The excitement in the room is palpable. Teams of middle grades students are engaged in a fingerprinting lab to gather evidence for identifying the likely culprit in a forensics project, “Who Kidnapped Thunder?”, Georgia College’s mascot. “I got it!” one student exclaims, and the entire team races from the room to their suspect board in the hallway, huddling together and discussing excitedly the suspects and their newly gained evidence. Other teams react similarly as they analyze and process the fingerprints. This project is one of three weeklong explorations offered in a summer STEAM Ahead Camp facilitated by a collaboration of middle grades teachers, university faculty, and community partners. STEAM Ahead offers project-based experiences in STEM with the integration of art design, engineering, and technology. While students attend the camp in the morning, teachers and university educators remain in the afternoon for professional learning sessions focusing on inquiry, interdisciplinary project planning, lesson study, and real-world applications of the middle grades curriculum. This unique opportunity for forming a professional learning community will continue by developing STEAM projects in middle grade classrooms during the school year, supported by a grant from the Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.
University Teacher Educators: More than Supervisors
The STEAM Ahead grant is a collaboration of a newly formed professional development school (PDS) partnership between Georgia College and the local school district, Baldwin County Schools. Supporting teachers and local schools is not only my personal vision, but also a strategic goal of the university. In my partnerships in elementary, middle, and high schools and at district levels, I developed knowledge about the importance of collaboration and conditions that support partnerships among P-20 educators. In the following sections I elaborate on six instrumental conditions in forming and growing successful collaborations.
Be alert to open doors and invitations
“Can you find me a literacy person?” A faculty colleague related a request from a high school principal, which culminated in a five-year collaboration across literacy, STEM, and teacher leadership. I responded to the call for help and was asked to provide professional development for teachers in integrating effective literacy practices in high school content instruction. Rather than offering the “spray and pray” workshop approach to professional learning, I asked the principal to bring together a team of teachers from each of the academic content areas, as well as the vocational program and ROTC. Together, we worked as a literacy team to assess the current literacy practices teachers were using, their interests and questions, and resources they were using and they needed. As we designed professional learning, the teacher team became teacher leaders in presenting new ways of integrating literacy and technology into instruction across the curriculum. Being responsive to invitations and willing to reach out to serve in addressing complexities of schools opens doors for opportunities to collaborate. This opportunity to reach out to teachers and for teachers to reach out to university faculty truly opens doors for addressing teaching and learning in middle school classrooms.
It’s all about relationships
Building relationships takes time, effort, and a great deal of investment in conversation and patience. Developing relationships is often taken for granted, perhaps because of the time it takes and the crush to “get the job done.” Engaging in the work of the school presents many ways to build relationships with all members of the school community. Regular and consistent presence and willingness to be open to learning the school culture builds relationships of trust, respect, and shared knowledge.
Embrace OUR students
In my role in schools, I consider K-12 students and our teaching candidates as all of our students. Teachers who host our university interns are teacher educators in every sense of the role and responsibility, modeling and demonstrating the important practices, principles, and dispositions of exemplary teachers that provide an entry to the profession impossible to recreate in the university classroom. When tensions arise, it becomes important to focus on the shared commitment to our students and how we can best serve the interests of all students.
Honor teacher expertise and build leadership capacity
In authentic collaboration we value the expertise, perspectives, and assets of all members. An important principle in collaborating in schools is to value the expertise that teachers possess. My professional learning vision honors the expertise of teachers because teacher expertise is relevant and significant for addressing the complexities of such issues as student learning, school improvement, and community involvement.
Professional learning communities focus on developing and educating teachers through mutual, collaborative conversation and activity. Presenting my role as a collaborator and facilitator, rather than a trainer has a critical impact on honoring the expertise and developing leadership opportunities for new and veteran teachers. Together, we learn and tackle the new demands that face teachers with rising expectations and changing policies and requirements. Positioning myself as a facilitator opens spaces for teacher leaders to rise and take ownership of their professional development.
Listen closely; observe carefully
As a professor in residence, I observe throughout the school district and visit classrooms from kindergarten through high school. This range of opportunity allows me to meet many teachers, students, and administrators and have conversations about teaching and learning. Since I partner with a rural school district that has experienced economic decline in recent years, I am continually on the lookout for ways to bring the resources of the university or other agencies to support educational opportunities for students and instructional resources for teachers. For example, we leveraged the resources of the university to begin a professional learning community among middle grades science and math teachers in STEAM Ahead. After a pilot period of one year with a university-funded grant, I led a grant-writing team that applied for a state-sponsored grant to bring an interdisciplinary focus to our STEAM Ahead community. We were awarded a two-year grant that funds a summer camp and professional learning institute, professional learning throughout the year, additional resources for lessons, substitutes for teachers to visit each other’s classrooms, technology, and field trips, as well as stipends for teachers to attend conferences and workshops. After our first year of a successful summer STEAM Ahead Institute, the collaboration among our university faculty and middle grades teachers in this STEAM Ahead community has an exciting direction for the next academic year.
Be part of the solution
A high school principal, now retired, who I highly admire, routinely asked a question that evoked a growth mindset and personal responsibility with students (and teachers, other administrators, and parents, as well). “Do you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution?” My growth mindset, when collaborating in schools, helps navigate the many speedbumps along the way to building relationships that are productive and sustainable. In understanding that schools are complex contexts of change and political, social, and economic tensions, I view problems or conflict as inevitable – and windows of opportunity. Tensions offer insights leading to learning, transformation, and further relationship building.
Teaming between middle school and university educators has many exciting possibilities. There are opportunities to positively influence curriculum and instruction, better prepare new teachers, and engage in professional learning that bridges the boundaries of schools and universities. This important work requires educators to keep an open mind, build lasting relationships of trust and respect, and maintain a growth mindset, which views tensions and problems as opportunities for learning and transformation.