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“The traditional school often functions as a collection of independent contractors united by a common parking lot.” —Eaker as cited in Schmoker (2006, p. 23)
So this has to start with a mildly embarrassing revelation that occurred late November in my Masters class on School Improvement while we were listening to a series of group presentations. Each group of our Lethbridge classmates had chosen to present on a theme related to Alberta’s Inspiring Education. The 2nd group made several references to literature by Schmoker, partly it seemed, because the name was fun to say. I took some notes, but mostly connected to the fun they were having every time they pronounced the name. But then another of the Lethbridge groups referenced Schmoker and this time I caught a great quote from page 23: “The traditional school often functions as a collection of independent contractors united by a common PARKING LOT.” I was a little confuddled that I had not heard of this educator and author who had made such an impact on so many of my classmates. As it turns out, I purchased his textbook (Results Now) in September and have been hauling it around every weekend; as you may have guessed, I hadn’t cracked the spine. Because I was intrigued by the parking lot quote, I did crack the book open and have been reading it even though no chapters have been assigned. (This is only problematic because I should be working on my final projects instead of reading.)
As it turns out, I can’t put the (text)book down because it feeds into the heart of my capstone research on teacher collaboration in schools, and perhaps more importantly, it directly addresses work our school has been trying to accomplish on reducing isolation and increasing collaboration through collegial classroom visits. Case in point: the ‘parking lot’ chapter is entitled “Isolation: The Enemy of Improvement.” This chapter discusses how teachers have come to appreciate and expect a buffer described as an “unexamined addiction to privacy and isolation.”
Schmoker quotes Arthur Wise on the topic of how other professionals work in teams: “In medical, legal, and architectural settings, services are provided by experienced and novice professionals working together to accomplish the goal—to heal the patient, win the lawsuit, plan the building. The team delivers the services… the novices learn by doing, with feedback and correction” (2004, p.43). This is far from the norm in education however—think independent contractors united by the common parking lot! Schmoker’s 2005 research confirms that “teachers do not work in teams. They do not prepare lessons and assessments together, and they do not test and refine their lessons regularly on the basis of assessment results.”
Over the past year or two at our high school, we have come to this same realization about the power of working together. We have been taking small steps toward creating an environment where working collaboratively, where learning from each other, where visiting colleague’s classrooms is a norm instead of an exception. Unfortunately, there is an underlying fear of stepping on toes along the way, so the steps are always small ones. Schmoker’s book serves as a confirmation of the direction that our school is heading, but also as an admonition to take that direction more seriously. Last year, as a group of teachers and administrators planned a collegial classroom visit strategy, we decided that the best option was to make the visits ‘encouraged but not enforced’. It shouldn’t be a surprise that in the first three months of the year, less than half of our staff have done even a 10 minute visit to another’s classroom. We need to create an environment where observing and learning from our colleagues is the norm, not the exception—an environment where popping in to a different classroom to watch and learn from an interesting lesson is commonplace. Ironically, at a recent staff meeting, one of the teachers who our planning committee assumed would be resistant to classroom visits confirmed their importance: “It would probably be a really good idea, but no one is going to take the time to just do it. You need to tell me I have to go visit someone else’s class, then I’ll go and probably even see something new.” While we can’t force teachers to be learners, we can make learning from each other and experimenting a comfortable norm.
Later in Schmoker’s book, (I skipped ahead while I was reading), he tells the anecdote of a group of teachers who were traveling home together in a van after a time-wasting professional development session. With that time together in the confines of the van, without other distractions, they drafted a school-wide reading program that resulted in significant gains in reading by the end of the school year. I can concur that many times when I’ve traveled to professional development sessions, the best learning and planning comes from the discussion in the vehicle with my colleagues. This confirms the power that can be unleashed when teachers have time/ take time/ make time to work together.
Perhaps on our next School Improvement day, the plan should be to put groups of teachers—those independent contractors– together in cars and have them spend the day doing laps around the parking lot! Think of the learning and planning that could be accomplished!
P.S. Mr. Smeaton, if you teach EDLA 548 again, you should devise a plan to have students crack the text book….. it’s pretty good.