Friday, February 19, 2010

Teacher Collaboration Past to Present...

Teacher voice. We've been complaining about the lack of it for so long: I just spent a year traveling the country to speak on behalf of teachers, and there were many times when I felt that my message fell on deaf ears, that I was merely the "token teacher" in the room. However, I'm encouraged today at the release of the results of the Metlife Survey of the American Teacher. This year's title is Collaboration for Student Success, and like the North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions Survey in my state, the Metlife Survey provides feedback on what's going on in schools so that all stakeholders, and policymakers, can gain a better understanding of what we, as educators, experience every day.

Last night I had the opportunity to speak to a room full of future school principals on the topic of beginning teacher support. Not suprisingly, the subject of this year's survey was at the top of my list of how to support beginning teachers: foster an atmosphere of collaboration. The first part of the Collaboration for Student Success survey is entitled "Effective Teaching and Leadership," and one point we discussed as a group last night comes up again: "While we are meeting with other teachers, we aren't observing other teachers." Less than 1/3 of the teachers who responded to the survey indicated that the practice of observing other teachers occurs at their schools.

I told the group about an opportunity I had once to cover a classroom for a beginning teacher so that she could observe her mentor. All agreed that this is a good practice. But I ventured on into the conversation to say that not only should beginning teachers be observing others, the rest of us could learn a little something from the practice as well. Not only could we pick up management tips and ideas for what works with certain students (students we may teach as well), we could also be more informed about what others are teaching so that we can plan collaboratively.

Oh, there's that word...the one in the title of the survey..."increased collaboration."

Last night I shared the story of my first year teaching - 1979 - and how in that high school every classroom door was closed. Every teacher taught in isolation - there was no sharing of plans or resources, no discussions of student needs, no back and forth on what was working or wasn't. I spent my days talking only with children and found little avenues for getting any better at what I was doing.

As the years went by, those doors opened a little, but for the majority of my career there was still a mentality in the hallways and common areas of "I'm only going to address my own students, the ones I know, and leave the others to the teachers who teach them."

But now, according to the Survey of the American Teacher, 67% of the educators who completed the survey believe that increased collaboration has a direct effect on student success. And 80% strongly agree that teachers share responsibility for achievement of all students. We're in this together, folks, and I'm delighted to see that a majority of those questioned agree.

And although in many schools, there's still some "door closing" and collaborative planning is not a seamless part of the day, we have come so far in our understanding of purposeful instruction. My school has 1 1/2 hours of common grade-level planning daily and fully equipped team rooms for meetings (fully equipped = tables, chairs, and internet access...there are also bathrooms and a functional stove, but we don't seem to fit "cooking" in to the planning meetings).

At my school, collaboration is such a part of the culture that I see discussions about instruction everywhere - the halls, the cafeteria, the car rider line - and just last summer, while my entire faculty attended a graveside funeral, the math teacher I was talking to after the service excused herself on the lawn of the cemetery: "I have to plan a math lesson," she said as she walked across the grass to meet with her grade-level teaching partner.

I looked at my principal and said, "We're having PLC meetings in a the summer...when school's out."

I know this type of collaboration is the exception and not the rule, but I can tell you that it works, it's the best for students, and it fosters an atmosphere of family in a school.

The Metlife Survey of the American Teacher can tell you that, too.


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I think that teacher collaboration is very important for students. Recently in one of my classes we discussed integrated curriculum projects where teachers from each of the academic areas are involved in one big unit. The unit ties in assignments and learning opportunities from each area. The example we talked about was the great depression. Students in wrote journals in English, made bank accounts in math, read historical perspectives in social studies and so on... it was a great way to get teachers to collaborate on common learning goals.

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