Impacting Student Achievement Through Vertical Collaboration

Conference News Online – 2013

By Andrew Buchheit

The experts in our buildings are all around us, teaching each day in their classrooms. The challenge for principals is to bring them all together for conversation and collaboration.

Many school leaders already know the benefits of having grade-level teams work together in professional learning communities. Donna Kirby, principal of Victory Elementary School in Prince William County, Virginia, also believes it is valuable for teachers to talk to one another across grade levels and departments. In her high-energy, interactive Saturday session at NAESP's conference, “Vertical Sharing: Reflection and Change,” Kirby shared the practical yet creative strategies she uses to get her teachers talking together.

Vertical sharing, Kirby defined for attendees, involves “conversations between K-5 teachers, along with encore and resource teachers.” As a principal with a large staff, I’ve struggled to find the time and opportunities to bring teachers at our school together for meaningful vertical discussions across grade levels. I left the session with specific strategies that will allow me to conduct engaging vertical sharing at my school.

Kirby shared the characteristics of professional learning communities (as described by Rebecca and Rick DuFour), and addressed the question of how to make time for vertical conversations. Some of her suggestions include:

  • Begin with the end in mind;
  • Purposely put structures into place to create opportunities for conversation, and map out how these structures fit together;
  • Put dates on the calendar now for next year;
  • Involve staff in developing content for discussions;
  • Follow through with the plan; and
  • Evaluate and reflect upon the effectiveness of the collaboration.

For instance, at her school, Kirby gathers her teachers to solicit their input and identify the topics of greatest concern to them. Teachers brainstorm ideas on Post-It notes and place them on a chart under one of three topics: literacy, math, or climate. In groups, teachers sort the ideas into categories and vote to determine the priority of topics. This becomes the focus of monthly staff meetings, which Kirby renamed “sharing meetings.”

The rest of the session was focused on modeling different strategies for sharing. What was most evident in these examples was that during each meeting, Kirby changed the sharing method she had her teachers use. Many of the ideas kept her teachers moving and active. I particularly liked the activity called “Inside-Outside.” In it, teachers are divided into two groups. One group forms an inner circle and the other an outer circle around them. Each teacher in the inner circle partners with a teacher in the outer circle to share their experiences and thoughts about a topic. After a minute, the inside circle rotates, so that each teacher is talking to a new teacher. You continue this for a few more rotations.

Kirby wrapped up her session by reminding attendees to assess the success of the sharing sessions by using quality tools, such as an Enthusiasm and Learning chart and a Plus/Delta chart, and also to examine survey and student testing data. She also noted that, with more vertical sharing among teachers, her survey scores were in the 90th percentiles and her student test scores increased. Kirby reminded attendees to celebrate their success with their teachers.

Other principals in the audience left the session considering how to implement these strategies in their schools. Both Janice Herrit, principal of Piney Branch Elementary School in Bristow, Viriginia, and Hamish Brewer, principal of Occoquan Elementary School in Woodbridge, Virginia, liked the team building ideas and reflected on how they would be using these strategies at staff meetings and during the first week after summer vacation.

Glynis Taylor, principal of Elizabeth Vaughan Elementary in Woodbridge, Virginia, felt that collaborative activities that involve movement build enthusiasm for discussions. Principal Barry Rosenberg from Swans Creek Elementary in Southbridge, Virginia, pointed out that some of these vertical sharing tools could be used in the classroom with students to gather their input on topics.

Like our students, if teachers are motivated and energized to participate in an activity, they will have more ownership and engagement in it. I left this session with the intent to incorporate these engaging and fun activities with my own staff.

Andrew Buchheit is principal of T. Clay Wood Elementary School in Prince William County, Virginia.


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