In most Chicago schools, teachers are lucky to get 30 minutes each week to work with colleagues at the same grade level. At Laura Ward Elementary in Humboldt Park, they get almost a full day, and they’ve learned to love it.
Ward is one of several Chicago schools Catalyst identified as having innovative solutions to handle the barriers to effective professional development. Chief among those barriers is a lack of time.
Elementary school teachers in Chicago typically get three 40-minute prep periods scattered through the school week. But much of that time gets eaten up dropping kids off and picking them up from art or library or gym, notes Ward Principal Addie Belin-Williamson. By the mid-90s, she was searching for a solution. “I thought, there’s got to be a way to get all these little clumps of minutes together so people could talk to each other,” she recalls.
Using nearby Hefferan Elementary as a model, she figured out a way to pull the three 40-minute periods into one day. She tacked on a fourth prep period by using school desegregation money to hire a computer teacher who would serve the dual purpose of freeing up regular classroom teachers. Grade-level teams would meet on different days.
Belin-Williamson launched the plan in October 1994 and immediately had to dodge figurative tomatoes, she now jokes. The teachers “beat me up terrible,” she says with a laugh.
“You get in a certain comfort zone, and this was different,” recalls Regina Moore, a 2nd-grade teacher. Like many at Ward, she had never collaborated extensively with colleagues and didn’t see the point, she says.
“We were of the old school: I don’t have time to talk to someone; I’ve got to get my papers done,” agrees Adele Striupaitis, a school facilitator who taught reading at the time.
By the middle of the school year, however, teachers were begging for more common planning time.
That extra time together appears to be paying off. Between 1994 and 2001, the percentage of Laura Ward students scoring at or above national norms on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills rose from 9 to 38 in reading and from 15 to 48 in math.
Belin-Williamson, principal since 1988, overcame resistance with cajoling—”Just humor me”—and carrots. Teachers who agreed to grade-level meetings got trips to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Science and Industry to learn how to use the exhibits to get kids interested in academics.
Teachers who weren’t participating started to complain. “I said, ‘I know, but you said you didn’t want to participate.’ And they said, ‘Oh, I want to go,'” Belin-Williamson recalls.
Most importantly, teachers say, the principal set concrete goals for their block planning time. For instance, they were asked to come up with 10-week plans for teaching math and reading skills. Until then, teachers taught straight from the textbook at their own pace without much regard for state goals and standards.
The meetings were awkward at first. “We all kind of sat and tried to be polite, and nobody really talked,” says Nijole Konczal, a 3rd-grade teacher. But having a common project helped to break the ice, she says. “We had a job to do … and so we started talking. We started getting to know each other.”
One primary teacher says that initially she shut her door on prep days. When she finally ventured into the group, she discovered she enjoyed bouncing ideas off colleagues. “For me, it was a realization,” she says.
Regina Moore found that her team worked so efficiently that she got more work done, not less. Adele Striupaitis added new teaching strategies to her repertoire.
While teachers used to hoard materials, adds Konczal, they began to share freely as they redefined themselves as a team. “Now, it’s no longer ‘my class;’ it’s ‘our school,'” she explains.
To expand the prep time to five hours, Belin-Williamson used discretionary money for a hands-on science teacher and an art teacher. A teacher aide would supervise students during independent reading time.
To ensure that the time is well spent, each grade-level team has a leader who, with input from teachers and the principal, organizes the day. Those leaders are the school’s two assistant principals, its counselor, a case manager and a school-wide facilitator.
While the teams meet, teacher aides lead students from one “specials” class—art, music, P.E.—to the next.
The only downside to the schedule, teachers say, is surviving the rest of the week with only a 20-minute lunch. But it’s a small price to pay, they agree.