A culture of collaboration
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.