We teach our children to share, to cooperate, to play nicely– to be good citizens who work together to make their world a better place. In business, we emphasize teamwork, encourage community spirit, and build relationships. Yet the traditional picture of teaching is an insulated classroom where teachers are left alone to do their jobs, with an emphasis on individualism and isolationism. Why don’t we make it easier for our children’s teachers to have the same opportunities that we demand for our children and in our professional lives? Teachers often aren’t given the opportunity to collaborate with their peers, and (I would argue) they, perhaps more than any other professionals, benefit from professional collaboration and support. And, by extension, the children benefit as well.
Whatever we call it – communities of practice, critical friends, teacher collaborative networks or professional learning communities – teacher collaboration is guided by a common focus: to promote collegial dialogue focused on student data as a means of improving teacher practice and student learning. Teacher collaboration is not a new concept but it is often overlooked and underemphasized. The utility of teacher collaboration should not be underestimated, and the desire to collaborate should be encouraged and nurtured.
Teachers Deserve More
So many teachers have come to accept and expect a certain level of professional isolation. They look to books, the Internet, a few workshops or conferences, and perhaps even a few trusted colleagues for new ideas and inspiration. If the only avenue for teachers to discover new methodologies and ideas is Pinterest and Twitter, we have to admit we have a problem. Teachers deserve more; professional collaboration improves teachers’ professional expertise and has a big impact on student learning and outcomes. As Carrie Leana states in The Missing Link in School Reform, “students showed higher gains in math achievement when their teachers reported frequent conversations with their peers that centered on math, and when there was a feeling of trust or closeness among teachers.”
What is teacher collaboration and how can we make it work effectively and efficiently? Effective teacher collaboration requires teachers to move away from the norm of working alone and interacting privately with their students and toward relinquishing some of their traditional autonomy in favor of sharing and partnership with their peers, either at grade level or beyond. Teacher collaboration is more than teachers gathered together to talk at each other about what they like to do. It should be teachers basing conversations and coaching around data-driven discussions in an atmosphere of trust. As Leana concludes, “policymakers must also invest in measures that enhance collaboration and information sharing among teachers.”
Collaboration can take on any number of guises: reviewing, prototyping and assessing curricula at a grade level meeting; peer coaching and mentoring; shared planning time; support from coaches or lead teachers; or co-teaching and team teaching. At its basest, teacher collaboration is about teachers teaching teachers (say that three times fast!). They are the experts, and collaboration can do so much to foster not just more cooperation among colleagues but also to reduce turnover, grow morale and foster a greater sense of community and allegiance. In turn, students are more engaged and perform better, and those with disabilities or learning differences benefit from the sharing of best practices and clarity of purpose. As The Center for Teaching Quality observed “Mentoring has been shown to increase new recruits’ pedagogical practices, teaching effectiveness, and retention… Teachers who have consistent opportunities to work with effective colleagues also improve in their teaching effectiveness.”
As a parent of three school age children, I have seen a shift over the last several years as teachers in my community have built stronger PLCs under the direction of district leadership. As a school board member and governance leader, I have seen the effect and benefit of collaboration to allow struggling and even seasoned teachers to raise their own bars and to find that creative and joyful spark that comes from working on a supportive and innovative team. In turn, students have prospered, entire schools have become stronger and the parent community is happier and more engaged.