Teachers in a common planning meeting - newclassrooms.org

Going From Neighbors to Roomies: Establishing a Positive Culture in a Shared Space

When transitioning to personalized learning models such as Teach to One, one of the biggest shifts for teachers is going from being neighbors to roommates. In traditional classroom models, teachers typically teach their own students in their own classrooms. Now, we’re asking them to knock down their walls–literally and figuratively–and teach in collaboration with colleagues to a larger group of students in a large, common space.

What are the implications for this kind of sharing? At New Classrooms, I’m part of a team of instructional coaches who work with teachers as think partners to help them navigate the challenges and opportunities of collaborative teaching as they make the shift to our learning model.

Creating a positive adult culture is key to collaboration and critical to student learning. But it’s easier said than done. Whether it’s co-teaching, team-teaching, or working in a PLC (Professional Learning Community), there are common planning steps that any team should take to have a healthy and productive relationship.

What are our boundaries?

The first step is to identify group expectations for working together. We call this process “norming.”

7 Norms of Collaboration Poster
Teachers at a partner school publishes team norms on a poster.

To spark the conversation, I like to have everyone go around and share their meeting triggers. For example, my personal trigger–it often helps when I go first–is when something I’ve said in a meeting is met with silence. Even someone saying, “I heard you” or “Thanks” makes me feel more comfortable.

A common norm is punctuality–starting meetings on time! Side conversations, buzzing cell phones, and attentiveness are other oft-heard triggers. Once the teams have defined their boundaries, it’s important to transfer these triggers into positive expectations. So instead of “No Side Conversations”, teams should enshrine the norm in more positive terms, like “One Voice at a Time.”

Once the norms are established, there is one more step: Make the norms visible before, during, and after every meeting. I encourage teams to post norms on their agendas and have teachers spend a few minutes talking about which norms they’re focused on before the meeting starts. Having these visible also helps the group be more accountable to each other. If someone breaches a norm, it’s easy to refer back to the list.

What are our chores?  

Think about how angry roommates can get about dirty dishes or overflowing trash bins. There are similar concerns in a shared educational space.

As with apartment chores, there are small jobs that help keep shared spaces orderly and efficient. Tensions escalate if they don’t get done. Just like with norming, teams need intentional planning to build a positive culture around shared accountability.

To establish a clear division of labor, teams should first brainstorm the various chores for their shared space. Here are just a few examples:

  • Maintaining laptop and technology, including keeping track of sign-out sheets and which devices need to be upgraded or repaired.
  • Space organization, such as how teacher teams approach the overall cleanliness of shared spaces, in addition to keeping materials organized using the bookshelves that create smaller sections.
  • Managing the academic materials that accompany daily lessons, which include items like protractors, graph paper,  and base ten blocks, among others. Teach to One provides a list of recommended items ahead of time, but it is up to the teacher teams to keep them organized and accessible.

Next, it’s time to match team members to the different tasks. Who’s in charge of what? It works best to first ask for volunteers, but consider leveraging individual strengths and weaknesses. A tech-savvy teacher would be a good fit to manage laptops and other technological equipment. A teacher with an interest in design might like to help manage the center’s visuals or spatial set-up.

What is the thermostat setting?

A constant battle at home is what the temperature setting should be. In shared classrooms, the environmental conditions that matter most have more to do with student climate than degrees of Celsius or Fahrenheit.

Most schools have school-wide policies for managing student behavior, but this is likely to look a little different from one classroom to the next. In a shared space, teachers must be unified and aligned on classroom management. What will be expected of students when it comes to following directions or staying on task? What does treating one another with respect and civility look like? How will this be enforced and what will positive and negative consequences look like?

The key is consistency among all the teachers. Taking a step back to create a plan ahead of time will pay dividends once classes start, and not just for the adults. It’s just as important to be clear and consistent with students so that they understand what’s expected of them.  

What if someone wants to break the lease?

Whenever you have different personalities working closely together, occasional conflicts are unavoidable. Reasons can range from breaking norms to a teacher’s voice level in a shared space, to someone simply having a bad day. 

Many conflicts can be resolved when teachers use the appropriate protocol to address their teammates. To deal with these issues productively, teachers need to feel comfortable with disagreement and feel empowered to share their concerns. In our initial planning meetings, I like to use role-play activities to practice different scenarios. How would you handle a conversation with a team member you perceive to be neglecting their “chores”? Or what if you simply want to ask a colleague to keep their voice down? After that, teacher teams should set up a dedicated time in their daily common planning times to address these concerns.

Making the effort to follow the steps to set up a positive adult culture yields benefits to teachers and students. Teammates will have stronger relationships. Students will experience lessons with many teachers and styles.  All the “roommates” will thrive in a happy, productive environment.

This is the first in a monthly series of posts about the best practices for effective implementation of personalized learning models. Sign up here to receive email updates or you can keep in touch on social media: Follow us on Twitter, or connect on Facebook and LinkedIn

Carolyn Harper

Carolyn (Lyn) Harper is a lifelong educator with over 30 years of experience as a teacher, administrator, and instructional coach. As Director of Instructional Support at New Classrooms, Lyn works with partner schools implementing the Teach to One: Math personalized learning model.