Collaborating for school improvement
If we truly desire to improve our schools so that all teachers are highly qualified and that no child is left behind, we must examine better ways to do things than scripting the curriculum and deskilling teachers. The accountability and standardisation movement in the United States too often leads administrators and teachers to focus narrowly on test preparation rather than focus on robust teaching and learning. It is disheartening that powerful curriculum alignment and mapping tools often increase teacher isolation rather than reduce it. Teachers working together to improve their school is an idea whose time has come.
Collaboration occurs when teachers form a community that establishes its own goals, manages its own resources, shares shortcomings, respects each member, and constructively criticises practice (Donaldson 1993; Marzano 2003). Donaldson suggests that for this collaboration to occur, the following principles should be used as a foundation:
Meetings of teachers within a school should be instituted to discuss planning and implementation and for reviewing instruction and curriculum. The exchange of materials and ideas must be encouraged (Pajak & Glickman 1989). Collaboration assists in developing a sense of ownership in the school improvement process (Sparks 2004; Lambert 2003). It fosters a climate where ‘leadership increasingly takes care of itself ... [and] becomes part of the everyday expression of teachers ... at work’ (Sergiovanni 1992, p98). Collaboration expands the roles of teachers to include helping more students, developing curriculum, designing assessments and reducing isolation (Wasley 1991).
Forming teaching teams was the most useful tactic in promoting collaboration at Madera Junior/Senior High School, Ohio, where I worked in 1993–1995 on a project to implement flexible block scheduling. The teams not only planned, implemented and reviewed instruction and curriculum, they also took on the responsibilities of an assistant principal. These responsibilities included discipline, dances and ceremonies. The teams began to take responsibility for the students assigned to them in addition to their individual classrooms, something the principal had been encouraging for years.
Making curricular connections became the primary focus of the teams. The first year, each team developed and implemented four interdisciplinary units that were quite successful in engaging students, connecting to the community and promoting lasting learning. Other curricular connections occurred when, as an example, the Maths and Science teachers on the 8th-grade team sat down together and mapped out and rearranged their yearly schedules so that students could take the data from experiments in their Science class to their Maths class to analyse.
We met weekly with the Special Education team and were working well with our students with disabilities. We had also developed several creative ways to meet the needs of our gifted and talented students.
The most impressive result of our team’s collaborative effort was our work with a group of students who didn’t usually cause problems yet were performing poorly academically, children with limited cognitive ability who are not defined as disabled and whom Cooter (2004) has termed the ‘shadow children’. Our plan consisted of closely monitoring the work, or lack of work, from these students and offering them a variety of interventions including before and after school tutoring, peer tutoring and activities such as fantasy basketball. While several of these students complained that we never left them alone, by the end of the year most of them had dramatically improved their grades and attendance.
Collaboration can reap numerous benefits, but there are problems that cannot be ignored. Schools have not traditionally encouraged collaboration so teachers run into problems as they learn to negotiate the twists and turns of relationships. Working together was not always a joyful experience, personality conflicts arose on both the 7th- and 8th-grade teams. While these conflicts are a normal part of group development, they are not uplifting experiences. Despite this and other problems, the new working conditions that enabled us to collaborate did inspire us and allow us to soar (Hargreaves in Sparks, 2004).
Cooter, KS 2004, 'The children of the shadow emerge', Tennessee Association of Middle Schools Journal, Fall 2004 (31), 5–12.
Donaldson, GA 1993, 'Working smarter together', Educational Leadership, 51 (2), 12–16.
Lambert, L 2003, Leadership Capacity for Lasting School Improvement, ASCD, Alexandria, Virginia.
Marzano, RJ 2003, What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action, ASCD, Alexandria, Virginia.
Pajak, EF & Glickman, CD 1989, 'Dimensions of school district improvement', Educational Leadership, 46 (8), 61–67.
Sergiovanni, TJ 1992, Moral Leadership: Getting to the Heart of School Improvement, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
Sparks, D 2004, 'Broader purpose calls for higher understanding', Journal of Staff Development, 25 (2), 46–50.
Wasley, PA 1991, 'Stirring the chalkdust: tales of three teachers in the midst of change', The Coalition of Essential Schools, Teachers College Record, Fall, 28–58.
Subject HeadingsTeaching and learning
United States of America (USA)