The Case for Collaboration Days

08/10/2015 02:29 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2016

Collaboration isn't a word du jour; it's a necessary part of teaching. Without targeted collaboration time, teachers are less prepared to help their clientele, and for this reason, more and more schools and districts are adjusting their schedules to allow weekly collaboration days for their teachers. This necessary time isn't a spontaneous decision. We've been fighting for it for years based on need, not want.

Which is why I was saddened earlier last week when I read an article questioning a district's move towards weekly collaboration time, a move many districts in the area had already done eons ago. Parents pushed back, concerned about the value of how this time would be used and how the shortened day with students would be spent valuably.

While it's an understandable concern, what it really shows me is that educators must occasionally don the PR hat. For I hope that the real problem here isn't lack of faith in the schools, but rather a lack of understanding in what teachers need to do their job.

For one thing, calling these days "minimum days" isn't helping. It sends the message that student-free time is time not spent working and educating. The fact is that time spent with students is merely a percentage of my workday. Without time devoted to working with colleagues, I'm forced to find my own collaborative time in dribs and drabs, and that simply doesn't work.

Ways To Use Collaboration Days

From a teacher's perspective, these kinds of articles add to the "us vs. them" myth when in fact parents and teachers need to work together towards the goal of preparing our students. It shows a lack of understanding about why teachers genuinely need those days in order to do their job. Perhaps some clarification might help us bridge our sides of the argument.

Here are just 10 ways teachers in schools are using their collaboration time:

1. We design practice assessments, like multimedia performance tasks that incorporate text sets, that are aligned to the new Common Core standards.

2. We develop the grade-level and subject area specific lessons that incorporate the new standards like the literacy lessons now required for History and Science.

3. We meet with teachers outside subject areas (who rarely have common prep periods together) in order to create these cross-curricular lessons in multiple classrooms.

4. We bring in outside experts focused on particular topics to help advise us on teaching students with different needs in many populations, many of who are increasing in numbers in our classrooms.

5. We calibrate our benchmarks, essays and artifacts to ensure that all teachers are accountable for their levels of teaching and all students are hitting the goals and objectives we've set together.

6. We research new strategies of rigorous engagement like those used in Project Based Learning.

7. We analyze new resources like websites, literature, music and videos to help supplement our curriculum.

8. We brainstorm needs as a department and create committees to write grants, create model pieces to be used in the classrooms, and develop multiple media introductions to concepts.

9. We learn new technologies as a group so that we may benefit from each other's questions and solutions.

10. We benefit from each other's expertise, presenting different strategies and best practices to each other, pulling professional development from the individuals on the staff.

But parents also have concern about how the truncated classroom time is being used on these shortened collaboration days. In the spirit of acknowledging that every side has a point, there probably is a small percentage of teachers who might need some guidance in how to use their shortened time with students in a meaningful way. No matter the subject area, even abridged time can be valuably spent.

Time Magazine reported about this in their article, "Why Long Lectures Are Ineffective." A shortened day can actually serve a purpose in helping students focus on deeper skill acquisition by tackling fewer problems or targeting fewer skills during a single class period.

So administrators must help teachers develop strategies in ways the time could be used. This could actually be a valuable topic for some professional development during a faculty meeting so that staff can help guide each other.

A Collaboration Contract

To address this disconnect between the needs of stakeholders, there is a contract between parents, teachers and administrators, that must be metaphorically signed, and all stakeholders must have faith that it will be delivered.

* Teachers must ensure that their abridged minutes with their clients are still being used valuably. Analyze a Ted Talk on your subject area through discussion or writing. Use a Four-Corners debate to bring in some oral presentation. Create a journal entry as a reflection of the week's learning. Dip your toe into a new strategy like giving students structured Google 20 percent time. Teachers must also ensure that they will use their time with fellow staff members well. This time is meant to improve our practice together.

* Administrators must ensure that the minimum days are devoted to valuable professional development and teacher-driven collaboration-time based, not on the curriculum fad o' the month, but on the needs of the demographic and community. Administrators must also ensure that every teacher is using their time, both with the students and with their colleagues, richly and constructively.

* Parents must stop using the argument of who will watch their children. It demeans the professionals who spend each day with their students and their daily battles to help those students learn. A district administrator from my own son's district once responded to a similar argument with, 'We are not in the business of childcare." Additionally, parents must also support their schools by ensuring their students are at school on minimum days, some of which are used for important cultural or informational assemblies and school-wide community building. However, allowing a student to be absent on minimum days might corrupt a student's support of their own learning.

Have Faith In Each Other

Just as we all agree we must differentiate our students, so must we give time to help our teachers differentiate their PD needs. We all exist in an exciting era where the pendulum is swinging away from standardization, but with that comes the need for training and for working together.

I applaud the districts that treat their teachers as professionals, giving them what they need to do their job. I also applaud those districts that listen to the advice and concerns of parents and other stakeholders.

Only by working together, only by having faith in all variables in the Equation of Student Success, will we, teachers and parents, be able to help our students prepare for their futures.