This morning I read a blog in Edutopia (I highly recommend a twitter follow for Edutopia if you don’t already do so). The piece was on teacher isolation and was written by Sean Glaze, a team building facilitator and leadership speaker. In the piece, he talks about two types of teacher isolation, egg crate isolation and avalanche isolation. Egg crate isolation is what we typically think of when we think about isolation. For those of you who, like me, are too young to remember taking eggs to town, an egg crate is a wooden cube in which each egg is placed in its own cell, preventing it from touching any other egg in the crate either horizontally or vertically. In a way it is like a school building for eggs. Each egg has its own space on it’s own level. (I actually have an egg crate, but no chickens thank goodness so mine functions as a geranium stand this time of year). I believe that instructional leaders in Iowa have done a very nice job of addressing egg crate isolation. Buildings and systems are increasingly breaking down horizontal and vertical barriers through the use of things like PLC’s, instructional rounds, and mentoring and induction. I know of very few school buildings where teachers are still operating in total isolation behind closed doors. That is a fairly recent development in public schools and one I think we need to celebrate, because it has greatly elevated the teaching profession.
The other type of isolation referred to in Glaze’s piece is avalanche isolation and, frankly, it is a type of isolation that I had never really considered, even though it’s pervasive in many schools today. Avalanche isolation takes place when teachers become inundated with individual responsibilities to such a significant extent that they cannot make or find the time to fully engage in meaningful collaboration. Such responsibilities include assessing student work, contacting parents, learning new instructional strategies, and working on various committees just to name a few. These are all core teaching responsibilities, but we often hear that they are reasons why teachers cannot fully engage in collaboration time. So, how do we set up a system where teachers can fulfill these responsibilities and still not feel isolated? I think the answer to that question lies in Iowa’s implementation of its Teacher Leadership program.
As educational leaders begin constructing and implementing teacher leadership systems, they will need to set aside time for the expressed purpose of teacher collaboration. When the allocation of that time is formalized and teachers are given the tools and protocols with which to truly engage in collective inquiry, the sense of isolation that many teachers feel will be replaced with a culture more typified by support and efficacy. We already have vehicles with which to do this work. PLC’s, data teams, mentoring and induction programs, and instructional coaching protocols all are effective means to building collaborative cultures in schools. These programs are all either already being supported by AEA’s and professional organizations in Iowa or will soon be offered. School Administrators of Iowa and the Iowa State Education Association have a collaborative culture strand planned for their June 12 TLC Workshop. AEA’s will continue to offer PLC and data team training, as well as instructional coaching opportunities. The Iowa Department of Education continues to add content to its TLC page on its website almost daily. New regional trainings and online learning opportunities in the area of teacher collaboration are being developed as we speak. In fact, never have I seen our state so energetically mobilizing around the right work as we are now doing in response to TLC.
Here is the caveat. While all of these programs and initiatives have a strong research base, they will not drive the continuous improvement we seek if they are placed into a system that does not formally set time aside for this work. PLC or data team time can’t be something we squeeze in around our other responsibilities. It isn’t something that can be done only after school or by combining prep periods within a school day. I realize that many communities have a resistance to teacher release time and that creating the types of calendars or schedules that facilitate ongoing, sustained collaboration time is often an uphill political struggle in those communities. Even so, how we use our time communicates our priorities and if we want teacher growth to be a priority, there needs to be time set aside for that work. I would argue that setting time aside for PLC or data team work is every bit as important as setting aside time for the learning of new strategies. Implementing new things in the absence of a collaborative school culture just adds to avalanche isolation for teachers and can even give them an excuse to not fully engage in the work.
Have a Great Summer!