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Lesson 3.6

Teacher Collaboration:
How do educators work together?

Teachers never seem to have enough time to work together. There’s a reason.

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Schools work better when teachers work together. It takes time and practice to collaborate effectively.

Most successful schools (and successful school leaders) think of their schools as communities of learning. In collaborative school systems, professional development is integrated with the activities of teaching. This includes analyzing data together to improve instructional strategies, sharing perspectives regarding a student who is struggling, and collaborating on lesson planning. Collaboration is hard to put into practice for many reasons - primarily, the limitations of time.

Time for collaboration is negotiated in the contract

Collaboration, prep, staff development, and meeting time all occur during paid work hours, and as such are negotiated elements of the teacher contract. When budgets are tight, districts and unions agree on making safeguarding classroom instructional time their top priority. In such circumstances, time for non-classroom work gets squeezed.

Put yourself in the shoes of a teacher who hasn't had a raise in a while: would you prefer for your union to negotiate for more pay in the contract, smaller class sizes, or more collaboration time? Budgets require difficult choices.

Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)

Some principals receive explicit training about how to bring teachers together into effective and sustainable Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). By meeting together regularly to discuss their practice and address challenges, PLCs help create a culture of continuous improvement in a school.

At least, that's the theory. Research about the impact of PLCs has been almost amusingly equivocal. In one notable study, school district staff ranked PLCs as the form of professional development that they were most dissatisfied with. Most also rated it as a form of professional development that they wanted to spend more time on, although they rated lesson observation and coaching more highly.

Top school systems invest in teacher prep time

Teachers in most American public schools spend the vast majority of their time at school in front of the classroom. Time for preparation and collaboration is limited.

Collaboration is challenging to put into practice, and can take many forms. After early anecdotal successes in Shanghai and Finland, the OECD launched a study of collaborative teaching practices to develop a way of describing and comparing them to glean patterns.

The OECD study examined the frequency of the following collaborative practices in 48 countries or locales:

Collaborative practices observed in OECD countries

Teach jointly as a team in the same class

Observe other teachers’ classes and provide feedback

Engage in joint activities across different classes and age groups

Take part in collaborative professional learning

Exchange teaching materials with colleagues

Engage in discussions about the learning development of specific students

Work with other teachers in the school to ensure common standards in evaluations for assessing student progress

Attend team conferences

The study is complex and the responses so varied that it is hard to draw easy conclusions from them. The two most commonly reported types of collaboration are “discussing the learning development of specific students” (61% of teachers) and “exchanging teaching materials with colleagues” (47%).

Teachers want collaboration

The pandemic experience reinforced the importance of interaction in education. A collaborative workplace helps make teaching attractive as a profession. It is exciting and satisfying to work with others who share your calling. Check out this video to see how one school transformed itself through collaboration.

But teaching is not just a calling - it is also a job. The next few lessons will explore benefits, pay, job security, and retirement security, all of which are critical elements of the "big picture" of education.

Updated September 2018
August 2021
September 2022


Why is teacher collaboration time limited?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Selisa Loeza October 23, 2021 at 12:02 am
Do parents have a right to request amount of prep-time and/or types of professional development provided?
user avatar
Jeff Camp October 23, 2021 at 10:16 am
These are great examples of the kind of choices and tradeoffs that school districts make, sometimes in collaboration with unions. Ask the district what their current decision process is. Local guidance/norms can be formally established or changed through language in the LCAP or (even more powerfully) as amendment to local policy adopted by the school board.
user avatar
Robert Crowell May 2, 2018 at 11:44 am
I had no idea the research suggests that advanced degrees make little difference.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar March 10, 2016 at 2:43 pm
How do other countries support teachers?
A report on the Policies and Practices Among PISA Top Performers ( Shanghai, British Columbia, Singapore, and Hong Kong) finds:
"While these systems are quite different, the key to all of them is that collaborative professional learning (teachers working with other teachers to improve curriculum, instruction, school climate, etc.) is built into the daily lives of teachers and school leaders."
user avatar
Janet L. April 19, 2015 at 7:10 pm
Our principal is phenomenal. She firmly believes in professional development and that shows in our teachers - they are truly one-of-a-kind. They are committed to the school and students, to working collaboratively and creating a safe environment for students, parents, and teachers alike.
For a School Board presentation a few months ago, our staff and students put together a wonderful video to show the Professional Learning Community at our school.
user avatar
Sherry Schnell January 22, 2015 at 10:24 am
School districts should build time for teacher collaboration and professional education into the school year - outside of instructional time. Right now, in SDUSD, students are being taught by substitute teachers while their classroom teachers engage in these activities. This reduces the time students have with their highly qualified regular classroom teacher and in many cases, the amount of material that can be covered. Of course, this is again a funding issue. They use the substitutes because it is cheaper.
user avatar
Tara Massengill February 7, 2015 at 8:09 pm
I believe this is because the teachers have to be taught how to teach CCSS to the students. It seems like every time I turn around my daughter is telling me that she had another substitute, because her teacher had to go for more training. Ridiculous. If they were going to pass Common Core State Standards, they should have gotten the teachers up to speed BEFORE they started using it in the classrooms.
user avatar
nguyen_khanh January 17, 2015 at 11:36 pm
I was fortunate enough to be a part of Lesson Study where a group of teachers got to plan the lessons together and one of us taught the lesson as the other participants collected the data to see how the learners responded to our lessons. Lesson Study was originated from Japan and we learned how to be a better teacher from this collaborative teaching strategy.
user avatar
David B. Cohen April 7, 2011 at 11:14 pm
I expect that a real investment in the time and additional support for teacher collaboration in schools would be a great boon to the quality of teaching and learning. Those who haven't taught generally struggle to understand how difficult the work is, and how little opportunity most teachers have to focus on improvement. For most of us, it's a constant juggling act; our non-teaching time at school is minimal, and divided among a dozen separate duties and responsibilities. This is an area where international comparisons suggest we're missing something important. Not only do I think we'd see better teaching, but we'd see a significant improvement in the work environment, which surpasses salary in terms of what teachers find most important in job satisfaction. Improved teaching, greater stability and less turnover (and turnover has hidden costs). Of course, such a move wouldn't have the "ed-reform to the rescue" appeal of some other initiatives, and it would require what is common sense in business but striking absent in education these days - trusting and empowering your skilled employees to use their skills with minimal interference.
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