By CO Educator Voice Fellow Suzanne McClung

How do you become an award-winning teacher? You do it by working with passionate, dedicated educators who value collaboration and share their expertise. In 2014, I had the enormous privilege of winning the Amgen Award for Science Teaching Excellence. I was one of nine teachers in North America to receive the $10,000 award that year. I would never have won this award without all the teachers and administrators that I have had the good fortune to learn from and with.  

When I began teaching over twenty years ago, I relied heavily on experienced teachers to guide me in developing my craft. Now, I greatly value the collaborative time I have with my colleagues to develop lessons, discuss student progress or to ask for advice about that one struggling student that I still can’t quite reach. I get ideas and energy from all the people I work with, whether they’ve been teaching for one year or thirty!

Premier educational researcher John Hattie recently wrote that “the greatest influence on student progression in learning is having highly expert, inspired and passionate teachers and school leaders working together to maximize the effect of their teaching on all students in their care.”  In his decades of research, Hattie has repeatedly shown the significant impact that collaboration can have on student achievement. In fact, a myriad of well-respected researchers and professional development gurus including Richard DuFour, Robert Marzano, Thomas Many and Mike Mattos all point to the need for teacher collaboration in successful schools.

In my work as an Instructional Leader, I am involved in a cohort with Thomas Many to help support the creation of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) in our school.  PLCs are intentional teams of teachers that meet regularly to discuss student learning, analyze assessments and share teaching strategies. Throughout the trainings that I have been a part of, I am constantly struck that this is some of the most important work we can be doing. When teachers are meeting to talk about student learning, students benefit.

Not only is collaboration essential to student learning, it is necessary to attract and retain excellent teachers. One of the top reasons given for leaving the teaching profession, according to a National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future report in 2003, was “lack of time for collaboration.”  Young teachers are faced with many challenges and if they feel isolated and unsupported, they are unlikely to be successful or to continue in the profession.

It is clear that the evidence for building collaborative cultures in schools is overwhelming. It has been identified as a critical need for many years, and yet American teachers spend 6-10 hours more per week teaching students than teachers in high-performing countries like Finland, leaving little time for collaboration and planning that is needed to provide excellent instruction.

We hear much in the media and from policymakers about the need to improve American schools. The TeachStrong campaign, for example, is dedicated to modernizing and elevating the teaching profession, and making more collaboration time for teachers a national priority. I believe that there is a great deal that is right in American schools. I have worked with many effective and passionate teachers who are deeply concerned about their students.  Since I began teaching in 1994, however, the expectations on teachers have only increased. It has become a more challenging job and one that fewer people are attracted to because of the challenges it presents. 

As the TeachStrong initiative emphasizes, attracting and retaining talented teachers must be a priority for education policymakers. One of the things that must be addressed in order to do this is the amount of time that teachers have available to plan and collaborate.  I have continued in the teaching profession for many reasons: the opportunity to be a part of adolescent development, the passion I have for scientific literacy, and the many colleagues who support and push me to constantly improve. Supporting a culture of collaboration in schools must be a focus for our policymakers.

Suzanne McClung is a Chemistry Teacher and Science Instructional Leader at Lakewood High School. She is a Colorado Educator Voice Fellow with America Achieves. 

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