Moving From Isolation to Collaboration in the Classroom

“No man is an island,” wrote English poet John Donne in 1624. Since then, Donne’s metaphor has been used to rationalize that human beings thrive when they’re part of a community but do poorly in isolation. Despite Donne’s 17th-century observation, American teachers still find themselves separated and isolated in 21st-century education.

Teachers are separated in myriad ways—by certifications, grade levels, core or elective classes, content, even by building. We further separate or tier our students in much the same manner—AP, honors, career prep, academic performance. We have hundreds of buzzwords for grouping students and naming classes, and we ourselves are separated not only by what, but whom we teach. These categorizations often put teachers “on an island,” self-contained in the microcosm of their own classroom with their content area and students. If no man is an island, then teachers should experiment with changing that cultural standard and move away from educating students in isolation.

At Kiski Area High School in Vandergrift, PA, administrators and teachers changed the traditional culture by investigating and implementing Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) to remove isolative teaching practices in favor of more collaborative environments.

We grouped grade levels into teams and compelled teachers to work with grade-level peers they saw irregularly (instead of normal departmental teams). Implementing such a dramatic shift in teaching culture would not come from any one initiative or in-service; this work required a new level of collaboration between administrative teams and the teaching staff in order to implement such changes effectively.

Creating the Schedule

A transition from isolation to collaboration required a schedule that allowed grade-level teachers to meet at the same time. Changing the daily eight-period schedule was a priority.

Principals created a schedule permitting eight class periods over two days with periods one through four on Day A and periods five through eight on Day B. Every teacher taught three out of the four periods, and common planning time was established for the core content teachers of each grade level. Planning periods were staggered to allow principals the opportunity to meet with teachers of all grade levels on any given day. On a rotating schedule, teachers could meet and collaborate with their departments and grade-level colleagues in PLCs.

These changes transformed support systems; an intervention time was built into the daily schedule that allowed all staff access to all students. Midday, teachers could call students individually—by name and need—to their classroom outside of a student’s scheduled class. The innovative schedule freed up time for both groups, enabling staff to connect and provide extra educational support to all students.

As with any new initiative, the PLC structure was met with a healthy dose of skepticism. Initial meetings were filled with pointed questions and discussions on the part of both administration and teachers, and elements of the unknown created tension on both sides. However, administration communicated their expectations, and teachers collaborated to smooth the process of moving from isolated classrooms to fully collaborative environments.

Another change that dissolved isolative teaching was disbanding the tiered course structure in ninth and 10th grade; for instance, honors English and biology became the only course choices for these students. Restructuring this way was radical thinking; it enrolled all students in the same level course and had lessons differentiated by multiple teachers who fully co-taught. The three ninth-grade English teachers embraced this change, creating a structure they coined “tri-teaching” that exemplified the collaboration necessary to make the new system work. This strategy of teaching one level of all core courses with differentiated instruction gradually permeated through to each department. Although co-teaching experiences differed in each core area, the power of collaboration continued to improve across all teaching strat­egies and techniques.

Leaving Singular Curricula

Designing and implementing these collaborative models required teachers to leave their singular curricula and classrooms behind for a full co-teaching experience. Although good in theory, the idea of eliminating tiered courses for a 100-percent collaborative teaching model demanded deconstructing the cultural norms of teachers as “islands.” In order for co-teaching to be fully and effectively implemented (not just another passing initiative), teachers were given authority on how to build their systems—systems that would meet their content needs as well as student needs.

As with any drastic change, the growing pains were fierce. Secondary teachers are experts who adore and champion their content area; co-teaching required a revamping of curricula. Teachers had to adjust, troubleshoot, and ultimately accept the new model. Some teachers leaving the isolation of a solitary course—that they had taught and loved for years—felt grief. Agreement on essential skills in a newly leveled course often meant leaving behind beloved individual content and lessons from isolated classes. Co-teaching effectively with one course level of students afforded only so much time, especially since skills—not content—had to drive curriculum.

In the process, staple courses at Kiski Area High School were eliminated. Students could schedule only an honors course or AP course in the four core areas—math, science, English, and social studies. As teachers left isolation and joined collaborative efforts, students were directed onto similar paths. The mantra created by Kiski Area School District was that “learning had no boundaries” as students from all facets of the community were leveled into the same courses. All core courses now contained a heterogeneous mix of gifted students, career and technology students, and students with learning disabilities—all working toward the same set of essential standards with varying levels of differentiation in every lesson. This took a collaborative effort from staff to adjust to the growing diversity of each classroom. The loss of boundaries occurred for teachers and students alike; both experienced significant changes in the schedule, structure of the day, and the traditional routine.

Growing Pains for Principals

For administrators, growing pains during this transitional period took other forms. Principals faced the reality that no two teacher teams would be alike. Professionally melding different skills and personalities required support and a delicate touch, since each collaborative team functioned uniquely. A critical goal in the success or failure of isolation to collaboration was building a better product for students; so, a better professional collaboration between administration and staff was a priority. Administration learned to support teachers striving for higher student achievement and left traditional, full-staff meetings and professional development to focus specifically on PLCs.

Both administrators and teachers experienced profound professional growth during the isolation-to-​collaboration transition. A teacher moving out of isolation had to purge any territorial feelings about content, grieve the loss of certain aspects of their curriculum, and realize that skills—not content—would drive curriculum moving forward. Teachers passionately discussed the vital essential skills that would garner higher levels of student achievement. As staff learned to work in their content teams and function in their PLC, there was a marked period of adjustment. Though losing classroom autonomy was jarring, teachers who left isolation gained an entire grade level and departmental team of support, just like their students.

We believe that changing from an isolative classroom model to a collaborative co-teaching model raised rigor for all students. Our staff ultimately prepared our students for the highest-level AP classes. The AP program at Kiski Area High School flourished, with a 166 percent increase in enrollment of AP classes, and a 277 percent increase in qualifying scores on AP exams in just three years. Additionally, the school now has 359 students enrolled in various AP classes, including 23 career and technology students, who for the first time are able to schedule AP courses with the new schedule structure. More than 25 percent of 2018 graduates from Kiski Area High earned at least one qualifying score on an AP exam. This is up from 7 percent just three years ago.

We believe these increases are a direct result of the transformation of school culture. Through scheduling and structural changes, collaborative co-teaching replaced the traditional practice of teaching in isolation from core content areas. John Donne’s adage now holds true in Kiski Area High School—“no man is an island.” Students, teachers, and administrators are a collaborative force that ensures students achieve to their highest levels.


Jana R. Heasley, MEd, is a secondary English teacher, and Matthew M. Smith, MEd, is an assistant principal at Kiski Area High School in Vandergrift, PA.

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Sidebar: Making It Work

Three Keys to Collaboration

Effective implementation requires principals to creatively redesign traditional schedules to allow for teacher collaboration and dedicated time for intervention and remediation. Principals must begin with educating faculty and recognize that the teaching teams will develop their own personalities. We found three keys to successful implementation:

  1. Refine the school schedule for collaboration and support.
  2. Begin with adult learning.
  3. Allow teaching groups to develop and provide differentiated support to teams.