Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Restructuring (not Remortgaging) to make Collaborative Time for Teachers

Early in my career as a high school Principal, I caught myself complaining that we needed “more money”, “more resources” and “more time” to implement new initiatives to improve student achievement. But four years ago, I had a revelation:  the money is the money, the resources are what we have, and there are 24 hours in the day.  In order to change student results, our school needed to investigate a high-yield strategy that utilized our existing resources.  For our school, developing a Professional Learning Community was that strategy.  The PLC journey that we have been on has been chaotic, tumultuous, and at times incredibly challenging, but it has become the most satisfying journey I have embarked upon in my career.

Four years ago, we began looking at a PLC model.  The ideas of creating time within the timetable for teachers to work interdependently to develop common emphasized curricula and assessments, to utilize the resultant data to modify instructional practice, and to create an intervention system that ensured the success of each student were very topical for our school.  Staff collectively determined that our student achievement data needed improvement. Teachers learned about the concepts of collaboration.  An exploratory team attended a PLC Conference, and we created a PLC pilot project for staff.  We ironed the logistics of embedded collaborative time and creating our academic intervention program.  And then we were off:  it seemed so straightforward!  I thought people would relish collaborating with their peers, we would react in a timely and effective manner to ‘promising learners’ who were not able to demonstrate learning outcomes, achievement would go up, and parents would be thrilled with our results.  How naïve was I! 

Many people didn’t want to collaborate. If they were collaborating, it often turned into sharing or complaining sessions. Our reaction to our ‘promising learners’ was inefficient and costly. The set of interventions had staff working harder than the students.  The local teacher’s association was complaining that we didn’t address the loss of preparation time created by altering our timetable for collaboration time.  It was chaos!

After these initial hiccups, we have found three things to be essential in developing our learning community:
  • Consistent support on collaborative techniques for team leaders: As a result, teachers collaborate in their subject areas to determine emphasized learning outcomes, use data to find “stumble points” at each grade level, examine promising practices in to address these points, and modify their teaching methods as a result. 
  • Confronting ineffective assessment strategies: Consequently, we have moved away from grading practices such as late marks, averaging of terms, and zeroes.
  • Reorganizing existing time in the school day: We created a timetable with additional time for students to meet the learning outcomes in their courses AND to provide time for teachers to collaborate.

Our school timetable with the mandatory study block and teacher collaboration block

During the Collaborative Time, our students are able to access subject-specific tutorials so that they can receive one-to-one or small group instruction.  The libraries, gyms, and computer labs are open for those students who have completed their work and wish to have self-directed time.  Teachers can direct students to these tutorials if they feel that students are not meeting the learning outcomes for their course.  This time is to augment the mandatory study block for each student in the building.  Should teachers feel that students need even more additional time, students are directed to our after school Academic Intervention program (AI), which takes place Monday thru Thursday from 3:10-4:00.  To supervise this time after school, we replaced a portion of time that teachers were required to supervise our school bus areas with time to supervise AI.  It is very popular with our staff, and gives our teachers a means to enforce assignment deadlines without having to resort to using toxic grading practices such as taking off late marks.

By utilizing these structures, we have seen a continual drop in course failure rates each year since beginning our pilot PLC project!

Our overall failure rates for all courses has decreased consistently over the last four years--95.4% success!

Our school continues the journey to becoming a Professional Learning Community.  For those who wish to begin down this path, there are many challenges that will occur along the way.  However, through the development of an unwavering vision of collaboration, a commitment to adopting assessment strategies targeted at discovery of student knowledge, the development of a timetable that includes intervention structures for students who require additional time and support, and the creative thinking of an entire school community to do this at no cost, we have found the PLC journey to be a trip most worthwhile!

If you have other ways that you have created collaborative time for educators, please share your model and your ideas!


  1. Great Post Cale. I think a number of secondary schools are experimenting with different versions of collaborative time, but you nicely link your work to data - which is often the misssing piece. I look forward to sharing your post at our next secondary principals' meeting

  2. Wonderful! It's both about collaboration and also about putting students first! Great stuff Cale, thanks for sharing.

  3. Hey Cale! Thanks for the informative post. At our school, half the students are bussed in. Therefore, we cannot lengthen the day nor can we shorten the day (as the bus schedule must align with other schools). Does anybody hve any thoughts on how to make this work?

  4. We are going through those "growing pains" right now. This is our second year of teaming and I am afraid it is our last. There is just too much complaining going on. It is such a shame that we can't step back and act as adults and see the benefits this type of planning has for our students.


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