by PETER W. DILLON
Teacher, New York City Public Schools
MetLife Fellow, National Teacher Policy Institute
Supports and Hindrances in Two Cases
Gateway High School
The Universal High School
Traditionally, schools have been isolating places for teachers to work in. Teachers often feel separated from each other. The press of busy schedules, course loads, and additional duties makes it difficult for teachers to make the time to talk never mind work together. Teachers need opportunities to talk and collaborate with each other to best serve their students, to make their work more meaningful, and to transform schooling in a way that keeps it vibrant and relevant.
As a teacher, I have worked in a variety of contexts with a range of opportunities for collaboration. Currently, I work in a traditional comprehensive high school. While a compelling group of colleagues have made extraordinary moments of collaboration possible, including frank discussions, curriculum planning,
intervisitation, and program development, we do not work in a school culture where collaboration is substantially encouraged or supported. Our collaborative moments are fleeting. As the department chair put it, "we spend too much time putting out fires and not enough on the business of teaching."
This paper will look at the historical context, or lack of, for teacher collaboration. While the term "collaboration" has many meanings, for the purposes of this paper, collaboration is when two or more people engage in an activity with shared goals and shared processes. Their shared work is based on interdependence and mutual benefit. This paper will examine practices and policies that support and hinder teacher collaboration. It will consider possible outcomes of teacher collaboration and conclude with specific recommendations to foster teacher collaboration in the hope of creating additional opportunities for improving learning and teaching.
In many traditional and alternative schools, teachers feel isolated (Waller, 1932;
Jersild, 1955; Lortie, 1975; and Flinders, 1987). More often than not, they are not given formal opportunities to collaborate. It is even rarer for teachers with busy schedules, too many classes, and too many students to independently take the time to formally collaborate with colleagues. While teachers might meet informally to collaborate, the underpinnings of those types of interactions are often weak
(Hargreaves, 1994; 1990). Usually, they rest on the good intentions of those involved. Not surprisingly, such a foundation for collaboration can only support sporadic or short term efforts.
The reform movement suggests some school level characteristics aimed at improving student learning that also foster collaboration. A shared purpose -- be it concrete or evolving -- helps create a sense of camaraderie
(Fullan, 1993; 1991). A discussion of expectations for student growth and achievement as well as curriculum development and pedagogy may open a forum to construct shared meanings (Darling-Hammond, 1993; and
Sarason, 1982). Small school size affords teachers opportunities to know each other and each other's students (Meier, 1996). Alternative scheduling such as block schedules may simultaneously give students opportunities to work longer on projects and teachers opportunities to react and reflect on their practice
(Schön, 1983; Grimmet and MacKinnon, 1992; Bullough and
Gitlin, 1995; and Munby (1987).
Additionally, rethinking curriculum in relation to scheduling may enable teachers' duties to overlap to the point where collaboration becomes essential as in an interdisciplinary curriculum. We know a lot about what supports collaboration; unfortunately that knowledge is not put into practice as often as it might be. Like any profession, the field of education is filled with jargon and buzzwords. On the school level, practitioners, weary of every new wave of reform after being subjected to hundreds of contradictory findings and approaches in a career, are particularly sensitive. It is not uncommon for a typical teacher to respond to the latest significant or insignificant reform, "I tried that and it didn't work." Perhaps even more frustrating are those who co-opt the language of reform without truly implementing it. They pay lip service to a term or phrase and in doing so undermine its potential efficacy. Some researchers and practitioners even assert that the
mis-adaptation of terms and phrases and the juggernaut pace of reform initiatives is part of a plan for administrators and others in power to retain control over teachers, students, parents, and others often out of power
(Hargreaves, 1994). Collaboration has the potential to change teachers' attitudes and practices, students' learning, and the way educational institutions are run. When it is properly supported collaboration can be a tremendous lever for change (Little, 1982;
Clandinin, 1992; and Little and McLaughlin, 1993).
Supports and Hindrances in Two Cases
Rather than simply describe collaboration in an ideal sense, it is useful to examine it in the context of two actual schools. While one context might be closer to your own or even more appealing, the purpose of presenting two cases is not so much to make a judgment about which context is favorable as it is to glean information about what supports collaboration in both contexts.
Gateway High School
Gateway High School is a large comprehensive school. It is composed of 2,400 students and 120 faculty. Students take up to ten classes, each forty minutes, a day. Teachers work within academic departments. Their experiences vary widely based on how their supervisor interacts with them. In some departments teachers exchange ideas regularly and visit each other's class; yet in other departments teachers mostly keep to themselves. Typically teachers are responsible for five classes. They have one preparation period, one lunch period, and one period of administrative duty. Most of the collaboration that takes place among staff occurs at the beginning and end of each semester often over books, materials, and students' grades. During the rest of the year, teachers exchange ideas in the lunchroom, while copying assignments, or after school. Teachers are encouraged to keep their classroom doors locked for safety reasons. The prevailing culture and structure of the school encourages teachers not to engage in a professional dialogue.
The Universal High School
Universal High School is a small alternative school. It is composed of 400 students and 30 faculty. The school serves recent immigrants. These students have a need to develop their communicative and academic competence in English. The school is structured to meet the students' needs. Students learn English not in separate English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, but through content areas. Those content areas are not separated into distinct disciplines, but are combined into two groups Humanities (English and Social Studies) and Math, Science, and Technology. Students take 3 classes, each seventy minutes, and an internship a day. Teachers work across academic departments in interdisciplinary teams. Each team works with a limited number of students. The curriculum itself encourages collaboration. Teams of teachers collaborate in and across those groups. Like teachers in any school, teachers at Universal High School have their share of emergencies, but they have made an ideological and structural commitment to fostering teacher collaboration. The interdisciplinary teams meet formally every week for two or more hours. Whole school planning time is scheduled throughout the year. And recently, the entire school has joined a learning zone with two similar schools. Additionally, teachers collaborate informally on a regular basis.
In a few paragraphs, the range of possibilities become apparent. A traditional academic schedule, once thought sacred, has been reworked to better work for the students and the teachers who serve them. Time and incessant bells based on a factory model of schooling, have been reconfigured to create more opportunities for reflection. Curriculum which has largely been seen as composed of separate pieces since the early 1900's and The Meeting of Eight, has been integrated to a point that necessitates both collaboration and a more sophisticated approach to teaching and learning.
In order to best meet the needs of students, teachers need more opportunities to collaborate. A number of factors can help in supporting that collaboration.
The current typical school schedule does not allow teachers to interact with each other professionally. Schools need to experiment with scheduling to find more time for collaboration. Possibilities include block scheduling, longer days, and reduced teaching loads.
The current typical high school curriculum does not encourage students and teachers to integrate information meaningfully. Teachers need to engage in thoughtful integrated dialogue to both develop their practice and serve as a model for the types of learners we hope to foster. Possibilities include interdisciplinary, thematic, and problem based learning.
For a variety of reasons, teachers feel isolated from each other. Schools need to develop into institutions where individuals are trusted and respected. Collaboration engenders trust. Possibilities include regularly scheduled collaborative time for community building.
While educational goals are often mandated, history reveals that mandates without buy-in are ineffective. Teachers need to play a stronger role in setting educational and professional goals. Possibilities include collaborative planning at the school, district, and state level.
While it is relatively easy to develop a list of laudable recommendations to support collaboration, the real challenge is in developing and carrying out an implementation plan. Two arenas should be considered: teacher education programs and schools.
Teacher education programs should be encouraged to both teach and model collaborative practices. For this to occur, several changes are necessary.
Schools, especially administrators, should be given freedom and incentives to support collaboration at the school level. For this to occur, several changes are necessary.
- Extend class time to include "a lab period" for additional collaborative discussion, reflection and work.
- Create thoughtful integrated courses of study based on the collaboration of students, practitioners, and professors.
- Develop interdependence early in one's preparation to combat the all too common sense of teacher isolation.
- Foster the development of graduates who as professionals actively question, create, and implement policy.
- Reallocate resources to enable school staffs to meet longer and more often about curriculum, teaching, and learning.
- Encourage teachers to work across academic departments and disciplines.
- Develop trust through making professional develop a regular part of the school day.
- Take the time to discuss, debate, write, revise, and review a shared vision for the school.
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