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Educators: Meeting time is critical to classroom success

Building teacher collaboration into the schedule is not always easy. But many say it’s a valuable chance to help students.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A longer school day is most often justified as a way for students to spend more time with teachers, work on core subjects, or engage in extracurricular activities.

But another good reason for extra time is to give teachers more time to collaborate.

In fact, some educators argue that teacher meeting time is the glue that holds schools together.

Regular Wednesday afternoon meetings are “what allow us to take apart the school every week and put it back together,” said principal Chris Lehmann of Science Leadership Academy. “This is where we evaluate what we do, what we believe, and how we make these things work.”

Schools like SLA that have drawn attention for their innovative practices invariably build into their schedules regular sessions for teachers to meet. Teachers use this time to evaluate their practice, discuss the needs of and progress of individual students, go over data, and assess the school’s direction. Some schools also find it crucial for teachers to spend time in each other’s classrooms.

But finding time for teacher meetings and collaboration in Philadelphia is not easy. Neither the teachers’ contract nor the regular schedule recognizes joint meeting time for teachers as central to a school’s operation. At most, they allow for occasional faculty meetings.

“In a traditional school calendar, there is so much emphasis on the day-to-day, we get caught up in the weeds,” said Brad Latimer, the math department chair and head of the academic standards committee at SLA.

Historically the contract has looked at the workday as the time that teachers are required to spend in the classroom, and negotiations have revolved around when teachers must arrive and when they may leave. Daily preparation times are mandated, but not always treated as work; in the past, teachers in middle schools, which ended later than high schools, were compensated by being given extra prep periods.

Requiring teachers to meet jointly during any contractually mandated preparation periods takes a special faculty vote. Schools that want to regularly build common time into the day have to “buy” additional preps, usually by hiring additional teachers to free up those in the same grades or subjects at the same time.

To assure regular teacher collaboration time, “we have to manipulate things,” said one longtime principal who now heads a K-6 elementary school and preferred not to be named. While he considers regular teacher meeting time “paramount” to keep up with changing standards and teaching strategies, “it’s not an easy thing.”

Roxborough High School principal Dana Jenkins agreed. “The system does not facilitate it,” she said.

Roxborough has received extra support to split the school into four separate “academies” and run a block schedule that allows for more teacher meeting time. This schedule is expensive – it requires more teachers in the building – but with the block schedule, there are four 90-minute periods in the day instead of eight that last 45 minutes.

Students take four courses each semester instead of the traditional seven yearlong courses. Teachers are in class for three double-periods a day instead of teaching seven shorter classes.

With 90 minutes open each day, teachers spend half that time on their individual preparation and half meeting jointly. On alternating days, teachers either meet with others who teach the same subject or across disciplines with those in their academy.

In both settings, they often discuss students. “Particularly in the academy meetings, we deal with interventions for individual students,” said Jenkins. “We are all teaching the same children, and we are all able to contribute to what it takes to make that child successful.”

Occasionally, they will call a student in.

“At first the students panicked,” said science teacher and coach Erika McFadden. But ultimately, they are grateful.

“I think it benefits the students knowing that instead of one teacher who really cares, they have a whole team working to help them.”

The teachers also discuss lesson plans and teaching strategies, and, in the academy meetings, how teachers of different subjects can reinforce each other.

“I previously thought teaching was such an isolated profession,” said Drexel student teacher Kristen Mintzer, who is placed this semester at Roxborough. “I was surprised at how much time teachers actually spent working together. It’s really helpful for me.”

SLA has also rebuilt its schedule. Not every day is 7 hours and 4 minutes (see p. 16). On Wednesdays, classes are held from 8:15 to 12:45; students go to internships while teachers meet for two hours.

Collaboration, said Lehmann, is a “core value” of the school – collaboration among students, between students and teachers, and among teachers. “Having those two hours a week to work together has been an important ingredient in our success,” he said.

Latimer, the SLA math department chair, said he has taught at and heard about schools – including private and charter – that follow the common model of monthly faculty meetings in which many teachers are grading papers or otherwise checking out. The same thing often happens during required professional development, which frequently involves listening to a presentation rather than observing peers or deep discussion of practice.

SLA principal Chris Lehmann speaks to the importance of the school’s Wednesday meetings: "This is where we evaluate what we do, what we believe, and how we make these things work." (Photo: Harvey Finkle)

Valuing regular collaboration, especially across academic disciplines, grows out of defining education as being holistic and integrated, he said, and “moving away from the idea that school is made up of people all in their separate wheelhouses.”

Educators who are designing two new non-selective neighborhood high schools (see p. 7) also regard the need for regular meetings as crucial. These schools are trying to completely reframe the student experience, incorporating internships and community-based projects to extend their education beyond the classroom walls.

“Teacher collaboration is a foundational building block to any successful school,” said Neil Geyette, a former teacher at West Philadelphia High and Franklin Learning Center who is designing the new U School.

Saliyah Cruz, a former West principal who is designing the LINC School, agreed. “Teachers need time to work together,” she said. “The nature of our [new] schools is to have a curriculum that’s integrated and allows kids to see the relationship of what they’re learning to the real world.”

Making that happen is impossible unless staff are constantly reevaluating what they are doing and how things are working, she said.

Some charter schools also build in teacher meeting time. Like SLA, KIPP’s high school in the city dismisses students early on Wednesday and sets aside the time for teacher meetings.

But Marc Mannella, head of KIPP Philadelphia, warns that although meeting time is critical, it is also necessary to create a schedule that is sustainable for teachers. The national KIPP network, which started as exclusively middle schools, became known for overworking teachers and high turnover. This became a critique of the entire charter enterprise in low-income areas, built on the idea that poverty is not an “excuse” for low student achievement. Mannella said that his schools in Philadelphia have worked to counteract this, adjusting schedules over the years.

KIPP used to keep students until 5 and “then we’d meet until 6 or 6:30,” he said. Teachers felt fried. “We don’t do that anymore,” he said.

Instead, “we focus on trying to make sure that teachers don’t feel like they have to be in the buildings” after a certain hour.

The schedule has been altered so that some teachers can arrive later, around 9:30, on selected days. In addition, once a month on the short Wednesdays, a major subject – English, science, social studies or math – is pulled out of the schedule entirely. On those days, teachers in the designated discipline can observe a master teacher in another school, analyze student data, or otherwise catch up.

Most of the educators interviewed agreed that more time by itself isn’t the answer unless it is well used, whether for instruction or for collaboration – and deciding how to use time requires continual discussion. The focus, they said, should not be tinkering with schedules and counting minutes, but figuring out what the school should be.

“We need to take a look at the way we teach and learn,” said SLA’s Lehmann. “All across the country and in this city are good people of honest intent trying to make schools powerful places, but structurally the way we set up school now is making them less than the sum of their parts.”

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