I often describe that I was vaccinated into seeing teaching as a team sport. As a college senior I entered a unique program that allowed me to spend an entire year student teaching in a fourth grade classroom alongside a master teacher, another student teacher, and a graduate student intern. Planning was done as a team. Instructing was most often done as a team. Quick conferences throughout the day were often held to modify a plan in mid-stream. Assessing students and conferencing with parents was always done as a team. Learning was done as a team as feedback and ideas were exchanged. This was a small laboratory school on the college campus and the principal lead the staff to function as a team in operating the school.
Following that introduction to my teaching career, I was first employed to teach as a member of a four person fifth and sixth grade team in an IGE (Individually Guided Education) School. While 25 students (a mix of 5th and 6th graders) were listed as Mr. Barkley’s class, the four teachers operated in one large open space with 100 students. As a team the teachers continually made decisions about the delivery of instruction and the management of the students collaboratively. Sometimes we co-created an instructional plan and then individually delivered it. Other times we individually designed a plan that was shared and taught by each other. Continually the outcomes of teaching and learning were examined and critiqued by the team. All parent conferences were team planned so that the conferencing teacher delivered the team’s understanding. We benefitted from a variety of backgrounds, gender, new and experienced in our teaching and differences in teaching and management styles. Students had options in finding an adult that was easier to connect with. When one of us struggled explaining a concept to a student we quickly asked another teacher to step in. We had failures and successes and learned as a team.
After five years on that team I switched to teaching first grade. Fortunately, I was teamed with Diane Schultz who had several years’ experience as a primary teacher. It was obvious that I was unconscious of all the new things I needed to learn to be successful with five and six year olds and Diane quickly became a mentor as well as a teammate. We had anywhere from 35 to 40 students in our room and were supported by a para-professional and usually one or two student teachers. Working with Diane I discovered teaming at an extended level. We frequently did whole class activities with both of us delivering instruction, sometimes stepping in to finish a sentence started by the other one.
By our third year of teaming Diane and I convinced the principal to evaluate us as a team. An observation was done with both of our names on the form. No identification of “who did what” was mentioned. The evaluation of teaching and learning went into both of our files.
While team teaching first grade, I was also a member of a K-2 team consisting of Diane and me, another first grade teacher, one kindergarten teacher, and three second grade teachers. This team met weekly to vertically collaborate for student success. I learned the power of a multiyear focus in making teaching decisions on this team. The knowledge and insights of last year’s teacher or next year’s teacher deepened and broadened options for learners. My current work with vertical PLCs is rooted in these experiences from 35 years ago.
You can imagine my surprise when I moved from my role as teacher to teacher trainer and began working across the county and eventually internationally and found most teachers had a history of working in isolation. I realized that my entry into teaching was foreign to their experiences. My initial focus in peer coaching was as a strategy to break that teacher isolation.
While I have always seen “teaming and collaboration” as critical to maximize teacher success, I believe the continuing increase in the complexity of desired student outcomes today requires it.
How much change has occurred in school cultures to move teaching into a team sport? My observations say not nearly enough in most schools. Recently in a professional development session examining peer coaching, a teacher shared how “by accident” he and another teacher were forced to collaborate. Surprised, he described it as the most enriching professional experience he has had. In the same session two teachers sitting next to each other were partnered to practice a pre-conference conversation that I had just modeled. After 10 minutes they shared that they had decided to arrange observations and peer coaching in each other’s classrooms. They then pointed out that they work with many of the same students, that one of the two was new to the school in September, and that they hadn’t spoken with each other until the conversation in this workshop (January).
School leaders need to be continually identifying how to build the structures and environments that support teachers’ collaboration. A school leadership team I recently worked with was considering arranging a schedule that built at least one team teaching assignment into each teacher’s schedule. The discussion explored that the extra costs of such a plan could be considered as a component of professional development. Of course for a plan like that to promote teacher learning for students learning, focused leadership planning and follow through would be critical.
“a principal today needs very solid team building skills….skills that build teacher capacity to work collaboratively” Ken Leithwood