For Teachers, More Time for Teamwork

By Cara Bucciarelli

I am a teacher, and I cannot imagine my profession without collaboration.

In my first two years as a world language teacher in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), I looked everywhere for opportunities to collaborate with other teachers.

I read -- and continue to read -- national language listservs that are communities unto themselves. I attended possibly every professional development offering through the Office of Language and Cultural Education at CPS. I completed cultural courses for teachers at the Field Museum and the National Museum of Mexican Art, and I participated in a CPS professional learning community.

I joked that I was so interested in learning about available resources, perhaps I should have become a librarian instead of a Spanish teacher.

Then I began to share these resources with others. With a consultant, I demonstrated a lesson on integrating other subject areas into world language. I presented professional development on technology resources, including leading a group of teachers through creating their own classroom website, and I started wikis to better share resources both within my school and district-wide.

I spent a significant amount of time engaging with my colleagues, through CPS and on my own, growing as a professional. For the last two years, I have served as a Teach Plus Chicago Teaching Policy Fellow, an opportunity that has prepared me to use my teacher voice to effect change.

Teach Plus recently hosted an event in Chicago to bring teachers together to discuss collaboration with the National Center on Time and Learning, an organization working with CPS to plan for extending the school day here. At times, teaching can be an isolating profession, so there was plenty of passionate discussion about how to promote and protect productive teacher collaboration.

But just three days later, the proposed 2012-2013 CPS calendar came out, showing a reduction in time for professional learning. As a teacher about to complete my fourth year with CPS, I wonder: Will opportunities for district-wide collaboration continue to exist?

The Chicago Teaching Policy Fellows harnessed the ideas generated from the event to create a policy brief entitled: It's About Time: Empower Teachers to Effectively Collaborate. Sixty-seven percent of the teachers at the event reported that teacher collaboration at their schools was not purposeful or part of a coherent school-wide plan. The goal of the brief is to push the district to think deeply about the implications for decreasing the time dedicated to professional development, and limiting teacher voice on planning.

These concerns are shared by teachers across the country. According to the results of the recent MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, time for collaboration is a significant factor for teachers who report being satisfied with their jobs.

So in Chicago, as CPS prepares to extend both the school day and school year, I and many other teachers question the potential impact on professional learning and sharing. Will the full day schedule be flexible enough to allow for collaboration among varied groups of teachers? Will the district devote sufficient time and resources to promote and develop true opportunities for collaboration at all levels? The new extended schedule and calendar do not go far enough to create a structure that can support meaningful, robust opportunities for professional growth.

Last fall, Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard stated that the district is committed to promoting professional capacity by providing teachers with extended time for collaboration. But the newly approved calendar for next year includes no days for teachers to select and attend additional professional development opportunities, including district-wide collaboration with subject- or grade-specific professional learning communities. With the new schedule and calendar, Common Core State Standards, and a new evaluation system, we cannot afford to limit the professional learning opportunities for teachers in CPS.

Extending the school day, including collaboration time, should be a student-focused endeavor. But student-focused and teacher-driven are not mutually exclusive. Increased time for collaboration promotes professional capacity when teachers are included in identifying, analyzing, and addressing the needs of their students and their schools. The extended school day and school year will offer many opportunities to re-imagine learning. CPS needs to prioritize teacher-driven professional growth and collaboration time so that teachers can re-imagine teaching, too.

Cara Bucciarelli teaches Spanish at LaSalle II Magnet School in Chicago. She is currently a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.

Are you a district or charter school teacher in Chicago who wants to impact that policies that affect your classroom? Apply now for the 2012-13 Teaching Policy Fellowship.