Deliberate School Design that Fosters Teacher Collaboration

by Erin Mendelson

I give enormous credit and respect to full time classroom teachers who remain optimistic and good at their game. When I first joined the profession 11 years ago, my father smiled and remarked that he was once fired as a history teacher in his younger years. My dad was a successful accountant and businessman; thus, this story always baffles me. He often tells me how proud he is that I am a teacher--“not many jobs make a positive difference everyday.” When I stay over at my parents’ house, as I am packing up for work, he likes to say, “Teach the children well.” This school year, I have moved into a different role as a curriculum coach. Now my dad says, “Teach the teachers well,” when I head out the door.

This new career move has given me time to think about my teaching and to be more metacognitive about my teaching choices. Studies show that “when teachers are given time and tools to collaborate with their peers, they are more likely to teach effectively and more likely to remain in the high needs schools that need them most” (Berry, Daughtrey, and Wieder, 2009). In the coaches’ room, twice a week, I convene 7th grade Structured Teacher Planning Time (STPT) meetings with some of the brightest and most tenacious teachers around. In a comfortable meeting space, we run through upcoming teacher-made lesson plans, review and analyze data and celebrate the big and small wins. The new superintendent, Dr. Christina Kishimoto, recently sat at our table and discussed school design and data-driven instruction. Our model with designated curriculum coaches supported me as a teacher for several school years. Now, I am excited to provide the same support to new and veteran teachers.

When I first joined my school, my classroom was the last portable on campus. I was not only geographically distant, I felt isolated because I had no idea what other teachers taught each day. I would scurry through the discarded papers in the copy room to discover great ideas or the direction of my next unit. I planned alone with little feedback from other teachers.

A couple of year later, in 2011, teachers were assigned to STPT with a designated curriculum coach. These face-to-face meetings brought teachers together by grade level and content areas to share their knowledge and expertise. This move came before HIDOE and WASC pushed for the implementation of Formative Instruction Data Teams in all schools. Our data teams developed organically from a desire from teachers to meet on a regular basis to increase teacher accountability and rigor in all classrooms. The master schedule and design of teacher lines were reconfigured to allow shared planning times during the school day. The role of a coach received some pushback as teachers questioned the need for an entire teaching line designated to mentoring and overseeing the design of a shared curriculum. For me, once I began to feel some of my extraneous work responsibilities turn to shared responsibilities, I felt invested and appreciative of the teacher leaders who were facilitating the process. With a pacing guide, we planned out weeks ahead, previewed assessments, and distributed the workload.

This level of collaboration required the investment of time and an equal measure of responsibility. There were heated debates, disagreements and some covert planning. The coaches needed to mitigate, blend ideas and encourage compromise. When passionate teachers deliberate over a particular test question for the unit assessment, the students really do benefit. Soon a healthy dynamic was established in which we depended on each other and trusted the criticism as constructive.

As educators, we face common problems in our classrooms and ought to find solutions together. Schools can create cultures and conditions for effective collaboration by providing some key systems and structures. For example, shared planning times integrated into the school day reduce the burden of additional meetings outside of school hours and honor teachers’ time. It is important to have a designated workspace with a projector or tv so that documents can be reviewed together. Common data trackers, pacing guides and assessments can be shared on Google drive to allow for ongoing editing and creating. Additionally, a clear set of expectations and group norms will maintain a safe and productive environment where teachers willingly take on leadership roles and ownership of all students’ success. Our leadership team and teachers continually review and improve the design of our school to best support teacher collaboration. What can your school do to make the most of its biggest asset, the teachers?

 

  Erin Mendelson has dedicated eleven years to honing her craft as a special education teacher and curriculum coach at Wheeler Middle School on Oahu. After graduating from Columbia University in New York City with a major in Eastern Religions, Erin discovered her love for teaching while working one-to-one in a classroom setting with students with autism. She earned a Master of Arts in Communications and Leadership at Gonzaga University and is a candidate for National Board Certification as an Exceptional Needs Specialist in Early Childhood through Adulthood. Erin serves as a mentor teacher with the James Madison Legacy Project that increases the availability and effectiveness of civic instruction in schools.

Erin Mendelson has dedicated eleven years to honing her craft as a special education teacher and curriculum coach at Wheeler Middle School on Oahu. After graduating from Columbia University in New York City with a major in Eastern Religions, Erin discovered her love for teaching while working one-to-one in a classroom setting with students with autism. She earned a Master of Arts in Communications and Leadership at Gonzaga University and is a candidate for National Board Certification as an Exceptional Needs Specialist in Early Childhood through Adulthood. Erin serves as a mentor teacher with the James Madison Legacy Project that increases the availability and effectiveness of civic instruction in schools.