The Time and the Commitment to Collaborate at the Elementary Level
At the elementary level, the structure of collaboration—that is, the designated time during the school day and the creation of meaningful teams—can be a struggle to achieve. Some elementary schools are so large that they don’t have enough nonclassroom staff to cover the classes so all teachers at a grade level can be free to meet at the same time. Other elementary schools are so small that they only have one teacher per grade level. Some departmentalize; some assign specialists (art, music, PE, Title I, special ed, EL, GT, etc.) to teams according to shared planning time. The iterations of structural configurations go on and on. There are concerns with each model that doesn’t incorporate interdependence, one or more common goals, and mutual accountability (DuFour & Marzano, 2011). Most highly effective teams are made up of staff who share the same students and the same content. Some structural concerns can be mitigated by:
- Creating vertical teams with a concentration on essential learning that spirals through the grades
- Dividing a very large team into two smaller groups that may be able to have common collaborative planning time
- Setting up virtual collaboration teams in which singleton teachers and/or specialists come together online to work on common goals
- Utilizing nonclassroom staff to start and/or end the day with students so grade-level teachers can add an additional 15–30 minutes to their before- or after-school contract time
- Using staff development funds to free a grade level once a semester for a half day of intensive collaborative planning (One of the key elements of being a PLC is a commitment to job-embedded staff development.)
The other critical factor in collaboration is a commitment to the culture of collaboration. If a staff does not see the value of learning together, drawing on one another’s strengths, and focusing on results for students, no schedule is going to ensure that the right work is being done. The corollary is that without a perfect schedule that ensures every team an hour of collaborative time per week, a school staff that shares a commitment to collaborate will find a way to come together to ensure results for students. The tipping point between compliance and commitment in a collaborative culture is the belief that structure (i.e., lack of consistent collaborative planning time) isn’t going to be a deal breaker. The attitude of staff is that they will do whatever it takes to agree on what students need to learn, to monitor that learning, and to adjust instruction for those who struggle and those who learn quickly. They will set common goals; they will hold one another accountable for the achievement of those goals; and they will celebrate their successes and the successes of their students.
In his All Things PLC blog post on September 13, 2013, Anthony Muhammad stated that the most efficacious teams he has found in his 10 years of research share two characteristics: (1) they discipline themselves to stay focused on the four critical questions regarding student learning, and (2) they maintain a positive atmosphere by intentionally avoiding speaking negatively about students, parents, and coworkers. If teams keep those two things in mind, they will overcome structural issues and figure out a way to do the right work for their students.
DuFour, R., & Marzano, R. J. (2011). Leaders of learning: How district, school, and classroom teachers improve student achievement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.