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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Making Time for Teacher Collaboration Is Crucial

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

In his frequent speeches and interviews about 21st-century learning, Steven Paine often mentions an idea that sounds more folksy than futuristic. In West Virginia, where he has been state superintendent of schools since 2005, Paine is building what he calls "a back porch for teachers."

His goal is to give educators places to come together and talk about innovative ideas that may well revolutionize public education. (To learn more about West Virginia's 21st-Century Learning Initiative, read the Edutopia article "Taking the Initiative: A Sweeping Agenda for Twenty-First-Century Change.")

Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting a spell on this metaphorical back porch when I caught up with a cadre of West Virginia teacher leaders during a summer institute. For the past three years, educators here have been immersed in an ambitious professional-development campaign.

The leadership group comes together regularly for in-depth discussions about topics such as project learning, technology integration, and authentic-assessment strategies. Then they take ideas back home to share with their colleagues. That way, back-porch conversations about teaching and learning expand to reach all 20,000 teachers across the Mountain State.

Conversations continue online, too, at a site called Teach 21. Here, educators find a growing collection of resources to prompt professional discussions, including classroom video clips submitted by West Virginia teachers.

What do educators talk about? At the summer institute, I heard teachers brainstorming about how to connect upper-level, high school math instruction with real-world problems. I watched art specialists work with English teachers to find common ground where their disciplines overlap.

I listened to educators brainstorm strategies for managing project-learning instruction so that students will make the most of learning opportunities. I watched teachers explore Web 2.0 tools and evaluate the classroom potential of new technologies.

And although they took their work seriously, it was easy to see they were enjoying the extended time to talk through ideas and learn from each other. Such intensive, ongoing, and collaborative professional development is exactly what research shows to be most effective for improving both teachers' practice and student learning. Yet for most teachers, this remains a rare experience.

Earlier this year, the National Staff Development Council released a report, "Professional Learning in the Learning Profession." As the report points out, the United States "is far behind in providing public school teachers with opportunities to participate in extended learning opportunities and productive collaborative communities."

Not enough teachers, it seems, are offered a back porch to congregate and the time to take advantage of each others' wisdom.

Does your school make space for teachers to engage in deep conversations about teaching and learning? Where and when do your best conversations with colleagues take place? Please share your thoughts.

Comments (42)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Sherri's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teacher collaboration is crucial in teacher success. I also agree with most of the educators there is not enough collaboration time between colleagues. The school district that I work in, the teachers are mandated to meet with their grade levels once a week before school month for about fifteen to twenty minutes. At that meeting the teachers discuss the different events that are going on in the school. They spend very little time getting to discuss what they are doing for the curriculum in their grade level. A lot of the teachers do not like the meetings because they are not very productive. I feel as though there is each teacher is on their own to figure out what they are going to do. There are times when one or two of the teachers will collaborate with each other but never as a whole grade level like they are suppose to be doing. They just does not seem to be enough hours in the school the day.

Sherri's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teacher collaboration is crucial in teacher success. I also agree with most of the educators there is not enough collaboration time between colleagues. The school district that I work in, the teachers are mandated to meet with their grade levels once a week before school month for about fifteen to twenty minutes. At that meeting the teachers discuss the different events that are going on in the school. They spend very little time getting to discuss what they are doing for the curriculum in their grade level. A lot of the teachers do not like the meetings because they are not very productive. I feel as though there is each teacher is on their own to figure out what they are going to do. There are times when one or two of the teachers will collaborate with each other but never as a whole grade level like they are suppose to be doing. They just does not seem to be enough hours in the school the day.

Cindy Phillips's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My district has been implementing the "Professional Learning Community" (PLC) model for the past two years. Initial training was provided in the form of a conference, along with follow up training which involved County offices. My district created modified days in which the students (K-5) go home early every Wednesday, giving teachers a block of time to collaborate. Our middle and high schools have also set aside time for teachers to collaborate. At the elementary level, grade level teams meet for 40 minutes every Wednesday afternoon. Within this time period, student learning is discussed. We focus on four essential questions:
1. What do we want the students to learn?
2. How will we know when they've learned it?
3. What will we do if they don't learn it?
4. What will we do if they already know it?

We address question #1 by focusing on 3 or 4 essential outcomes per trimester. We utilize/create pre-assessments, teaching materials, and formal assessments (#2). Once the standard is taught, we use formal assessments to determine which students qualify for interventions and which students qualify for enrichment activities (#3,#4). Student interventions take place for 30 minutes, 4 days per week.

We have definitely had our "ups" and "downs" trying to implement a program of this magnitude school wide. We have encountered failures as well as reasons to celebrate. We continuously modify and fine tune our practices to enhance student learning.

William Alderman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that giving the collaboration time some structure and giving the participants a role is great. I think it would hold people more accountable to make the most of the time when they should be collaborating. I have never heard of a team taking that much responsibility for the time they are given to collaborate. I think that would be very beneficial to our situation and the situations of others. It becomes frustrating sitting in a meeting that most of the participants think is a waste of their time, however, if the team members knew what to expect and had some accountability then I should think it would make that time much more effective. I am going to bring this up at our next team meeting and maybe it will make the team collaboration time more effective.

Kenzie Cheek's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Julie,
I agree with you. Some of my best collaborative times have come after formal collaborative meetings. I often feel that the formal meetings are so rigid that it would not be appropriate to speak up. I wish we could focus some of our meetings on a more relaxed, open communication setting. I like the "back porch" talking approach mentioned earlier. Maybe we would take more out of the sessions if they were more relaxed.

TaKisha Bryson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe teacher collaboration is very important. Teachers are able to share ideas about lesson plans, experiments, student's behavior and so much more during this time. As a grade level, we meet twice a week for 45 minutes, and we also meet once every two or three months and have a full day of planning. During the meetings, we discuss the events that are taking place in our classroom as well as in the school. We sometimes have a teacher who attends the meeting to share information they may have receive from a workshop they attended. After we have finished discussing the material that relates to all the teachers, we break into a separate meeting with our team members. We usually have about 20-25 minutes left to discuss the material that relates to the subjects we teach. We have four teachers who teach science and math and four teachers who teach writing and social students. Everyone teaches reading to their homeroom class except for the one group that has three members instead of two. We create lesson plans for the next week, discuss effective ways to teach our students different concepts, and provide assistance any way we can. We also meet with our partners several times a week to discuss how things are going in the different classroom. For example, a student may need to spend extra time in the morning completing math drills or finishing a quiz for another teacher.

Jennifer Caldera's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It seems like everyone agrees that it is important to collaborate. I always have good intentions at the start of every school year to collaborate more with colleagues-sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't. A lot of it has to do with time, schedules, and personalities. But being a professional means putting all this aside and working towards a common goal of educating students. I know I need to dedicate more time to my profession but I always feel conflicted about neglecting my own family. That is something I will have to reconcile on my own. Fow now I will have to focus on something much larger than my family and try to rekindle my faith in the whole public education system. Being able to blog with other educators from so many different backgrounds and with varying perspectives about a myriad of topics is a great way to stay current and, as Constance says, to grow professionally.

raymo08's picture

I agree with you!! It is crucial for teachers to collaborate with each other,but it has to be structured and focused.

raymo08's picture

Teacher collaboration is extremely important. It benefits both students and teachers. Many schools and districts, including my own, set aside times for teachers to collaborate. But as we all know, it is never enough!!!

Hayley's picture
Hayley
Communications Associate at Teachers Network

With support of the Ford Foundation, Teachers Network (www.teachersnetwork.org) - a non-profit organization that has been supporting public school teachers for nearly 30 years, undertook a major nationwide survey. In total, 2,530 surveys were sent out, and 1,210 responses were received--resulting in an astonishing 47.8% return rate, including 175 teachers who had left the classroom, which is exceptional in such a dataset. A primary purpose of this survey was to better understand the role that teacher collaboration plays in supporting and retaining effective teachers in "high-needs", urban schools.

Read more about the survey results here: http://teachersnetwork.org/keepinggoodteachers/index.htm

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