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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

Jessica Haile's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that collaboration is crucial. In my school, we are just trying to get cross discipline collaboration, so I can only imagine how wonderful it would be to be able to collaborate across the state, even if it is done virtually.

Teachers need to share ideas, particularly as they involve students. They need to collaborate when they share students, but collaboration across grades and subjects also fosters respect for one another and encourages collegiality, something that is crucial yet lacking in many schools. Additionally, teacher collaboration fosters the use and spread of innovative, pedagogically-sound ideas to help improve education as a whole.

Jessica Haile's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that collaboration is crucial. In my school, we are just trying to get cross discipline collaboration, so I can only imagine how wonderful it would be to be able to collaborate across the state, even if it is done virtually.

Teachers need to share ideas, particularly as they involve students. They need to collaborate when they share students, but collaboration across grades and subjects also fosters respect for one another and encourages collegiality, something that is crucial yet lacking in many schools. Additionally, teacher collaboration fosters the use and spread of innovative, pedagogically-sound ideas to help improve education as a whole.

Krystle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My school, unfortunately, does not make time for teacher collaboration across subject areas. Professional development is at an all time low because of budget cuts. There are not enough resources to send teachers to outside trainings. I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by friends who are educators. We often chat about recent changes in the educational frontier, and which policies our districts are currently implementing. I think it is difficult for non-educators to really understand what we go through on a day to day basis. Constant changes, demands, standards, and theories to accomodate in our classrooms. It all takes extra planning and 35 hour weeks quickly become longer.

Helene James's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello,

Our district organizes session with PLC but within a same department. I get to work with high school teachers and other middle schools. It is great to be able to share projects and ideas. It helps me to innovate. Being new in the profession, I still learn about thee curriculum and look fofr different activities. I don't feel that I am a very creative person but I love to listen other teachers to see what is going on in their class. Then I try to model their work with my own way. I would like to have more PLC session, but like every where else the budget does not allow us to meet that often. I still get to share ideas in my department within the school.

Sara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My district is pushing to get educators on board and begin having routine PLC meetings. Our staff is in a battle with almost half wanting to try them out and the other half thinking they are a waste of time. Currently my district participates in "district run" meetings every other Wednesday. These meetings are set up by the district with a pre-determined topic of discussion. In other words, we do not have the opportunity to collaborate regarding intervention strategies and meeting the needs of all students. Many staff members feel that if our district adopts the PLC meeting format, they will once again not have the opportunity to meet with colleagues on issues that they feel are necessary. It is tough to see our school staff torn, in fact, I feel it is negatively impacting our "team".

Sara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a fifth year teacher I am faced with many new situations in which it is very beneficial to have the opportunity to meet with veteran teachers. Often times it is comforting to run an idea by a colleague prior to implementing a new strategy. Also, in handling difficult situations, it is important to discuss an issue with an "expert teacher" before taking on the problem. The difficult concept is when I need to seek advice from a colleague, it must be on our own time as my district is struggling to create enough collaboration opportunities for staff to reach their full potential. I feel communicating with colleagues is necessary to be effective teachers.

Holly Hinton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I couldn't agree with you all more that as teachers we need to have time set aside weekly if not daily to reflect, share, and discuss strategies with other colleagues. I myself am a fairly new teacher and enjoy learning and improvising my teaching after talking with more experienced teachers. I believe by sharing and listening to others we can only grow in our profession. Where I teach we meet informally as grade level partners to communicate with one another every week. Then every other week we meet more formally as an elementary education department. At this time we discuss classroom events, great lessons, lessons we will do differently next time, school wide events, behavior strategies and gains, etc. Although we are often tired at the end of the day and not up for attending meetings, I feel it can only improve our teaching.
Holly Hinton
Kindergarten Teacher
Walden University (working on MSED)

Lauren Garman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a first year teacher, I believe that collaboration is key to having a successful, less stressful year. As a new teacher, there are many obstacles to overcome and little time to think of ways to create a more positive outcome. Being able to collaborate with other teachers, especially grade level teachers, is so important. The knowledge you take away from the discussion is priceless. It is an opportunity to gain ideas, share successes and failures, and to reflect on teaching, lessons, and any issues that may have risen. Having a "back porch" for teachers is a unique opportunity for teachers to gather in a comfortable, positive environment. I definitely agree that not enough teachers are offered this opportunity. A lot of this is due to not having enough time. With most schools utilizing email throughout the staff, teachers are offered a quicker way to communicate, without having to meet at a designated time. "Becoming Expert Teachers", an article written by Robert Garmston, mentions that an expert teacher possesses the knowledge area of effective communication between other professionals, staff, parents, and the community members. (Garmston, 1998) I agree with Garmston's view that student learning can dramatically increase and become more engaging based on the result of teacher collaboration.

Garmston, R. J. (1998). Becoming expert teachers (Part one). Journal of Staff Development, 19(1). Retrieved October 1, 2009, from http://sylvan.live.ecollege.com/ec/courses/40121/CRS-WUPSYC6205-3640583/...

Lauren Garman
Walden University

Michelle Peters's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teacher Networking: Essential

I support that teacher collaboration and networking is essential in this 21st century, for improvements in both teachers' and students' work. A collaborative forum provides teachers with avenues for discussion on daily issues faced by them. It further assists teachers in a better choice of teaching approaches. I have seen schools work as a team and the students are fully aware of this. In turn, the students themselves work as a team. This tends to create an ethos of team spirit, which fosters positive relationships. On the contrary, schools where teachers fail to co-operate and work as professionals with each other, trickles down a negative image to their students. Eventually, this limits students' achievement and success.

Teachers, at times complain of the insufficient time available for dialogues or collaboration. However, such collegial activities allow for constant communication of new trends and approaches to issues like classroom management. Sonia Neito, in speaking about "Teacher Expertises and Development", highlighted that technology can assist teachers to be up-to-date (Laureate Education, Inc., 2007). Sonia Neito, further elucidated that knowledge of subject could be attained through dialogues, conferences among others. This increase in knowledge, eventually leads to less time spent in trial and error and in dealing with classroom issues. Teachers will also spent less time planning with such collaboration. Therefore, it is a give and take sort of scenario, where the teacher initially sacrifices time for discussions, and the reward is in the pool of ideas and materials for instruction. As was mentioned, schools do not offer teachers enough time for such a necessary activity. My school is a typical example, where teachers rarely participate in professional discussions. One of the realities, off course, is the limited access to the internet in the school. My best conversations with colleagues occur in the staffroom and in departmental meetings. I recommend more organised conversational forums for teachers. Thus, I agree with Garmston, (1998) who saw the need to, "Develop teachers' capacity to collaboratively reinvent instruction in their schools by working together to link the learning characteristics of their students to a demanding modern curriculum with the best that is known today about how learning occurs."(p.3)

Garmston, R. J. (1998). Becoming expert teachers (Part One). Journal of Staff Development,19
(1). Retrieved from http://sylvan.live.ecollege.com/ec/courses/40121/CRS-
WUPSYC6205-3640523/6610_readings/expert_teachers.pdf

Laureate Education, Inc (Producer). (2007). Program 4. The Teaching Professional: [Motion
picture]. Teacher Expertise and Development. Baltimore: Sonia Neito, Ed.D.

Michelle Peters
Student at Walden University

Palmer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Our school does not specifically set aside time to conversate. It does set aside time to collaborate on specific objectives such as data collection and monitoring however. Each staff member is friendly and does take time daily communicating (sometimes in deep conversation) but those conversations are mostly informal. Our best conversations occur as a result of problem-solving. Often times we go to each other to generate a solution for a problem and it leads to further discussion of that problem.

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