Teaching Profession Commentary

Making Time for Collegiality

By Thomas R. Hoerr — April 23, 1997 8 min read

Thomas R. Hoerr is the director of the New City School, a preschool-through-grade 6 school in St. Louis, where the faculty has been working collegially for nine years to implement the theory of multiple intelligences. He can be reached at TRHoerr@AOL.com.

I was at a meeting recently and heard a colleague relating an experience she found intriguing. Several people from her district had attended a national conference, and she had been a member of the group. The conference was designed to attract teams of educators who work together in schools and school districts.

“There we were, teams from across the country at this expensive out-of-state conference,” she began, “but I noticed that even though the speakers were good, we all were more concerned with wanting to talk to one another. And as I looked around the room the same phenomenon was being repeated: Each team that had come together was more interested in talking among themselves than in hearing the speakers. People actually skipped the conference dinner to go to restaurants and eat with others from their schools.” As she talked, the others who were sitting next to me nodded their heads in agreement. Clearly, they understood and sympathized with her point.

What is happening here? Why are we so hungry to talk with the people who work down the hall or in the next building? What does it say about the daily working conditions of educators that we must go out of town to find the time to have casual conversations? Why does meeting without an agenda only come after an airplane ride? What does this professional and organizational climate mean for teacher growth? What does it mean for student growth?

Teaching has never been a collaborative activity. By and large, teachers work in isolation with little adult-adult interaction. If they are fortunate, they have congenial relations with the other teachers in their building, grade level, or department. Teachers generally share materials and often cover for one another in supervising students. Occasionally, they even talk about kids and develop curriculum with teammates. But teachers working as colleagues, learning from and with one another, is not the norm.

The structure of our schools and the mores of our profession work against teachers’ developing collegial relations. This can be changed, however. The solution lies in how we use time, our most precious--and elusive--resource in attaining collegiality.

In Improving Schools From Within (1990), Roland S. Barth describes the ideal working environment for teachers. He maintains that the most important factor in determining the quality of a school is the nature and quality of the adult-adult relationships within that school. Mr. Barth says that while we all want a congenial work setting, that is not sufficient. If we are to grow and learn, we must also have a collegial work setting. He describes four components of collegiality: teachers talking together about students, teachers developing curriculum together, teachers observing one another teach, and teachers teaching one another.

The kind of work setting Mr. Barth describes is all too rare. To be fair, in some schools teachers do talk with one another about students, and teachers do develop curriculum together, at least some of the time. But these relationships and practices are the exceptions. Teachers seldom observe one another teach and offer feedback; more exceptional still are those times when teachers teach one another.

How rare is adult-adult interaction in schools? Assuming an eight-hour, in-school workday (recognizing that teachers typically take work home), multiplied by 186 days per year (including six days of in-service), a teacher who has five years’ experience has been in school a minimum of 7,440 hours. Excluding lunch and times when students are supervised, teachers typically tell me that they have been with other adults, including their supervisors, less than 1 percent of the time (74 hours). By and large, teachers’ workdays are spent teaching their students or working alone, planning or grading. Faculty meetings are often spent listening to announcements being read.

Neither our professional traditions nor the ethos of schools supports teachers’ need--and hunger--for collegiality. Unfortunately, growing professionally is too often defined as going somewhere to take a course or attend a workshop. Is it any wonder that teachers fly out of town in order to sit together and talk about what is happening in the hall outside their rooms?

Contrast this norm of isolation with other professions, in which time is built into the calendar and daily schedule for peers to work as colleagues: sharing experiences, planning, and presenting new information and skills to one another. Although law firms survive on billable hours, meetings and seminars are planned during the workday to enable the attorneys to stay current on legal issues and to learn from their peers. Physicians in teaching hospitals begin their day with rounds; they too have time structured in their day to learn with and from their peers. Virtually every profession protects times during the day for its members to work together as learners. Virtually every profession, that is, other than the profession that is focused on learning.

Yes, teachers have the summers “off,” but the quotation marks tell a story. Come summer, teachers scatter, often returning to graduate school classrooms or other jobs, building up a reservoir of emotional and physical energy for the school year that lies ahead. Even if opportunities were created for them to work as colleagues in the summer, teachers would not be able to take what they had learned and apply it the next day in their classrooms. Learning is best for both children and adults when it is experiential and relevant. Summers offer an artificial setting at best.

What is to be done? We must start by valuing the expertise of our colleagues and recognizing that we can accomplish more by working together, learning from one another, than we can alone. We must also recognize that collaboration takes time. The journey that we make together will take longer than if we go alone. But we will arrive at our destination richer, with more insights and support.

Virtually every profession but ours protects times during the day for its members to work together as learners.

We cannot create time. But we can allocate it differently. Building in joint planning time for teachers during the day, scheduling students to go to recess, lunch, or specialists at the same time, allows teachers of the same grade level opportunities to meet. We can also view teaching as a profession which requires after-school meetings on a regular basis. The students may leave at 3:30 p.m., but the teachers’ day at school is far from over. Work may still be taken home, but after school becomes a ripe time to meet and share with colleagues.

Working with colleagues over time, examining issues and learning from one another’s experiences, fuels teacher growth. Teachers meeting to examine student work, for example, identifying exemplars and determining why the particular pieces excel, offers tremendous benefits to the teachers and, ultimately, to their students.

Faculty committees should be groups that meet to learn, not to hear reports or ratify decisions. A committee to ensure that the building is clean or that discipline policies are consistently applied is important, but a committee that looks at how students are assessed or how progress is reported to parents has far greater potential for faculty growth. Committees should be formed with two goals: to meet school needs and to address the needs of faculty members. Even offering a voluntary before-school reading club, a group that meets weekly or monthly to discuss a book or journal article, begins to put in place the relationships and attitudes that facilitate and support sharing. Teachers who invite peers to come to their classrooms and give them feedback on specific aspects of their teaching benefit greatly, as do those doing the observations.

In-service days need not be days when experts (people who come in from out of town and get paid) come to school to do the presentations. In-service days can become opportunities for faculty members to present what they are doing in their classrooms. Imagine an in-service day beginning with a panel of teachers addressing the topic “How can we increase student opportunities for success?” Better still, imagine the fascinating dialogue that could follow the panel discussion as the faculty meets in small groups to share strategies and develop plans.

We must begin to be realistic about the school calendar as well. It is ludicrous to think that teachers can arrive at school in August or September, one or two days before their students, and be adequately prepared when school starts. They may have class rosters compiled and bulletin boards decorated, but is that really being ready? Part of a teacher’s professional obligation should be working in school at least one week before the school year begins. This allows time for bulletin boards to be ready for the first day of school, but it also allows time for teachers to meet and plan, to work as colleagues. And as teachers’ roles become more professional, their compensation should reflect their additional investment of time.

More than creating time to meet together, which, after all, is finite, the most important thing we can do is reflect upon our values and behaviors. We need to start by examining how we spend our time, recognizing that being busy isn’t enough. There are many more things to do than we could ever accomplish, even if we worked 16 hours a day. Once we realize that, the questions become “How best can I spend my time?” and “What are the best ways for me to learn?”

As we begin to answer these questions, invariably we will see our colleagues as people from whom we can learn and people who can learn from us. There will never be enough time to do all that we desire. But if we use our time wisely it becomes an investment that offers the benefit we need to learn and grow: collegial relationships with our peers.

A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 1997 edition of Education Week


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