Here are three strategies for keeping teacher teams focused and productive when time is of the essence and the goal is to drive deeper student learning. The practice of meeting as teacher teams can be challenging to fit into the day as schedules fill up in the new school year.
However, there is enormous value in establishing a consistent, structured routine of grade- or subject-focused meetings especially when schools plan for it and make time for it. When teachers meet in groups, they learn to “cultivate diverse perspectives, ground disagreement in text-based ideas (rather than personal attacks), promote intentional data use, and focus team meetings on what collaboration is ultimately about—improving student learning,” writes a consultant Elisa B. MacDonald for ASCD.
Read More: What is Discovery Education? Tips & Tricks
There’s no need to overcomplicate things: teachers can benefit by keeping the work lean and focused on a few distinct areas despite time constraints. “It’s enough to begin with small, intentional steps to build a culture of trust gradually,” writes former teacher and literacy coach MacDonald.
“In time, your team will see reading together, observing one another teach, and looking at student work together as healthy collaborative habits that transform learning, not just practices you do in meetings.”
MacDonald suggests three strategies for getting the most out of teacher teams:
1. Read and Listen Together
While reading on your own is beneficial, discussing articles, videos, and podcasts with colleagues allows team members to broaden their thinking and deepen their understanding of the content by hearing new ideas and challenging their own perspectives.
If your school doesn’t have time set aside for professional development or collaborative team reading, start with “short, engaging texts”—MacDonald recommends a relatable cartoon, a controversial quote, or an inspirational excerpt from a podcast and works your way up to longer texts and book studies as the year progresses and teachers’ schedules allow. “Your colleagues will soon expect text-based discussions in your meetings,” she predicts.
Instead of using text-based discussion protocols like the four A’s or the final word, which can feel “time-consuming or restrictive,” a well-crafted prompt can help structure a thoughtful conversation and encourage quality, relevant responses.
When school DEI director Osamagbe Osagie’s team read the article “Growing Up Black in All the Wrong Places,” she asked, “Given this article’s provocative title, what will it take for us to create a world that is comfortable and safe for individuals who are Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and multiracial to grow and thrive in?” MacDonald is a writer.
2. Observe Colleagues in Classrooms
Teachers in high-performing schools frequently visit colleagues’ classrooms for peer observation, which MacDonald compares to “seeing a movie with friends, grabbing a bite afterward, and talking about what you saw together” versus seeing the same movie alone.
When team leaders set clear goals for classroom visits, it helps to streamline the process and keeps team members from becoming overwhelmed by the variety of ideas they encounter.
Establish a clear objective for each observation: While initial visits can be unstructured, subsequent visits should include clear guidance on what to look for and should connect to whatever the team is learning about, according to MacDonald.
Be specific about your goals: While your team may write or review an entire lesson plan together, it’s fine to demo just a portion of it for the team to examine together, according to MacDonald.
Determine how to collect data: “Decide what data your team will collect to help your team debrief afterward, guided by your purpose,” MacDonald writes. You could agree to record audio of student group discussions or photograph completed student work.
Change it up: Plan to observe both live and pre-recorded lessons, as well as “dry demos,” in which a teacher presents a lesson to colleagues without the presence of students. This exercise relieves stress for the presenting teacher by allowing them to restart or stop at any point during the process, while also providing an opportunity to practice strategies before implementing them in the classroom.
3. Examine Student Work
If you are unable to visit other teachers’ classrooms on a regular basis, regularly evaluating student work as a team is a valuable exercise. Each member can bring in student work samples on a rotating basis that are:
Authentic: The sample work should reflect a genuine issue or challenge for the teacher who is presenting (s).
Relevant: Submitting samples that are relevant to the team’s inquiry and study objectives ensures that the analysis benefits the team.
Recent: MacDonald recommends using recent samples, such as formative assessments, so that teachers can “reteach, intervene, or enrich when students need it.”
While it may be tempting to “go big or go home” with team meetings, the realities of crammed teacher schedules can derail even the most well-intended plans. Starting small—choosing just one strategy, to begin with—is worthwhile, according to MacDonald.
Teachers can be sustained by strong teacher teams, which help them connect with colleagues and feel supported, ultimately keeping educators engaged in their work and learning from one another.