A teacher’s work is often done in the seclusion of the classroom. But new research finds that teachers’ physical proximity to one another plays an important role in the way they interact and, ultimately, how successful they are at collaborating.
A study from Northwestern University’s school of education and social policy, published this month in Sociology of Education, measured how distance in the school building—teachers’ proximity to each other’s classrooms as well as to other areas where teachers spend their time, such as restrooms and the lunchroom—affects the way teachers connect with one another to talk about academics, problems, and support.
Researchers examined school staff interactions about instruction as well as floor plans in 14 elementary schools, and conducted surveys and interviews with more than 1,000 elementary school teachers and administrators over the course of four years.
They found that the closer teachers are physically, the less time and effort they need to put into working together. This is especially true for teachers in the same grade level. While planned staff meetings are helpful, there are more benefits to the day-to-day interactions that result from working close by; impromptu conversations increase and teachers can more immediately collaborate on ideas or share issues while they are still fresh.
Even small distances can make a difference. One 5th grade teacher reported collaborating most often with a colleague who was next door, rather than going to talk with other teachers across the hall, because it was easier.
And a 6th grade teacher said that grade-level planning meetings with all teachers were helpful for thinking about lessons, but more informal exchanges with nearby teachers were better for discussing day-to-day teaching issues. If a lesson “didn’t happen in math the way I wanted it to,” she would go into another teacher’s room and say, “Oh my God, you’ll never guess what happened in math today.’'
These interactions can have a positive effect on student performance and other school outcomes, by giving those at the front of the classroom greater access to resources, information, materials, and encouragement.
Because of this, the study’s results should inform the way school buildings are designed and where teachers work within them, said James P. Spillane, a co-author of the study and a professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern.
“We need to take into account not only how to create learning environments that maximize learning opportunities for children but also for the adults who educate them,” Spillane wrote in an email to Education Week Teacher. “This is not simply a matter of sheer walking distance but also necessitates school leaders thinking about staff members’ functional zones.”
A few suggestions the study provides:
- Schools should design spaces that close distances between classrooms and make sure teachers have to walk in the same common areas.
- Teachers in leadership roles, especially, should work close to other staff members for a more influential reach.
- School leaders should assign classrooms for teachers so that all staff members’ rooms are in close proximity to master teachers and those of other grade levels. This will help make sure that students’ learning opportunities are not only ‘horizontally aligned’ throughout one grade level, but also ‘vertically aligned,’ building on experience as students move from grade to grade.
“In the case of school leaders who have to work with existing buildings,” Spillane wrote, “the issue becomes one of thinking strategically about what sort of relations among school staff they want to maximize and indeed minimize.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.