Making time for teachers to learn can lead to increased opportunities for kids
My older son is a second-grade student at our neighborhood elementary school in Chicago. Next year, his younger brother will turn old enough to follow him through the doors of the same old, worn-out looking, brick building. I’m actually happy about this. I’ve come to realize there are aspects to schools that are superficial, such as the color of the paint on the walls or having the newest model of machines in the computer lab. There are other things that really matter.
Focusing on what matters
A central commitment to equity and helping all kids learn are among the things that make a school a good place to be. Related to this, I would include ongoing efforts to nurture and repair — when necessary — a welcoming and inclusive environment where teachers, administrators, students and families cultivate trust in one another. Of course, any school that aspires to maintain the public’s confidence and be worthy of our trust will need lots of good books, space for children to play, and teachers who have both real credentials and caring ways of relating to kids. Perhaps most of all, I would include time to think, to create and to share. Our neighborhood public school doesn’t look new or fancy (because it’s neither of these), but this doesn’t prevent its leadership team and teachers from focusing on what really matters. Students need time to learn and their teachers do too.
Working together to get better
At our school, the teachers have been meeting with some frequency in inquiry groups, with each comprised of just a few staff. They are using time—a precious resource in schools—to learn together how to get better. Every month for 90 minutes, each inquiry group meets to continue its exploration of the same area of teaching and learning. One group is inquiring about project-based instruction, another group about supporting the development of students’ social and emotional competencies, and yet another about integrating the fine and performing arts across the curriculum. These are just three of the ten inquiry groups underway. During these exploration meetings, school leaders and teachers with particular expertise share their experience, knowledge, and skill with their colleagues to explore important questions and help coordinate and improve instruction across the school. This kind of collaborative effort is not the norm in most schools, not because most schools could not do it or that most teachers wouldn’t want to do it, but because we haven’t made schools places where it’s a priority for teachers to work and learn together. However, a growing body of evidence shows that in schools where teachers get together to collaborate, student achievement is higher and teacher retention is better.
It isn’t always easy for the teachers at my son’s school to get together in their inquiry groups or to collaborate for other purposes. In a creative and successful attempt to make time last spring, the school administration and parents partnered to chaperone different grade-level groups of students on field trips over the course of several days. They were able to provide not only a novel learning experience for students, but also time for teachers to get together to co-design and align meaningful performance assessments with curriculum units. Professionals need time together, to do work together.
Making time regular and frequent
Considering parents can’t always be available to volunteer for entire school days and kids likely won’t be taking field trips with a lot of frequency, schools need to find regular and realistic ways for teachers to find time to collaborate. While the challenges facing schools are embedded in social and economic contexts that can make for great difficulties, schools should nonetheless be places where teachers can organize effectively to solve certain problems together that they can’t solve separately. Like other complex organizations, schools aren’t going to make much progress on the tough challenges they can address if teachers aren’t engaging in joint problem-solving work together. Like other professionals, teachers aren’t going to improve much if they are always working in isolation. Teachers need to talk with other adults about their students, their instruction, and both their needs and ideas for improvement. If we make time for teachers to work in the company of knowledgeable colleagues, they can develop their tools to enact ambitious instruction on a range of topics across subject areas. If teachers have genuine and ongoing learning opportunities, they can improve opportunities for student learning. To do this, they need time. I hope we can find ways for all schools to make more time for teachers to learn together. Without that time, I don’t see how we can make schools places where all our kids will learn from teachers who are continuing to get better at the things that really matter.
Michael Barber is a parent of a student at Ravenswood Elementary School in Chicago and an associate program officer at the Spencer Foundation.