity, I would suggest starting or joining a book study group. All of the teachers in this book study group WANTED to be there and WANTED to learn how to be more effective educators. Even if you can only get together with 2-3 teachers, you will gain rich and valuable things from one another!

Debbie C's picture
Debbie C
2nd grade teacher from Washington State

Ben,
Our district is currently in our fourth year of PLC work. It started off with year one and two consisting of grumbling and missed meetings. As time progressed and teachers were given more time and direction, I saw a shift in their thinking. It is enjoyable now to pass by a PLC group at work and listen to the ideas created, enthusiasm generated, and questions being discussed. I appreciated your idea of making agenda topics for PLC groups. Typically we have just focused on student work, planning, and assessments. Our groups are ready to tackle other subjects more in depth. Also, it was interesting to read in your intial blog the steps for effective collaboration. When I went back to teaching after a eight year break raising boys, I followed in your footsteps almost exactly. Something interesting to note: It wasn't only the expert teachers that gave me ideas and strategies I could use. I watched struggling teachers as well and questioned how I could be more effective and make connections between what worked and why. It is because of this, that I feel comfortable letting people observe me when I have a lesson that is successful or one that needs reflecting and revising. Thank you for your post. Debbie Cameron

Billie 2nd Grade Teacher Oregon's picture
Billie 2nd Grade Teacher Oregon
2nd Grade Teacher, Oregon

I work in a small school district, one teacher per grade level. This year we have moved to CORE standards rather than state standards and individual growth models for each student. We have met K-3 to create growth models for reading and math. It has been very helpful to work with the other grade level teachers and discuss what the standards are so we can make sure we are scaffolding through the years. What has been difficult is finding the time to use our assessment data to compare how students are doing K-3 and see if we are reaching the growth and mastering the key concepts at each grade level. We did a lot of the individual growth model design on our own time over the summer. Now that school is in full swing we are very limited on time and opportunities to meet. It is encouraging to see how effective other teams are at meeting and working together on the results of the data.

pamela's picture

Our school has been PLCing for about two years. We do very well meeting but then it slows down where we have so other many meetings we cant meet. We meet and discuss our time line etc.. but we dont take time to look at data and discuss. PLc never really is followed through with my team. How do you address it with others when I have address with principal and nothing has been done.

Erin's picture
Erin
Special Education Teacher from Aiken, South Carolina

What are your suggestions to overcome the issue of time management for effective collaboration? I am a special education teacher that works with three different grade levels and eleven teachers around the building. I mainly have a pull-out setting for my special needs students, but I also try and push-in to the general education classrooms for my fifth graders. I struggle with keeping up with what is going on around the building in order to help my student's keep up with the general education curriculum. I am open for any strategies!

Jan's picture
Jan
Second Grade first year teacher from New York

The school I work in has a required time for collaboration everyday after school, which we have to stay for. A lot of teachers use this time simply for planning or prepping for the next day. We have certain days where we express our concerns for certain students or situations, and we seek advice, but I would say this happens about once per two weeks. I think we all feel that we are complaining too much if we go on about our problems. However, I have been expressing myself more often, because I am finding the more I do, the more I find relief because other teachers are having the same issues that I am, and I find more ideas and strategies on how to solve that issue. I think because the time is required, and there are only certain things that are considered of collaboration topics, more teachers dread the collab time. I enjoy seeing that collaboration doesn't have to be simply planning the next week with the same grade in the same room, and I would like to express this to my team.

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