Julie Smith has spent the past decade in various educational leadership roles helping to raise student achievement in her schools through the support of teaching and learning. She began as a teacher leader and instructional coach moving to an administrative role as a Professional Development Specialist with the Evergreen School District. Julie is currently a Chalkboard CLASS coach and was appointed in August to the Quality Education Commission.
As an educator it was often hard to find time to have collegial conversations with teammates about improving teaching and learning in our classrooms. There were always too many other topics to discuss like: “Who is going to get next week’s homework packet done?” “How are we going to organize next months thematic unit to cover all of the standards?” Or, “Help me fill out a survey from last weeks staff meeting.” Don’t get me wrong, these conversations are essential in order to keep the workload manageable and support a school’s daily rhythm.
However, something changed when we reorganized the master schedule to allow for grade level teams to have an hour of common planning embedded in our day once a week. During this hour each week we focused on four essential questions, “What do our students need to know?” “How will we ensure they know it?” “What will we do for the students who don’t know it?” And, “What will we do for the students who do know it?” Suddenly, we were gathering around student work samples analyzing for strengths and next steps. We were planning and practicing instructional strategies together, finding ways into each other’s classrooms for observations and setting goals for ourselves and for our students. We got to know the students down the hall as intimately as our own because we had a stake in their success. We coached, encouraged and learned from each other. The entire building shifted from a culture of “yours, mine, theirs” to a culture of “ours, we, us.”
Not only did this type of conversation support our growth as professionals, but it shifted the need for the other conversations that were taking up all of our time. For example, homework became supportive of individual student goals and was built organically with the students; next week’s math unit was determined by the formative assessment that we just completed our evaluation of; and last week’s “staff meeting” was more talk about what our students needed to move forward or what supports we needed to get them there. The business of educating kids became the priority and everything else fell in line naturally to support that business.
If you’re an educator who has had a similar experience, the recently published findings of the Quality Education Commission’s (QEC) Best Practice Panel will not be a surprise to you. Read the QEC’s final report, or the best practices brief.
After a two-year-long investigation into best practices in Oregon, the Commission found that throughout Oregon’s K-12 public school system specific activities associated with teacher collaboration are more prevalent in higher performing schools than lower performing schools with similar demographics.
Educators are faced with a new conversation around collaboration. Most districts in Oregon have struggled to find the time and resources to allow groups of teachers to collaborate, but have succeeded. These districts are now focused on how best to prepare teachers to use collaboration time to support the needs of their students.
It is great that teacher collaboration, sometimes referred to as Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), has become common practice, but it isn’t enough to stop here. The QEC’s findings confirm that in order to improve student success teachers need to have control over their collaboration time. They can spend it planning for, evaluating or rehearsing for instruction in the following areas, weekly, with their colleagues:
- Analyzing student evidence from summative assessments
- Setting goals for improving student achievement
- Using formative assessment techniques at least weekly
- Using targeted instructional practices, at least weekly, to address specific learning needs
- Providing feedback to students on their progress on a daily basis
- Providing feedback, at least weekly, to parents on the degree to which their child has mastered a specific learning objective/standard
Not only do such collaboration practices increase student achievement rates, but they also have a positive impact on overall teacher satisfaction and school culture. Oregon’s teachers from high-performing schools, who collaborate with their colleagues around the activities listed above, have redefined what professional development looks like in their schools. Together they know where their students are academically and what they need to move forward. They learn from each other and with each other, seeking out support based on what’s relative to the evidence they are collecting in their individual and collective classroom data. They set goals for their students and for themselves and seek out resources to support the achievement of such goals. The leadership in such schools allocate resources to support the learning that is needed for both the adults and the students in their building. Schools truly become a learning organization when collaboration is at its best.
Let’s continue this conversation with teachers across Oregon. What does collaboration look like in your building? Is it working to support student and teacher growth?