Many schools and districts are providing time during the school day for educators to collaborate. Districts have shortened schools days, utilized guest teachers or creatively configured the schedule to allow for non-teaching time to be built into the school day. This is a good thing, however, just providing the time isn’t always enough. When valuable collaboration time is spent reacting to events rather than prioritizing time to delve into the real challenges teachers are facing, we aren’t maximizing the learning opportunity. Seth Godin puts it this way, “there’s a queue of urgent things, all justifiable, all requiring you and you alone to handle them. And so you do, pushing off the important in favor of the urgent.” This message is so important for us as busy educators to remember- If we are always reacting to the urgent, there is never time to get better. It is really important that teams are on the same page and there are always things that have to get done, but we can’t expect to collectively get better if we spend most of our time together focused on updates and logistics and completing tasks imposed by others.
While it’s fairly common for teachers to have some sort of planning and collaboration time built into their workday, the activities that teachers engage in during the allotted time vary greatly, as does the impact on teaching and learning. One principal told me that she trusts her teachers to meet and do what they need. I asked the teachers about how they were using this time and many were frustrated because some team members showed up late or this was when people made their doctor’s appointments. They did not have clear expectations and there was often lack of facilitation or structures in place to effectively work together.
Trust is imperative to empowerment but should not be confused with doing whatever you want. To develop the professional culture and community, build relationships and model the type of learning that we wanted to see in the classroom, just providing the time isn’t enough. On the other hand overly structured and monitoring this time can be stifling and rarely inspires creative and innovative thinking or allows teams to do the work they need to do. To create the change that we want to see in classrooms for all learners, we need to create the structures within our collaboration that deepen our practice and allows teachers the space to focus on learning and improving the right things. Here are 5 things that help teams collectively improve and should be happening regularly in collaboration.
There is so much that happens throughout the week and it is easy to get bogged down by the challenges but it makes such a difference when we focus on the positives and celebrate one another. Taking 5 minutes to highlight what you notice in others and focus on what is going well can and build each other up and intentionally create rituals that ensure the individuals feel seen and valued and inspired to make an impact.
2. Set Goals and Reflect on Progress
Most of us have goals- personal and profession- that are probably written down somewhere on an evaluation sheet or were created at the turn of the new year. Creating goals is not often a problem but if we don’t focus on them or track progress, we most likely won’t reach them. Carving out time to share updates on our personal and collective goals creates transparency in learning and helps to hold each other accountable and provide support as necessary.
3. Peer Teaching
As teachers, we spend a lot of time teaching our students but so rarely teach our peers. There are so many lessons that we learn each day and strategies that impact learners that could impact so much more if teachers took time to teach their peers. Likewise, there are many challenges that we deal with and we could all benefit from the collective wisdom of a group to help figure them out. Learning something new doesn’t have to come from a formal professional development session or conference. So often the most impactful learning can come from a peer who is teaching the same groups of kids and understands the context. Taking time to teach one another is important in learning communities. Take turns teaching a new strategy, tool, or lesson learned, read articles, and try something out.
4. Critique + Revise
Presenting challenges, providing feedback and creating actionable next steps are valuable exercises that help improve learning experiences to positively impact students. One protocol that can be adapted in many ways to support critique and revision in a safe learning environment is the tuning protocol. It helps provide a structure to dive into learning experiences and look at student work in a meaningful way. This usually takes between 30 minutes to an hour and is helpful to have a facilitator and timekeeper and follows this basic structure:
- Present the context and the work to be examined
- Clarifying Questions- More specific questions about the context and the student work
- Feedback- Kind, specific, and helpful
- Discussion- What are the implications of the work? What else could make an impact?
- Reflection- What was learned?, What might be next steps?
- Debrief- How did the process work? What could make it better?
The tuning protocol can be adapted in a variety of ways. One powerful way to use this protocol is to look at models of other projects to get ideas and practice this process in a non-threatening way. Teachers can benefit from presenting a lesson idea or project that they are just beginning to get feedback. It is also useful midway through a project to help improve and determine next steps. It can be used to get feedback on a challenge that one is facing as well. One of the most powerful uses in my experience, however, is to use this protocol to look at student work from your own projects. When educators look at student work to determine strengths and implications for designing learning experiences collectively, we can learn a great deal about our impact on desired learning outcomes and continue to improve.
5. Problem Solving
Creating the space for people to put problems of practice on the table for the group to collectively solve builds capacity and trust in a team. When teams take turns sharing a problem of practice, they can leverage the expertise of the group to collectively solve challenges and although they are usually specific to one person they usually have implications for the rest of the team to learn from.
“If we create a culture where every teacher believes they need to improve, not because they aren’t good enough but because they could be even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve. This is one of my favorite quotes from Dylan Wiliam and I truly believe it but to create this culture requires prioritizing time and experiences that help us learn and improve. To do this, we need to make time for celebration, goal setting and reflecting on progress, teaching each other and learning together, critiquing and revising our work and problem-solving. This type of collaboration not only develops expertise but builds the community and develops shared norms and belief that impact both teaching and learning. The power in the collaborative time is not in the time alone, it is the opportunity to network and engage in meaningful conversations, and generate new ideas to impact the students we serve.