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A culture of collaboration

By Molly Thacker on Jul 23, 2009 01:12 AM
Photo: design by Kate Nelson, photo by

Teachers need to be given the space and time to collaborate in a real way, and not just fleeting moments in the hallway.

When I first began teaching, I was shocked to learn what an isolating profession it really can be. 

If I wanted to, I could go all day without seeing another adult in my building, aside from the attendance secretary with which I would exchange pleasantries in the morning while signing in. I know teachers who would walk the halls during their prep periods, with the hopes of catching an adult conversation, and others who would eat their lunches at their desk every day, for lack of a teacher’s lounge or space. 

It has been shown that collaboration and cooperative learning strategies are effective to use with our students, so why do we not apply the rule to ourselves?

Besides their social needs being met, teachers crave intelligent, adult interactions and stand to benefit from collaboration with other teachers.

The District is moving to a new schedule next year, which will give teachers an additional preparation period each day, to be used for common planning time with other teachers. I think this is a fantastic idea and I hope it is implemented effectively for teachers. There is so little time and space set aside for teacher collaboration currently, and I think it is a move in the right direction to carve out some time for teachers to collaborate. But, will it be enough?

Finding a community of colleagues with whom one can vent, celebrate, brainstorm, discuss, plan, and problem-solve is so important to a teacher’s professional growth, and yet it is not easy to find. I have been extremely fortunate to find a network of teachers through the Philadelphia Writing Project, but I did have to seek it out on my own. 

PhilWP, as well as a small group of TFA alumni with whom I keep in contact, has provided me with the intellectual and social support I needed in order to improve my practice and continue growing as a teacher. PhilWP has been known to “save the life” (and career) of many District teachers; however, circumstances shouldn’t be so dire in the first place.

In order to retain and improve the practice of quality teachers, the District needs to support and facilitate a culture of collaboration in each school. 

First, we need to take full advantage of the professional development days already built into the school calendar. These days are often used to address District and school logistics, including attendance issues, testing, CSAP paperwork, etc. Some of the best professional development sessions I have been to have been provided by community and national organizations, including The Attic Youth Center and Facing History and Ourselves. Thoughtful, relevant and current professional development sessions, based on the needs and interests of the teachers, would engage teachers and invest them in continuing their own education and growth. 

Additionally, I think new teachers (as in those in their first five years of teaching, not their first five months) should have a mentor/master teacher available to them as a resource. 

I know the School District has had various versions of this type of role, including new teacher coaches. However, every school is different and teachers really need someone in-house who knows the nuances of their building, someone who has been proven to be effective in the classroom, and someone who can provide guidance to new teachers while still continuing and improving their own practice. This would not only keep quality teachers engaged and challenged by their practice, but would also strengthen the morale of a school building and support the teachers who need it the most.

Teachers supporting one another also came up in retired teacher Ron Whitehorne's post about teacher evaluation and in Dale Mezzacappa's post, which mentions peer evaluation.

I believe that quality professional development and guided mentorship are two, but certainly not the only, potential benefits of building and fostering a culture of collaboration in the schools of Philadelphia. I think it deserves a chance.

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Comments (6)

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on July 20, 2009 1:00 pm

 It was pretty cool to see you mention Facing History. I didn't realize it was a whole ogranization. Two weekends ago I volunteered with College Summit and worked with some students from Facing History's school in NYC (Hi, Cristina!). I didn't even realize Facing History was a school before that either. 

And this weekend I met someone who has a friend who works at the Attic, an amazing resource right in Philly.

Great to see these groups popping up in your work too! And it relates back to your point about collaboration--both weekends I was connecting with other professionals in similar fields. It's such a great help to be able to meet, network with, learn from, and collaborate with other people doing similar work. I'm lucky at the Notebook to get support for that as part of my job and not as something I have to scrape together on my own.

Sure, not every collaborative discussion, session, or workshop is going to be useful, but you'll never participate in the ones that are if you don't get the chance to do it at all.

Submitted by Paul Socolar on July 23, 2009 7:00 pm

No teachers' lounge - hmmm. 

I think many of us who don't teach just assume that teachers have their own space ... I'm pretty sure my high school had a teacher cafeteria too.

Wouldn't that be an issue the union might want to negotiate around (maybe they have tried?) - that the District needs to provide a space in each building where teachers can gather during lunch breaks, preps, or before/after school?  You make a good case that it would be not just a self-interest issue but a quality of education issue.

Seems like there oughta be plenty of space, now that most of the schools are under capacity.

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on July 24, 2009 1:32 am

A teachers' cafeteria? Sounds rather grandiose. Usually there was a small lunch room for teachers which doubles as a teachers' lounge. These days many teachers have to eat lunch in their room because they have to do detention for the school. That is a violation of our contract since that time is suppose to be free for us. The increasing workload makes sure most teachers don't have time to chat or discuss teaching. Even so-called Grade Group meetings are a joke because the teachers usually have to listen to whatever the latest hairbrain scheme the district has thought up for this week. As for schools being 'under capacity" don't believe it! That con has been going on for years while the district violates the very contract it agreed to honor. They keep cutting back teachers while wasting precious school funds that reward the minority in control of our school district. I hope this extra period comes true, but I'm not holding my breath. We've heard too many things like this before only to have the district dump more work on us.

Submitted by Michael Churchill (not verified) on July 27, 2009 12:49 pm

Too bad no one has commented on your main points: the need for more teacher collaboration and longer mentorships. Sounds important to me. Is getting this done right dependent upon the principal, the region, or 440? Any interest in the union in supporting teachers in buildings trying to do this, so you don't have to go outside for this kind of support? Thanks for raising this.

Submitted by EnoughIsEnuff!!! (not verified) on July 27, 2009 1:11 pm

It's up to 440, along with everything else, to implement collboration time. They don't seem to care about what teachers in this district have to deal with so I doubt that it will happen. The PFT will usually only get involved when somebody is being written up. Day to day stuff doesn't seem to interest them. They don't even bother with building meetings once a month anymore.

Submitted by Terry (not verified) on July 29, 2009 1:44 pm

From the point of view of a non-teacher, not having time to discuss issues with coworkers while on the clock is absurd. I can't think of another profession in which people are expected to problem solve without the benefit of any lessons-learned from colleagues.

Casual or structured collaboration between colleagues is seen in most organizations as important enough to dedicate resources in the form of both staff and technology. Try searching for Chief Knowledge Officer or Knowledge Management and you can easily see how much emphasis is put on collaboration and sharing of information.

Sharing of experiences is even more important as experienced boomers transition out of the workforce. Without a meaningful and thoughtful strategy to encourage collaboration, much of the institutional knowledge of SDP will lost and everyone involved with the organization will be disadvantaged.

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