Virginia Mahlke

Virginia Mahlke is a consultant who works with educators and administrators nationwide. Her experience as both a teacher and administrator allows her to connect with all levels of school staff.

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.


Augusta C.

I appreciate your insight on the importance of collaboration. I know how difficult it is to find time with other grade levels in your own building. I work for our special education service district and I am the only special education teacher that does not work for the locals in my building. This makes collaboration even that more difficult. I really loved the idea of using technology to communicate with other teachers, if needed. That would be something easy to do and we would still be able to discuss issues and concerns with student learning. Fortunately, I feel our teachers have a mutual respect for each other and we want to help one another succeed. This positive attitude is exactly what you touched upon and a reason why we are able to successfully collaborate together. I am going to look into incorporating technology as a way to touch base more frequently with teachers in the county.

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Brittany Buhrman

Thank you for sharing your insight into collaborative planning. In years past, all PLCs/team planning took place after school. As a new mother of twins, that just wasn't an option for me. Now that my principal has been able to carve out time during the time, I've been able to participate more. Reflecting on my past participation in such groups, I would say that my attitude has changed and I am more focused on helping the learners in my classroom and working together with my teammate to achieve those goals.

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edica liebl

I enjoyed reading you blog and like your ideas for teacher collaboration.The focus in education has been on testing as an indicator as to whether or not students have learned what we as teachers have taught. Professional learning communities are a positive way for teachers to collaborate, share knowledge, and focus on the learning of students.
The downfall of professional learning communities, in my eyes, is the time allotment needed for PLC's to be successful. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), testing requirements, and ever-changing rigorous curriculum leaves teachers overwhelmed with the lack of time and support needed to make knowledgeable decisions on what to teach so that students learn.
A School districts decision to continue to add to the workload of teachers without allowing time for collaboration only hurts student in the end.

Edica Liebl
Eugene, OR

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De Elem

Your article is very insightful as to the benefits of having a collaborative team in place. Common planning time and a positive attitude are two very essential qualifiers that are needed in order to have anything successfully in place. I would be interested in starting some common collaborating time with my grade level, even if it starts as a lunch bunch between us. It sounds like a wonderful opportunity that all educators should be involved in.

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Erin Gartner

I enjoyed reading your post. I teach at a school with 3 other kindergarten teachers. We meet once a week with an administrator for professional development. We have recently added a lunch meeting once a week to collaborate with all four teachers and all four para-educators. We have found this to be very beneficial because it gives the paras and teachers a chance to talk about concerns each may have. It also makes planning team activities easier because we all have a chance to talk together and make sure we are all on the same page. It is very interesting to spend this time with my teammates as we are all so very different in our approaches to teaching. I have had an opportunity to learn many things from the women I teach with, and I hope they have gained valuable information from me. I appreciated your comment about Anthony Muhammad's suggestions for an effective PLC. I will present both characteristics to my team at our next meeting and hopefully we can better avoid getting wrapped up in unproductive conversation. I did have one question regarding Mr. Muhammad's characteristics. What are the four critical questions regarding student learning?
Thank you again for your post!

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Amaris Moreno

I agree that collaboration is important. I recently left a school that didn't believe in the importance of collaboration. As a new teacher I was looking for some insight and help when coming up with engaging lessons. Unfortunately, the more experienced teachers didn't want to waste their time collaborating or helping a new teacher. I learned on my own and collaborating with a teacher from another school. I was thankful she took the time to help me plan challenging and engaging lessons my student would love. I eventually decided that this was not the place I wanted to be at and I needed a change. I reached out to an old administrator of mine where I did long term subbing and she had an opening. To this day I am happy about my decision.
The teachers there collaborate in all subjects and it becomes easier to get ideas from the most experienced teachers. It is also exciting to know that they are also learning from me as well. Planning lessons is a lot easier when you have a group of positive people to help figure out how to tackle the challenges students will face throughout the lesson. It seems as the work is evenly distributed and we don't feel burn out from having to do it all ourselves. Collaboration is important and making time for these type of committees not only benefits the teachers but most importantly the students.

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Megan McGuire

I agree that collaboration takes time to establish.

I have had the opportunity to teach by myself and to teach with a team of teachers. I found that working with a team helped me become a better teacher because I was able to learn from the more experienced teachers. I was challenged in a way that motivated me to become a better teacher too. I remember my first year teaching. I was the only kindergarten teacher and I had to learn everything on my own. As much as I enjoy collaborating, it did force me to take ownership for my own learning. One of the reasons I left the school I first started teaching at is because I wanted to learn more and work with a team. I felt that I was not growing as an educator because I did not have a team to work with or learn from. Collaboration is key to working "smarter, not harder." However, I can see how one would find collaborating difficult, especially if a teacher has been teaching a while and does not like to change their ideas/thinking or take advice from other colleagues. In order for effective collaboration to take place, it is important for teachers to learn to trust one another and they need to feel that their ideas are valued.

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Megan Collins

I found your article to be very eye-opening. I teach at an elementary school with only one teacher per grade level, and this as often served as a roadblock against implementing PLCs. As a new teacher, I had always just accepted this as a valid reason, but your article shows the misconceptions in this approach. Your article shows that while PLCs are centered on student achievement, they do not always have to contain teachers who have the same students. The methods of instruction and assessment can still be similar across grade levels. The benefits of overcoming this “roadblock” will greatly outweigh the struggle it takes to get there. Thank you for the insightful article.

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Juliana Peloche

Hello Virginia,
wonderful thoughts and ideas. I work in a very successful school in terms of PLC. We use the time that kids are busy with specialists (PE classes) and we get together to discuss, plan and decide. This is the firts time that this happens to me. I have always struggled with time, but it seems that this time, this school takes the contribution very seriously. They found a great solution that I wanted to share with you.
Thanks for your ideas!

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Latoya Alexander

I've had the opportunity to work in various types of elementary schools both in Florida and Maryland. At one particular school I was the only 5th grade teacher (temporarily filling in for the permanent teacher). However, the school's collaborative environment was very positive and forward thinking. I've also had the privilege of working in a very large school where we were a team of 10 first grade teachers. We were not required to collaborate, but did so anyway due to our genuine interest in seeing our students thrive. Now, I am teaching at another large school where we receive one hour of collaborative time, and it is working out very well. As teachers it is easy to get caught up in our day to day routines, but it is essential to share our professional experiences and align our goals to ensure every student is successful. Collaboration is a commitment as you mentioned. With a positive mindset, collaboration is quite beneficial to both teachers and students. Thank you for sharing your insights.

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Amanda Dragun

Thank you so much for your insight. I work at a Title I school that is departmentalized. I however am the only teacher on my grade level that is self contained. We have two ninety minute planning periods to meet with facilitators and planning for the following week. Because I teach all subjects, I have to split my time and do not get the full effect of each planning period.

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Laure-Lyne Mancini

I agree that time for collaboration is hard to achieve. There are so many factors that may prevent the group from meeting or keeping them on task. A perfect schedule is great to have in place, but all key players must be on board. Most schools use common planning time for collaboration, but what happens when they meet during a special and that educator is out for the day, how effective is that meeting? I also agree with Anthony Muhammad’s statement of the two characteristics for an effective team. Once the teams find time to collaborate, they must maintain a positive atmosphere and be disciplined in order to stay on task otherwise little may get done.

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Katy Creason

Thank you for addressing some of the challenges elementary school teachers and administrators face when it comes to collaboration. I particularly like the specific suggestions you provide for overcoming these obstacles. Collaboration is a crucial part and indicator of student learning. Effective Professional Learning Communities can be the difference between low performing schools and high performing schools (DuFour, 2004).

As you said, another important factor is the culture of collaboration. If all colleagues involved in PLC's work hard at maintaining "Professional," learning communities can fulfill their designed purpose. Thanks for sharing!

Katy Creason

DuFour, R. (2004). Schools as learning communities. Educational Leadership, 61(8), 6–11. Retrieved from

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dorothy morgan

Commitment to collaborative structure is very important. As educational professionals we should stay focused and open minded when it comes to collaborating with peers. I agree with being disciplined and motivated. These are two key factors of educational professional success. As a self contained teacher I often feel isolated from grade level meetings. I am very interested in learning from my collegues but typically do not have to be part of these meetings. My department director has a bi-monthly self contained meeting that is very beneficial but two hours every two months is not enough. Teachers should be actively engaged in the professional learning process. I to feel that the structure and attitude must change in order to be more effective teachers. Cultural changes and overcrowded schools are having an impact that will suffer if structure in teacher collaboration doesn't change.

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