Jessica Lander, a high school teacher and 2015 Harvard Graduate School of Education alum, is blogging for Usable Knowledge about what happens when research ideas and best practices meet the real world. (Read part one of her Usable Knowledge series here.) Jessica also writes about education for the Boston Globe and other outlets. Follow her on Twitter at @jessica_lander.
My school days pass in a flurry of students and in-class assignments. Three classes and homeroom back to back, a lunch gobbled among grading and prepping, two more classes, and an hour working in a school office.
Missing from my schedule is meaningful time to collaborate, troubleshoot, or brainstorm with fellow teachers.
Last year, as a master’s student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the importance of collaboration among teachers was a mantra. In classes we studied how the best schools and best school systems worldwide went to great lengths to foster environments where teachers learned from each other.
We learned about the essential role of collaboration in Finland, an educational giant since 2001, when the country’s PISA scores ranked it first in the world. Finnish schools prioritize time for teachers to work together on lesson planning and student support, and teachers regularly spend time in each other’s classrooms. And we learned that in Japan, teachers use a process called lesson study to develop and refine great lessons, and then refine them again based on feedback from their peers and their students.
In my big urban high school, collaboration most often takes place over the office printer while copying tomorrow’s lesson, or in the hallways before the first or after the last bell of the day. My experience is common in American schools.
There are nine other faculty members teaching the same U.S. history course as I am, and eight teaching world history, but we meet collectively only once every six weeks. As in many public schools, our schedules are the biggest barrier to meaningful collaboration: school days are compact and teaching loads large.
Why should collaboration be a priority? Besides trying to emulate the practices of the world’s best schools, there are three compelling reasons:
Collaboration improves student performance.
A study [PDF] from the University of Pittsburgh found that fostering teamwork in schools improved student test scores.
Collaboration hones teachers’ skills.
Boston College education professor Andy Hargreaves argues (notably here) that we can’t make great schools just by hiring great teachers. If schools become spaces where teachers learn alongside students, both new and veteran teachers strengthen their practice.
Collaboration nurtures healthier school cultures.
Studies of teachers in both Massachusetts and Chicago [PDF] suggest that schools with collaborative communities also have higher teacher retention and and higher job satisfaction.
For me, collaboration would mean a chance to work with master teachers in my school to devise innovative approaches to subjects like the Industrial Revolution or labor movements (I’m hardly the first to teach U.S. history!). It would also mean learning from teachers who have been working with my students for years — who have worked out strategies to engage the shy girl who sits in the back or to help focus the boy who calls out too often.
To foster the kind of teacher teamwork practiced by the world’s best schools, we will need to rethink school schedules. Some public schools have already begun to do this: some have extended the school day, others have cut back the number of classes a teacher has (from five to four classes), still others have partnered with afterschool programs, all in an effort to give teachers time to work together.
But none of these strategies can help me now; I am one teacher, with no influence over the schedules that dictate the ebbs and flows of 3,500 students and more than 200 staff members.
Perhaps my best chance, for now, is to learn from online communities of educators. The Center for Teaching Quality, a national nonprofit, is one good example; it has created a virtual community of nearly 10,000 teachers sharing ideas and solutions. Could we create sub-communities within our school, or our departments, using these kinds of platforms, or even simpler ones, like Google Classroom?
As the school year settles into place, I find myself most grateful to a handful of veteran teachers who have stopped by to swap lesson ideas, share strategies for students, or simply to chat about the day. I only wish we could talk longer.
Illustration by Daniel Vasconcellos