By Teresa Littrell McDaniel, Assistant Principal, J.O. Johnson High School, Huntsville, AL

I have jokingly recalled my first teaching assignment orientation speech as, “Here’s your roll book, here’s your roster, here’s your classroom. Let me know if you need anything.” My next teaching assignment added a layer of collaboration with, “The English department chair is down the hall if you need her.” Two decades ago administrators fostered teacher autonomy—the ability to function independently in your classroom—by celebrating autonomous teachers and sometimes labeling teachers who needed help as needy and burdensome. I recall writing a paper in one of my education courses, titled “Teacher Autonomy in the Classroom,” that included research explaining the necessity for teacher autonomy. However, the accountability trend, which exposed underperforming schools while drawing attention to high-achieving schools, has perpetuated a shift from teacher autonomy to a culture of collaboration as a factor in student success.

Our school has embraced the culture of collaboration out of necessity. For several reasons, our school has not been the first choice of places to teach for most veteran teachers, so we hired some teachers with very little, if any, experience. Our teachers began collaborating with each other as a skill for survival by texting and e-mailing each other, sharing lessons and strategies, and using social media outlets to build relationships. Last year, we formalized what our teachers were already doing informally. We carved out some time in our school day once a week for collaboration for our core teachers. During this time, our noncore teachers facilitate literacy/character-building activities for the student body. We divided our students by Lexile ranges and selected appropriate literacy activities. While our students and noncore teachers meet in literacy collaboration groups, our core accountability teachers met for content collaboration. During this time, teachers use data to discuss intervention for at-risk students, common assessments for end-of-course classes, and shared lesson plans. In our last meeting, two of our English I teachers analyzed their common assessment and learned that the “standard” English I class outperformed the “honors” English I class, which prompted a wonderful session of sharing strategies between the two teachers. 

In addition to collaboration time during the school day for accountability core teachers, we met at least one Saturday per month for professional development (PD) collaboration as well. We used grant funds to pay teachers to attend the Saturday sessions, which focused on implementing our schoolwide literacy initiative. Sometimes, teachers collaboratively designed activities, and then presented the activities to the group. We also used these Saturday PD sessions to discuss our faculty book studies and collaboratively applied the principles of the book to instruction. For example, using The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, we identified student habits that we wanted to change throughout the school and in our individual classrooms. Teachers were asked to work in collaborative groups to follow Duhigg’s habit model to identify a student habit they wanted to change and create an action plan for changing the habit using the prescribed necessary components for habit change.