There is research that suggests quality teacher collaboration within a professional learning community can lead to increases in student achievement and professional satisfaction among teachers (Kinne, 2013; Olivares, 2014).
The key word here is “quality”. While collaborative planning meetings have been commonplace in the three schools I have worked at, I have found an enormous amount of variance and inconsistency in the quality of these experiences; Some sessions are enriching, and others end up (too often) feeling pointless.
From my conversations with others, I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this. We really have to find ways to make these meetings more effective, and consequently, more beneficial for students and fulfilling for teachers. So, what separates a quality collaborative meeting from a waste of time? In this post, I’m going to draw from some of the literature that exists on this topic. Feel free to leave a comment below about your experience with shaping the conditions for quality teacher collaboration.
– Zach Groshell, Twitter: @MrZachG
If the climate’s bad, collaboration ain’t happening
The climate of the school is the result of how people feel about the culture. There is evidence that links faculty collegiality and collaboration, school climate, and culture with student achievement (Kinne, 2013). This makes sense; Toxic cultures lead to decreased trust and understanding among teachers, and within thriving school cultures, you’ll find the opposite.
Part of what makes a school’s climate positive is the presence of shared values. This is why I care about mission statements, and why I ask about a school’s mission every time I’m in an interview for a new position. When teachers have a shared mission, it can lead to a successful and supportive environment, where teachers have a shared responsibility for a school’s success (Kinne, 2013). A school’s mission should be an omnipresent aspect of collaborative meetings, which I think is observed when participants regularly justify their line of thinking by citing their mission statement. Otherwise the mission is just words.
A positive school climate, driven by educators on a mission, can set the stage for fantastic collaboration. For fun, check out some of these mission statement examples from 51 of the world’s best companies, here.
There’s got to be some accountability
“Focus group members said there should be accountability for team minutes to ensure all teams across the disciplines are participating as required. They felt that achievement scores would improve faster if all members of the learning community were held to the same standard.”
(Olivares, 2014, pg. 91)
The header to the blog post you’re reading speaks to the issue of accountability in collaborative meetings. It also speaks to fairness. When some teachers come to the table prepared to get their hands dirty and others roll their eyes and don’t take the process seriously, it can create a real tension in the room that is counterproductive to the collaborative process.
With students, I’ve used accountable talk to add a layer of responsibility to class discussions. The image below shows some of the accountable talk guidelines. This might work for teachers as well to help improve collaborative meetings. Collaboration is a skill, and we have to arm ourselves with the necessary strategies in order to make it happen.
Collaborative meeting time should be used wisely (aka for improving student learning)
“Interestingly, time, which was counted among one of the greatest benefits of team collaboration, was also identified as one of its greatest challenges. Some group participants felt they spent too much time in meetings planning, analyzing data, analyzing assessments, and meeting as a professional learning community. Most of the negative comments centered on weekly after-school meetings when teachers could better use time for administrative purposes.”
(Olivares, 2014, pg. 88)
Time is a valuable resource in schools, and nobody seems to have any of it. While there may be ways to change how you communicate how you’re busy, which might include not saying it at all, all of the teachers I know share the experience of a busy work environment where time is worth its weight in gold.
When you think about it, it is shocking how much of the school year is actually dedicated to non-learning activities. Check out this blogger’s break down of how little of a student’s year is actually dedicated to learning things! Perhaps it is because there is so much of this peripheral stuff going on all the time that there is a tendency for collaborative meetings to be dominated by discussions of, say, who has what duty on field day, or who gets to edit whose report card before the deadline.
The thing is, the most effective professional learning communities make student learning their foremost concern (Bolam et al. 2005). They are spent talking about instructional strategies and how they can be applied within the particular context of a teacher’s classroom, and the more sophisticated ones are making connections between instructional decisions and learning theories. In general, there should be an increased focus on what matters to a school, aka, teaching and learning (Bolam et al. 2005; Vescio & Adams 2008), and a decreased emphasis on most everything else.
Leaders at collaborative meetings need to set priorities in their agendas and keep discussions focused; We can’t talk about everything, every time. Administrative tasks that don’t require discussion can be given via e-mails, and shared docs, slides and spreadsheets. Team leaders must set objectives, cut the fat, and get to the point.
Most everyone you talk to will suggest that collaboration is important, and the articles that I’ve provided in the references seem to indicate that there is evidence for this line of thinking. But quality collaboration doesn’t always happen. To remedy this, educators should work hard to (1) establish a positive and supportive school climate, (2) create an expectation of accountability, and (3) have intentional meetings that focus on student learning.
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Olivares, E. M. (2014). The effects of teacher collaboration and the professional learning community on student achievement (Ed.D.). Available from ProQuest Central, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1619584555). Retrieved from http://library.capella.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fsearch.proquest.com%2Fdocview%2F1619584555%3Faccountid%3D27965
Kinne, C. (2013). Making the grade: The effect of teacher collaboration on student achievement (Ph.D.). Available from Dissertations & Theses @ Capella University, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1773541519). Retrieved from http://library.capella.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fsearch.proquest.com%2Fdocview%2F1773541519%3Faccountid%3D27965
Stoll, Louise, and Louis Karen Seashore. (2007). Professional Learning Communities : Divergence, Depth And Dilemmas, McGraw-Hill Education. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.library.capella.edu/lib/capella/detail.action?docID=316325.
Bolam, R., McMahon, A., Stoll, L., Thomas, S., & Wallace, M. (2005). Creating and sustaining professional learning communities. Research Report Number 637. London, England: General Teaching Council for England, Department for Education and Skills.
Vescio, V., Ross, D., & Adams, A. (2008). A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning//doi-org.library.capella.edu/10.1016/j.tate.2007.01.004 Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com.library.capella.edu/science/article/pii/S0742051X07000066