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Making Time for Teacher Collaboration Is Crucial

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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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.

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Hayley's picture
Communications Associate at Teachers Network

With support of the Ford Foundation, Teachers Network ( - 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 results of the study here:

Elise Schneck Skiba - 4235's picture

An organization called American Councils for International Education administers Educational Seminars: Exchanges for Teachers and Principals that are FULLY funded by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), U.S. Department of State. These programs provide SHORT-TERM (2-8 week exchanges) opportunities for teachers and principals to travel in the summer and/or host an an international educator and collaborate! Learn more at

Samantha R.'s picture

I have just been offered a term substitute position in March. I feel that collaboration is important amongst colleagues because it is an opportunity to discuss authentic teaching problems and successes. During collaborations we have discussed what works, what did not work and how students learn. This is especially helpful to me because I am new teacher. I like to hear innovated ideas that will improve learning opportunities for my students. However, the only time we have to collaborate is during our lunch period because our preps are at different times. I do not feel we have enough collaboration opportunities. I think we should have a set time during the week (not during our lunch) to discuss strategies with each other.

LeAnn Risch's picture

As a PLC school our collaboration time seems very directed and focused on learning goals and analysis of data, however, we do have a more informal collaboration model as well--that is where the good conversations--and difficult conversations occur. I like the back porch approach...I think we need to move towards this. I know time is always a factor, but I think the best teaching has come out of the collaborative efforts of people on Freedom's campus.

Cassandra Weter's picture

Our school meets every Wednesday for collaborative meeting time with colleagues. This has been mandated by the state because we are not passing Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). We fill out paper work for the state, we go over our schedule for the month, and discuss what we can do to improve scores. Our school has many visitors from the state department of education and they also meet with us during this time. Now that I understand what Professional Learning Community is, I think that it would be very beneficial to implement during our collaborative meeting time. I also understand that we are a very small school, every teacher teaches multiple grades we currently have eight teachers. We should also be able to meet within our grade categories the elementary together and the middle/high school teachers together. I think that our students will benefit greatly from addressing questions such as:
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?
Taken from Cindy Phillips blog.
Being able to create assessments, teaching materials, and formal assessments during this time is also a very valuable resource. Spending the time given to us on improving student achievement would be very valuable as teachers and to our students. Having structure during our meeting time and being able to work on a variety of activities is something that we as teachers and a school need to work towards. We need to meet the requirements of our particular school; this depends on the needs of the faculty and students.

Laureate Education, Inc. (2007) 16: "Characteristics of Effective Professional Development" Teacher as a professional. Baltimore, MD: Dr. Ann Leiberman, Dr. Linda-Darling Hammond. And Dr. Michael Fullan

Mindy's picture
teacher from Michigan

I think it's imperative that teachers have a consistent time and place where they can get together with their colleagues to talk. This is a time to talk about what's working and what isn't working; gather ideas on what to do with the student that just won't do anything; vent frustrations; bond with each other.

I am currently working in a city school where it doesn't seem there is much collaboration at all amongst the teachers. It's sad because they are all doing their own thing and I know the one I am working with is struggling with a variety of areas (classroom management, reaching all ability levels, and creating positive relationships with students). I have tried to give her some ideas as I had my own classroom for 5 years before I was laid off. I do know some tricks that work. I also try to model what worked for me when I am interacting with students. Again, to no avail. I think if she was able to really sit down with another teacher, probably the same grade level would be the best, she'd find some great ideas on what to do. She is a big part of the problem that occurs in the classroom, but I can't come out and tell her that.

Any ideas to help me through this? Collaboration is do I get there though?

Diana AuBuchon's picture
Diana AuBuchon
Eighth grade English teacher in Santa Ana, California

There is no doubt that collaboration is vital. It also needs to be structured and focused, on ideas teachers think are important. There is never enough time but making the most of the time we are given will benefit teachers and students in the classroom.

Colleen's picture
Special Education Science teacher in Philadelphia

I would like to start a professional development workshop with lots collaboration. I have a short list of different ideas. I would like others opinions on this idea: Should I take my list and see who would like to discuss the topic in detail, enlisting lots of feedback from colleagues or should I take a chance and say, tell me something you know well and sign up to share it with the school. I feel like no one will feel expert enough to want to present. Giving them ideas to pick from gives them time to find information or formulate a 45 minute workshop. What does everyone think?

Jessica's picture
First grade teacher

Collaboration is so important for the success of our students. At the school I work at, any sort of collaboration is left to each individual teacher to decide. There is no guidance from administration. Luckily, my other grade level teacher and I meet regularly to plan, discuss problems and reflect on our lessons.

natalie's picture
6th & 7th grade teacher from Ohio

I believe collaboration is a wonderful thing in education. It gives you an opportunity to learn from one another and brainstorm ideas. Most of the time, one of the six members on my grade level team, and I will collaborate on many lesson plan ideas. We think out loud to each other and chime in when necessary, this allows us to really be creative and effective when planning. We teach different subjects but do this simply just to help each other.

On the other hand, there are many teachers in my district who refuse to collaborate and do not want to hear anyone else's opinion. Unfortunately, they are stuck in their ways and do not believe they need to change anything. Sometimes I find it frustrating because I feel like it wouldn't hurt to just hear someone out. I think collaboration is key when working together as a team and really allowing things to "gel" like a well oiled machine! :)

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