Improving Teacher Collaborative Culture

Last post, I wrote about smartnesses and how making students aware of their math strengths can improve their status and their ability to engage with peers collaboratively. While I am an educator wholeheartedly devoted to these issues of equity and status, I am occasionally jolted by the following question: with the understanding that student collaborative culture will never outpace teacher collaborative culture, why do we so often spend more time thinking and reflecting about our students’ group work rather than our own?


A recent blog by Ilana Horn titled “How do we build math- and kid-positive department cultures?” dug into the experiences and successes of a school math department tackling the difficult question of why so many 9th grade students were failing math. I’d like to bolster this conversation with a few experiences and tools that may help to carve out this important time together as adults and to use that time effectively to collaborate, problem solve, and share best practices and successes. In other words, how can we as teachers collaborate better to both learn about our students and our instruction, but also to model a better culture for our students? While there are many, I’d like to highlight two tools/experiences that I think fit the bill here: reciprocal observations and video analysis.


Reciprocal Observations

Much is made about common planning, but we all know that it is often not possible to make that happen in a master schedule. One great benefit to NOT having common planning time is that it opens up the possibility of peer reciprocal observations (or PROs). So much of what we do as educators is insular. We do not encounter our peers when we are in the meat of the workday; we see each other in the copy room before school, in the staff room during lunch, and in the library during the staff meeting after school, but not DURING the time we’re actually teaching. PROs can break down classroom walls and allow us to learn from each other’s students and each other. Setting aside a bit of your prep even once a month can be perspective-changing. As I’ll often do, I recommend a protocol to guide your observation. I’m including one that allows the teacher being observed to get pertinent feedback about their classroom, while also giving space for the observer to reflect about how the observation will impact his/her own classroom.

  Peer Reciprocal Observation Protocol link

Video Analysis

When seeing instruction and learning in person can’t happen, the next best thing is video! Even if caught with your smartphone, just a few minutes of video (a student group conversation, a student presenting a warm up, students determining what they know and need to know to tackle a problem) can provide enough fodder for some really amazing learning. It’s important to have a clear protocol (I told you I like protocols) to focus the video digest. Here is an example of a protocol that focuses on classroom norms around student collaboration and agency.

 Video Analysis Protocol Example link 

A few additional norms to frame the video analysis time:

  • When watching and discussing the video at hand, keep in mind that this could be anyone’s classroom on any given day (all involved need to enter the analysis time without judgement and with the intent to learn and grow)
  • Search the video and use evidence to learn
  • Adhere to the sentence starters of the protocol (by restricting the syntax and making it common, we create a safe method of sharing our findings)



Both protocols are adaptations of protocols facilitated for me when I was a teacher here in Seattle. To continue the tradition of ever-evolving and ever-improving protocols, please feel free to comment with feedback and thoughts about editing and/or the use of these tools. I’d love to hear it!