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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

Amber's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My school does not designate a certain time everyday for collaboration. We as a grade meet about as often as necessary to discuss the curriculum. However, it is not very formal but I think our best conversations about new ideas and experiences come during this time. I am only a second year teacher so I try to listen as much as possible to the other teachers to see what I can do differently to make sure that I am giving my students every tool to succeed. In the wake of all the budget cuts going on today we also are not doing much professional learning. I believe that professional learning is also very crucial for an educator to recieve. I also believe that collaboration is one of the biggest factors to success for the students and school system.

Amy Burd's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would have to agree with most of the educators in here that there is not enough collaboration time between colleagues. Last year, my school district mandated that grade levels meet once per week at a specific time. During this time, we were correcting papers and prepping for the rest of the day or next day. Needless to say, my team did not meet regularly; we found ourselves collaborating during lunch which was not very productive.

This year, it is state mandated we document the times we meet with anyone in the school during instructional time. Some staff are in an uproar, but I feel it could be beneficial. In my school, different grades need to meet together in order to know what students will be expected of in the following year. I think in order for teams to meet, they should be given an alloted time during the day that is mutually agreed upon.

William Alderman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I truly agree that collaboration between educators is important. Time should be set aside for teachers to work together. In my school, much like other schools, grade level teams are required to meet once per week to collaborate. However, this time is not often used for true collaboration. Many teachers view this time as wasted and would prefer to be able to utilize it for their own class preparation. Therefore, such collaboration time is not effective. Teachers need to be willing to utilize this time for its intended purpose and only then will it have the impact that research shows it can have. Robert J. Garmston (1998) explains that collaboration must be used to discuss real situations that can have a true impact on student learning. He also goes on to discuss how districts must provide professional development opportunities that helps teachers collaborate for real world instructional benefit. Just simply mandating that teachers collaborate and offering them opportunities to do so is not, in my opinion, enough. Educators must believe that such collaboration is worthy of their time and that it can have a positive impact in their classroom or it is a waste. Therefore, I have concluded that collaboration can be extremely beneficial but only if teachers are willing to take part and seek to grow from the experience.

Garmston, R. J. (1998). Becoming expert teachers (Part One). Journal of Staff Development, 19(1).

Jamie Cooke's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We do the same ot our school. There is a specific agenda that needs to be completed and, like you, we have teachers who do not see the benefit of this time. We do, however, make progress due to the rules set forth by our own team. We want to make a positive impact with this collaboration. We have a time keeper, a reporter, a person to keep us on task when we go astray(which does happen), and the leader who guuides the agenda. We take turns so as not to turn any one member off. It works well for us and we do get more accomplished. We, as educators, know that this time is crucial for our development, and to benefit our students. And hey, we have to be there, so why not make the most of this time. Like I tell my students, we will never get it back.

Jamie Cooke's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We, too, are mandated to meet weekly. A lot of teachers do not like it, but I find it refreshing. I like structure and how it helps me and my students stay on task. I enjoy bouncing ideas off of my colleagues and in reality, many hands make light work! Most teachers that don't want to meet are, I am sorry to say, lazy. They are set in their ways and are unwilling to change. I am working on my master's degree and watched a video last night titled "Teacher Expertise and Development". (Nieto, 2007) In it, Nieto stated "study, think of yourself as lifelong learners." If we allow ourselves to get stale, we are of no benefit to our students. This meeting time is crucial to our development not only as a team, but as great teachers.

DVD: "Teacher Expertise and Development." (2007) Laureate Education, Inc.

Julie Bell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

William made some excellent points. Collaboration is vital, but its effectiveness is only maximized when teachers approach the opportunity with positive attitudes and open minds. My school does set aside a great deal of time to collaborate and plan together, but we, like our students, tend to be distracted when information does not immediately pertain to our personal classroom situations. Formal times of collaboration are necessary to be up-to-date on new trends and strategies, but informal times of collaboration are important, as well. Many of my most valuable collaboration times have been spent with colleagues after a formal collaboration session, addressing the needs of students and how to apply what we have learned to our own classrooms. No matter how many years of experience a teacher may have, we can always benefit from the advice of others in how to best support our students.

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.

Constance Patterson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading the different posts on the importance of teacher collaboration. I feel all of us educators feel the same way about collaborating with other colleagues. This is a great opportunity for teachers to share, vent, and meet other professionals. I really do envy those who have time designated just for this. It shows that your leaders care about you growing professionally.

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.

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