A longer school day is most often justified as a way for students to spend more time with teachers, work on core subjects, or engage in extracurricular activities.
But another good reason for extra time is to give teachers more time to collaborate.
In fact, some educators argue that teacher meeting time is the glue that holds schools together.
Regular Wednesday afternoon meetings are “what allow us to take apart the school every week and put it back together,” said principal Chris Lehmann of Science Leadership Academy. “This is where we evaluate what we do, what we believe, and how we make these things work.”
Schools like SLA that have drawn attention for their innovative practices invariably build into their schedules regular sessions for teachers to meet. Teachers use this time to evaluate their practice, discuss the needs of and progress of individual students, go over data, and assess the school’s direction. Some schools also find it crucial for teachers to spend time in each other’s classrooms.
But finding time for teacher meetings and collaboration in Philadelphia is not easy. Neither the teachers’ contract nor the regular schedule recognizes joint meeting time for teachers as central to a school’s operation. At most, they allow for occasional faculty meetings.
“In a traditional school calendar, there is so much emphasis on the day-to-day, we get caught up in the weeds,” said Brad Latimer, the math department chair and head of the academic standards committee at SLA.
Historically the contract has looked at the workday as the time that teachers are required to spend in the classroom, and negotiations have revolved around when teachers must arrive and when they may leave. Daily preparation times are mandated, but not always treated as work; in the past, teachers in middle schools, which ended later than high schools, were compensated by being given extra prep periods.
Requiring teachers to meet jointly during any contractually mandated preparation periods takes a special faculty vote. Schools that want to regularly build common time into the day have to “buy” additional preps, usually by hiring additional teachers to free up those in the same grades or subjects at the same time.
To assure regular teacher collaboration time, “we have to manipulate things,” said one longtime principal who now heads a K-6 elementary school and preferred not to be named. While he considers regular teacher meeting time “paramount” to keep up with changing standards and teaching strategies, “it’s not an easy thing.”
Roxborough High School principal Dana Jenkins agreed. “The system does not facilitate it,” she said.
Roxborough has received extra support to split the school into four separate “academies” and run a block schedule that allows for more teacher meeting time. This schedule is expensive – it requires more teachers in the building – but with the block schedule, there are four 90-minute periods in the day instead of eight that last 45 minutes.
Students take four courses each semester instead of the traditional seven yearlong courses. Teachers are in class for three double-periods a day instead of teaching seven shorter classes.
With 90 minutes open each day, teachers spend half that time on their individual preparation and half meeting jointly. On alternating days, teachers either meet with others who teach the same subject or across disciplines with those in their academy.
In both settings, they often discuss students. “Particularly in the academy meetings, we deal with interventions for individual students,” said Jenkins. “We are all teaching the same children, and we are all able to contribute to what it takes to make that child successful.”
Occasionally, they will call a student in.
“At first the students panicked,” said science teacher and coach Erika McFadden. But ultimately, they are grateful.
“I think it benefits the students knowing that instead of one teacher who really cares, they have a whole team working to help them.”
The teachers also discuss lesson plans and teaching strategies, and, in the academy meetings, how teachers of different subjects can reinforce each other.
“I previously thought teaching was such an isolated profession,” said Drexel student teacher Kristen Mintzer, who is placed this semester at Roxborough. “I was surprised at how much time teachers actually spent working together. It’s really helpful for me.”
SLA has also rebuilt its schedule. Not every day is 7 hours and 4 minutes (see p. 16). On Wednesdays, classes are held from 8:15 to 12:45; students go to internships while teachers meet for two hours.
Collaboration, said Lehmann, is a “core value” of the school – collaboration among students, between students and teachers, and among teachers. “Having those two hours a week to work together has been an important ingredient in our success,” he said.
Latimer, the SLA math department chair, said he has taught at and heard about schools – including private and charter – that follow the common model of monthly faculty meetings in which many teachers are grading papers or otherwise checking out. The same thing often happens during required professional development, which frequently involves listening to a presentation rather than observing peers or deep discussion of practice.