Much More Than a Meeting: Why Parents Should Care about Teacher Collaboration Time

shutterstock_141106999Catherine Awsumb Nelson is Director of Evaluation and Learning for the National Center for Literacy Education.

Sherri Wilson is Senior Manager of Family and Community Engagement for National PTA.

Catherine: I must have been wearing my mom hat that morning. Or maybe I just hadn’t had enough coffee. But when my sons told me it was another “minimum day” and that they would need to be picked up early, my gut reaction was to roll my eyes and question whether more time for “teacher meetings” was really necessary.

It didn’t take me long to don my professional hat and recognize the irony. After all, I’ve been researching the impact of teacher professional development on student learning for more than 20 years. I’ve seen particularly strong evidence for the power of inquiry-based collaborative professional work to change classroom practice. I had spent the last three months working on the new NCLE report Remodeling Literacy Learning Together: Paths to Standards Implementation, immersed in data on the role of teacher collaboration in the transition to the new Common Core literacy standards. Our findings make a strong case that teachers who have the opportunity to engage in systematic collaboration are making a quicker and more successful transition to the new standards.

I also know from the data that this kind of work is inherently time-intensive, that the kind of deep reflection that leads to real change in practice cannot be crammed into a 45-minute planning period. Yet here I was, annoyed that my family schedule was disrupted so that my children’s teachers could do precisely this kind of work. It made me wonder how other parents —  parents who may not know much about teacher collaboration and how it benefits student learning —  react to changes in the school schedule designed to create time for teachers to work together.

Back in February when I was in Washington, DC, for the release of the report, I met Sherri Wilson, who is the Senior Manager of Family Engagement at the National PTA. I told her about my “mom moment” and my wondering about how we can make the case to all parents that time for teacher collaboration is something we should not only accept but advocate for. Reflecting back on that conversation, I posed  some questions to Sherri:

Catherine: What do most parents think of when they hear “teacher collaboration”?

Sherri: I think most parents really care deeply about their children’s education and the quality of instruction, but don’t often make the connection that high quality teaching requires structured time for professional development.

Also, they don’t often realize the importance of ongoing professional development. Education is changing and teachers can’t walk out of college and expect that they’ll know it all and it will never change. That never happens!

Catherine: What is the National PTA’s position on teacher professional development and how it impacts school schedules?

Sherri: The National PTA recognizes that educational opportunities for students in the public schools of this nation are dependent on the quality of instructional programs and personnel —  and also that  teacher preparation, staff development and renewal as critical investments in children. The National PTA places great importance on in-service/staff development, and on education as a means of career-long professional development and as an approach to helping teachers do a better job. Plans for in-service education should be collaboratively developed among educators, appropriate institutions, and the community, and should be closely related to curriculum and to the classroom, as well as to student and parent interests and needs.

Catherine: What would it take for parents to understand that time together outside of the classroom makes teachers more effective when they are in the classroom?

Sherri: I believe that the best way to help parents to understand the importance of professional development is to allow them to participate in professional development as well! There are often opportunities for schools to build the capacity of parents to be more engaged by allowing them to join in on professional development, which also helps families and teachers to build trusting, respectful relationships, a key ingredient in family engagement.

Catherine: Once parents understand how valuable teacher collaboration is, what can they do to make sure the teachers at their children’s schools are reaping its benefits?

Sherri: I believe that parents can be incredibly powerful allies in advocating for high quality professional development for teachers. The National PTA suggests the following criteria for both pre-service and in-service/staff development programs:

  • Recognition of the comprehensive needs of the students of the school system;
  • Opportunity for teachers to develop skills in effective parent and community involvement;
  • Opportunity for teachers to identify their own strengths and needs as a base for professional education plan; and
  • Opportunity for teachers to learn curriculum planning jointly with other teachers; opportunity for continuing education in the teacher’s subject area.

Ultimately, when parents and teachers work together, everybody wins!

Catherine: Thanks, Sherri. All of this seems especially crucial right now, with schools undergoing so many changes as they put new standards in place. With my research hat on, I’d say the NCLE study made it clear how important it is that teachers have time to work through these changes together. With my parent hat on, I’m thinking about how important it is for other parents to know what “teacher collaboration” really looks like, and how it makes a difference for students.

I love your idea of parents actually being involved in some of the professional development. Not only would that eliminate some of the mystery surrounding Common Core, but it would also let parents see for themselves that effective teacher collaboration is much more than a meeting.

I think I’ll go talk to my sons’ principal. . . . as soon as I decide  which hat  to wear!