Finding Time for Collaboration and Using it Well

Asian teachers in classroom

The frustration regarding limited time for collaborative teaching partners to meet and plan instruction are high on most lists of co-teachers. Within the past five years, there have been many articles written about the necessity of quality planning time. As a result, many principals have made certain to build into their master schedules a planning opportunity for grade level teams or department/subject area teams. They also recognize that two individuals who share the responsibility for teaching the lesson must have some planning time to prepare their lessons, determine what materials are needed, and to decide on the roles each will play throughout the lesson.   

We will address the two questions related to the topic of planning: 

  • How do we find the time to meet for planning our lessons and  instructional delivery?   
  • How can we use the planning time we do have to our best advantage? 

To answer the first question, let us begin with a basic understanding about the complexity of the issue of finding quality time for joint planning. This is one decision that: „  

  • Rests with the principal or his or her administrative designee; „ 
  • Involves the master schedule that must accommodate a mind-boggling amount of detail and often very inflexible conditions. 
  • For example, master schedules often will be dictated by the limited availability of a specialized science lab or an elective course that is taught by an itinerant teacher who shares his time across two or more schools.  And finally, „ 
  • May require our own flexibility and ingenuity to find planning time that meets our needs as collaborative teachers. 

As challenging as the need for quality planning time is, however, there are some very creative options for you to consider and if appropriate, to share with your principal or assistant principal. In other words, you can influence the decision regarding planning time and we will provide the information you will need to do so.  For those of you who are fortunate to have your planning needs met at this time, celebrate! If you are in need of additional planning time, continue on this path with us. 

Okay. You are in the group that doesn’t presently have sufficient quality planning time with your partner in order to regularly meet to discuss upcoming lessons and the roles each of you will play in the process.   

If you are a special education teacher who is coming into the general education classrooto co-teach a lesson this lack of planning time may mean that you find yourself unprepared when you enter the classroom.  You must look to your general education teaching partner for directions, often in the middle of instruction.  As a result, many co-teachers find that their roles are generally those of the type paraeducators might be assigned, such as individual or small group student support with inequitable sharing  of responsibilities.

If you are a general education teacher, you may feel as though the partnership without prior planning results in unclear roles, inequitably shared instruction, and even perhaps, lost instructional time in the classroom.  No wonder this concern is so frequently the first one mentioned when co-teaching teams discuss the effectiveness of their partnerships. 

Let’s look at two important terms so we can begin discussing options for shared planning time. They are common planning time and protected planning time.

Common Planning Time

Common planning time is the time that is scheduled for the same time every day or every week.  Common planning time is reflected in the master schedule for the school and you and your partner will have the advantage of meeting together at the same time on the same days and in the same location week after week.   

For example, Sue co-teaches a 7th grade math class with Mary for three periods each day. Their principal wisely scheduled Sue, a special education teacher, with the 7th grade mathteam for their common planning period each day.  One every day but Friday, they plan their weekly instructional lessons with the team but on Friday, they meet apart from the group to assign specific instructional roles for each of the planned lessons and to review the progress of their partnership and any problems or opportunities that have emerged during the previous week. 

Depending on the size of your school and the staff, you will want to: 

  1. Encourage your principal to assign special education teachers as  members of either grade level or subject area team rather than to a ‘special education’ team. This opens up great possibilities to schedule each special education teacher with the grade or subject area team they work with for most of the instructional week.   
  2. When this is not possible, ask the principal to consider creating a common planning time for the special education teacher with one team every other week and with a second team on alternate weeks.  This reduces the total amount of common planning time for the special education teacher with the same teacher or teachers but does provide a predictable planning time with those teachers whom she or he works with in providing in-class support through co-teaching.
  3. If you use the second option, it is important that each team recognizes that one or more designated days of the week must be extremely focused on planning the collaborative teaching lessons and roles as your time together is more limited.  

If you are lucky and your stars are aligned, this will be the solution to your need for collaborative planning time.  For many teaching teams, however, this doesn’t completely solve the problem.  In this case, they must turn to options for Protected Planning Time.    

Protected Planning Time

Protected planning time is time derived from one or more creative options for locating a reasonable block of time that may or may not be on a regular basis but can provide time that is set aside for you and your partner to plan together. Both partners must be creative and flexible and committed to using the time you do have in the best way possible. 

For example, Jim is a special education teacher in a small school and provides co-teaching services across three different teachers in three different subject areas. It simply is not possible to attach to a single grade level or subject area team for a common planning period.  Unless he and his three partners can think of something creative and are willing to be somewhat flexible, time for planning may be restricted to accidental meetings in the hallway. Not – of course, in keeping with standards for quality teaching partnerships. 

Here are some creative options for Protected Planning Time.

Use Substitute Teacher planning time.  Most schools use the services of a substitute teacher fairly often and yet they may not require the planning period that is assigned to the teacher they are ‘subbing’ for that day.  The office secretary should maintain a sign-up sheet for the occasions when a substitute teacher will be working in the school.

Now when a substitute is scheduled and the teacher who will be absent has a planning during 2nd period, the school office will notify both Sue and Mary and they can either: 

  • Accept the planning time and send the substitute to Mary’s class so she can join Sue during her planning period or, „  
  • Decline because it is simply not a convenient day due to the complexity of lesson Mary is teaching that day or any other reason that would preclude leaving the class with a substitute for that period. 

Think about the fact that many schools have teacher absences that require a substitute for as many as 50-150 days each year. This option does not offer predictability but is often used by teaching partners for some protected time to plan and work together. 

Regularly schedule a substitute teacher to relieve the special education teacher to provide protected planning time. This option is predictable and is one that principals may rely on if there is simply no way for the master schedule to accommodate a common planning period for every co-teaching team. In this case, the substitute is contracted for each week or every other week to provide the opportunity for co-teachers to plan together. The same substitute may also provide the same opportunity for other teaching pairs in the school who have a similar need. 

Utilize the same planning period each week if the students served by the special education teacher do not require daily in-class support. For example, if the four students receiving assistance from the special education teacher during the same period do not need her services every day, the teacher would be free to meet with another co-teaching partner during his or her planning period once each week. If the classroom teacher provides instruction in the school library every Wednesday and has the assistance of the librarian and his or her library clerks, the special education teacher would be able to schedule a regular planning time with a different co-teaching partner.  

Discuss the possibility of an assistant principal, department chair, curriculum coach, or other certified educator taking over the special education teacher’s duties for a specified time each week. In this way, the special education teacher and his or her co-teaching partner could schedule their joint planning session during this class period on the same day each week. 

These are just a few of the creative, and out of the box, options for finding protected planning time for co-teaching partners who are unable to have a common planning period assigned each day with one or more of their teaching partners.   

Now, it’s time for you to think out of the box. Think about your school and one option that may exist for creating protected planning time for two teaching partners. If one of the options above will work, think about how you envision it would be applied in your school.   

Using Planning Time Well

The second of the two challenges we will address in this article is: When we do find time to plan, we often do not use the time effectively. By the time we have identified the topics we need to discuss – the bell rings! How can we use the planning time we do have to our best advantage? 

While it is really challenging to find ways to increase the amount and quality of time for planning, the other equally challenging task is to use found time well.  We can find multiple ways to increase planning time and if we do not protect this time and use it effectively and efficiently, we still will not have meaningful collaboration in our schools and for our co-teaching partners.  

So, how can we use our planning time more effectively?  Here are several suggestions that are from the fields of business as well as education. 

Identify prime meeting time for partners and groups. In other words, don’t schedule planning time at the end of the school day if possible.  Your ability to focus and be creative as often significantly reduced when you are tired.  

Time should be a sustained interval. Don’t look for small increments of time for planning.  Ten or 15 minutes of planning time is typically a waste of energy.  You should find a minimum of 25 minutes of uninterrupted planning time or more if possible.  This means that you and your partner should quickly go to your planning location and begin to work.    

Provide training and models for collaboration. Seldom do teachers have any formal training in how to facilitate or participate in effective meetings.  This could be a very valuable professional development topic.  Suggest this to your principal or take advantage of several quick and inexpensive resources for effective meetings.  Here are several links for using planning time well.  

Establish and periodically review group norms. This is really important. We have found that this small step can transform ineffective planning sessions to highly effective planning opportunities.  Here is a good way to set planning norms for you and your teaching partner or a planning team. Ask the question: How can we use our planning or meeting time more effectively?  Together let’s list the behaviors we think would significantly improve the value of our planning sessions and our own satisfaction with the results. (Use either a flip chart or a plain paper that you can laminate for use every time you meet.) 

Here is a short list one group we recently worked with prepared:

  1. Be on time 
  2. Bring the materials needed with you. 
  3. Use an agenda and stick to it! 
  4. No side conversations. 
  5. Be fully present in the meeting. 
  6. Cell phones off. 
  7. Make a list of assignments if we have agreed to accomplish some work on our own prior to the next meeting. 
  8. End every meeting with 5-10 minutes remaining for personal breaks or rest.

It is a good idea to post your meeting norms where you typically meet.  At the end of each planning session, check to see if you or your partner violated any of the norms.  Discuss how you will return to them for your next meeting.  Hold each other accountable.   

Protect the time you have created! So often, teachers will feel pressure to spend their protected planning time on other tasks, such as completing a faculty survey, writing a note to a parent, etc. If you allow this to happen you will soon notice that you are experiencing the same problems associated with insufficient planning time and the cycle will start all over again. Protect your planning time! 

One strategy that helps collaborative teaching partners make the most of their planning time is to have a set agenda for each meeting.  One teaching team told us they address only three questions when they meet to plan. They are: 

  1. What are we teaching next week? 
  2. Who will do what?  (E.g. what roles will we assign ourselves?) 
  3. Do we have a student or students that are struggling in class and what will we do about it? 

Each time they planned together, this list of questions kept them on target, used their planning time to best advantage, and after a few months, they found that they were really skilled in instructional planning and more satisfied with the impact they had in the classroom.  Perhaps every teaching team would do well to identify the three or four questions each planning session should address.  This is an automatic agenda and prevents the meeting from drifting along as partners look for a starting point.   

“The quality of a collaborative teaching partnership is in direct relationship to the quality of the collaborative planning that preceded it.”  

–Stetson & Associates, Inc.

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