Denny Berry

Denny Berry, EdD, is an assistant professor of educational leadership in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. She is former director of Cluster VI, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.

Collaborative Teams, the Common Core, and the Aflac Duck

“My teacher collaborative teams don’t need to spend time taking apart standards. Our district does that work, and breaks it down so every teacher in every content area knows exactly what to teach. My teams just need to use that curriculum and move on to writing common assessments.”
—An elementary principal

This sentiment is one I have heard many times from school administrators as they labor to support collaborative teams in their professional learning communities. The sentiment is echoed by their central office colleagues and content teachers who have worked to provide curriculum documents outlining the content and skills embedded in the standards.

I believe they are fortunate to have aligned district curriculum documents that guide teachers to answer the first critical question of a PLC: “What do we want all students to learn?” I tell them that standards, and the Common Core State Standards in particular, require a real examination of exactly what we are asking students to learn. I acknowledge those educators, administrators and teachers alike, who perform the arduous work of unraveling the standards and CCSS for teachers. But then I also believe that their district documents are not enough.

To answer the first question, I tell them that every teacher collaborative team must engage in the process of taking those aligned district curriculum documents apart in their team meetings, making sure that each teacher is crystal clear about what is meant to be taught, and what student work would look like if all teachers successfully taught that content.

I also share that, in my experience, teachers can often lack mutual clarity about district curriculum documents. They may individually understand what they are being asked to teach; however, they unintentionally assume that their team members have a common understanding of what those curriculum documents say students need to learn.

To illustrate, I use a 30-second clip of an Aflac commercial. In the clip, the Aflac duck is in a hospital bed, complete with a heart monitor and IV. Four doctors have arrived to consult over the duck’s condition, and the resident doctor asks the others what they see in their patient. After a series of statements, one doctor says, “I see lunch.” The Aflac duck’s heart monitor immediately begins to beat rapidly and wildly—until a lunch tray appears and is dropped in front of the duck. The duck’s monitor then returns to a normal beat.

Obviously, the Aflac duck had a very different interpretation of what lunch meant in this scenario. In a similar fashion, individual teachers on collaborative teams may have very different interpretations of what their district documents say. And if they have not uncovered those individual interpretations of the district curriculum documents in their team meetings, they have no way to truly write common assessments. Teacher teams can, without really understanding why, get quite frustrated at their lack of progress in designing assessments.

So, I tell school administrators that the work of “Learn what?” is critical for all teacher collaborative teams even when detailed and comprehensive curriculum guides are readily available from the district. It is simply not enough to assume that all teachers on the team share the same understanding.

Put another way, teacher collaborative teams simply must all agree what lunch really means.


Katharine Kostishak

First, I love your Aflac commercial example. As educators, it is imperative that as a team, we have the same or similar understanding of what is expected of us and our students. In my district, grade level teams meet right before a new unit will be taught district wide. We are able to collaborate with other educators of the same grade from different schools. During this time, we unpack standards with each other and come to a common consensus of what needs to be taken away. After we unpack, we put all of our information into a google document and share it on our county math google site. So far, this has been helpful because the teachers are doing the work, not administration. In my opinion, teachers should be doing this work because we are the ones who will be teaching the information.

Posted on

Karly Thompson

I completely agree that teachers throughout the district should critically discuss and analyze district curriculum documents, even if it is already laid out for teachers. It is so important to have continuity between schools. More importantly, there should be a solid foundation built and continuity between grade levels. It can be easy for teachers to assume they know what should be taught when the curriculum documents are already supplied. However, it is crucial that teachers have the same understanding of what they are supposed to teacher. I am excited to share your thoughts with my grade level team.

Posted on