Category Archives: Collaboration

Teacher Collaboration: Planning for the Unplanned Relationships

by Nicole Bell March 6th, 2014 5:00 PM

In every school there are official lines of collaboration, put in place by administrators, districts, and sometimes teachers themselves. Beneath those official teams, however, lies a complex web of unofficial ties that often hold the greatest potential for professional growth.

The job of a teacher is one that can naturally lend itself to isolation. You spend most of your working hours separated from your colleagues with the doors closed, and when you’re not teaching you’re usually incredibly busy. Even “free” time like lunch is often occupied with clubs, tutoring, and making copies. To combat this, schools create structures to establish collaborative communities. We come together in smaller groups drawn along predictable lines to meet as grade level teams, departments, issue-based committees, and student support teams. As whole communities, we meet for school-based professional development and district-wide development.  All of these networks are valuable, and I can’t begin to list the things I’ve learned from my official teammates in DCPS.

When I think of the moments that have most shaped my teaching career, however, they usually aren’t related to these official meetings. Instead, they’re drawn from random conversations I’ve had while microwaving food, making copies, or running into a colleague on the stairs. I’ve even learned a lot just through the graphic organizers and assignments I’ve stumbled upon when they were forgotten in the copier. Communication and advice often flow along personality and chance-driven lines, and the ties they form can end up being stronger than official ties. These small moments of collaboration sometimes take place between people on the same “teams” at school, but they’re more often driven by other factors – who lives in the same neighborhood and needs a ride, who makes copies at the same time of day, or even who has a dog.

These informal flows of advice and support can be some of the strongest drivers of improvement in a system, and I believe it’s important to foster them. One way to build relationships outside of the current structures is to offer professional development that cuts across teams. Over the past few years, DCPS and my school have broadened professional networks through events that focus on specific topics like close reading or sentence structure and that pull together teachers from multiple grades and subjects. I believe these types of focused professional development events should be expanded, and teachers should be able to opt into the sessions they would like to participate in. All teachers are at different stages when it comes to the improvements or innovations they’re currently incorporating into their teaching, and professional development that is immediately relevant is most likely to have a strong impact. By letting teachers opt into sessions they could best be a resource in, or opt into sessions on areas they’re actively trying to improve, we’d ensure that teachers get the most out of their collaboration. We’d also connect teachers to other colleagues who are actively focusing on similar things at the same time. I might not know that a 9th grade English teacher is currently working on paragraph structures just like I am, and knowing that could support both of us in our practice. My school and DCPS are full of talented individuals, and fostering these connections can expand our ability to draw from this wealth of talent.

At the same time, it’s hard to predict every line of collaboration that teachers can benefit from, making it useful to create shared spaces that naturally facilitate the unexpected. My school consolidated some copiers into one room and spruced up its teachers’ lounge this year, and already I’ve noticed an increase in random, but incredibly valuable, conversations. Continuing to expand these communal areas and social events – both within schools and just as importantly across schools – would help us increase the density of informal connections. While each individual relationship couldn’t have possibly been planned, we need to continue creating plans to facilitate their powerful existence.

Nicole Bell teaches chemistry at Coolidge High School in Washington, DC.

This Assignment Must Not Be Done Independently

By Earl Jones February 18th, 2014, 2:15 PM

As I reflect back on my days in college, one thing that comes to mind is how I became an independent student. I learned to do research on my own. I was able to study for and pass exams by myself. I spent hours doing projects with no help. I’m really proud of how self-reliant I became. Now as a teacher, I’m doing the complete opposite. Every day, I plan, strategize, and teach by collaborating heavily with other teachers.

A few days before the beginning of each unit, I sit down with the other 4th grade teachers at Bancroft Elementary School to plan our unit. For two days, we examine student data, create assessments, map out the overarching knowledge and skills required, write objectives, and plan differentiation.  Having other teachers next to me in this planning ensures that all students’ needs are being met and that instructional best practices are being shared. I remember sitting with teachers and practicing scaffold prompts, creating exemplar question responses, and incorporating sixth grade skills and standards to reach my high-flyer students. Because we had the opportunity to collaborate as a team, we were able to plan a solid poetry unit that catered to students at all academic levels.

I’m also in a unique position because I work at Bancroft Elementary, one of few DC schools with two teachers in every classroom. Collaboration with my co-teacher and other teachers on my team is key. Daily, we share resources, plan for small groups, and balance each other’s lessons. It’s important for the students to see that we are on the same page and are both using our efforts to help them grow academically.  The benefit for students is that they receive additional help with key skills while also receiving balanced instruction in English and Spanish, in sync with our dual-language model.

I am very grateful that DC Public Schools and Bancroft Elementary, in particular, value teacher collaboration. Through my collaboration, I’ve gained more content knowledge, acquired top-notch resources, and learned to analyze student data critically. Being able to work closely alongside such resourceful and motivated individuals has absolutely helped me to grow as an educator and has without a doubt been valuable to my students.

Earl Jones is a fourth grade teacher at Bancroft Elementary School.

Collaborate, Collaborate, Collaborate!

By Angelique Kwabenah January 22nd, 2014 7:00 PM

There are eight hours in a school day. In that eight-hour time period, principals expect teachers to find the time to collaborate.

Really??? Yes! It can and must be done for student success!

When I first became a teacher, I worked in isolation because I felt like I didn’t have the time to reach out to my colleagues for help. As the years progressed, I learned that collaboration actually took a lot of the stress away because I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.  Over the years, collaboration has helped me improve my practice as a teacher by acquiring new strategies from colleagues in addition to providing me with feedback on strategies that I currently utilize.

At DCPS, collaboration is encouraged through collaborative planning sessions.  These meetings are a team effort, and every teacher has the opportunity to participate and benefit from them. At the Incarcerated Youth Program, the school where I currently teach, there are two collaborative planning groups. The SPED Team meets every week to schedule meetings, discuss students, and consider new strategies. The other focus team is comprised of all content area teachers and service providers. This team meets weekly and each content area teacher is assigned to present a Teach strategy, a Common Core strategy, or a Cross-Curricular strategy to the group. Following that activity, the school worker presents stress management tips and behavior management strategies that can be easily implemented in each classroom. During the last ten minutes of the collaboration meeting, teachers give comments, ask questions, share concerns, and give out kudos to one another. Teachers are given an opportunity to share and provide feedback to the presenter and to reflect upon how they might use the information.

As the lead teacher, my job is to ensure that each staff member has all the materials necessary for a successful presentation and to follow up with teachers after the meeting.  I look forward to collaborative time because it gives me an opportunity to learn from colleagues and to receive encouragement on those days when it seems like everything isn’t going exactly as planned. I am always looking for new ways to present material in a reading context, and the collaborative meetings provide me with a feasible way to get that done given the time constraints throughout the day.

Collaborative time at IYP is an opportunity for teachers to let their hair down and come together in a non-threatening, supportive meeting of their peers in order to collectively decide what school-wide strategies are working and what strategies are not working. We collaborate in order to elevate the quality of instruction that we provide to our students. We can, we must, and we do collaborate at IYP! Do you??

Angelique Kwabenah is a Reading Specialist at the Incarcerated Youth Program in Washington, DC.