Collaboration - Not for the Faint of Heart

These days the education world is talking a lot about collaboration, which is widely acknowledged to be a key to improving education for all kids.1

And yet I just heard still another story of teachers refusing to meet with colleagues during planning time -- that is, to collaborate.

What gives?

I suspect -- and I'd love to hear from teachers about this -- that it's because "collaboration" time is too often wasted. But teachers don't have to be powerless in this.

To think about this issue further, I called Molly Bensinger-Lacy, who led Graham Road Elementary School from its rank as one of the lowest performing to one of the highest performing schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, over the course of four years. There were a lot of things that went into that success, but one she talks about most is collaboration.2

"You can have novice teachers and master teachers. Collaboration -- if it's done right -- can help everyone perform proficiently," she said.

When she first arrived at Graham Road, Bensinger-Lacy immediately arranged the schedule so that all the teachers on the same grade level had the same planning time.

At first she required that they meet together one day a week about reading instruction and hoped they would decide to meet together more. She insisted that the agenda involve studying standards, developing common assessments, or looking at student work or data. "It was my job to say these are the most important things and to provide support so they could do those things effectively. Not the name tags, not the bulletin board, not the things that elementary school teachers so often want to talk about."

Eventually, she required teachers to meet collaboratively twice a week -- for reading and math. By the fourth year, most teams were meeting together most days to collaborate together about not just reading and math, but social studies and science.N

At that time, the elementary schools in Fairfax County released students early on Mondays, which gave teachers an additional two hours a week of planning, one of which was spent in a school-wide meeting discussing school culture and discipline, school improvement plans and other school-wide issues, with book studies helping them build a common knowledge base and vocabulary for discussing issues.

Once a quarter, using federal Title I money, Bensinger-Lacy hired substitute teachers to allow grade-level teachers to have day-long curriculum meetings where they would sketch out the way the quarter would go and plan at least a couple of weeks of lessons and assessments.

And even that wasn't enough. Realizing that the special education teachers, reading teachers and others weren't able to regularly meet with grade-level teams, Bensinger-Lacy eventually carved out an additional hour a week for each grade-level to meet with their resource teachers about reading instruction.

Bensinger-Lacy met with a lot of resistance early on from teachers who resented losing their individual planning time. After a few years of working in a really focused way, however, teachers told me that they couldn't imagine working without collaboration.

So here's the dilemma:

IF collaboration is one of the key ways to improve instruction for all kids,

BUT the time is hard to find and when it is found is often wasted,

THEN -- then what? What should teachers do?

I asked Bensinger-Lacy for her advice to teachers who find themselves sitting in "collaboration" meetings where no important work is going on.

She said:

"If teachers are having to meet collaboratively, and they feel that time is being wasted by administrivia, they need to push back respectfully and say that that information can be shared by email. They should put together an agenda focused on looking at standards, developing common assessments, planning lessons, and looking at data.

If teachers come forward with strategies and techniques based in research, they should be embraced -- except by the most immature and power hungry of principals."

In other words, the answer isn't to reject collaboration, but to make it meaningful.

1See, for example, the latest edition of JSD, the Learning Forward Journal, and two of my recent columns here and here.
2To read more about Molly Bensinger-Lacy, see Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools (Harvard Education Press, 2011) and to read more about her school, Graham Road Elementary, see HOW It's Being Done: Urgent Lessons from Unexpected Schools.