When teachers plan lessons together, the benefits are many.
Long before Stephen Covey pointed out that effective people practice the habit of beginning with the end in mind, teachers were already in the know. When it comes to teaching effective lessons, we know that if you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.
For many teachers, lesson planning is a welcome aspect of teaching. They find satisfaction in exercising creativity and solving problems as they plan lessons that meet diverse learning needs while maintaining students’ interest. For other teachers, planning is a dreaded chore. These teachers have little enthusiasm for connecting lessons to standards, making decisions about teaching materials, and figuring out how to scaffold students toward mastery of skills and concepts.
Regardless of how teachers feel about lesson planning, it’s a crucial step in the teaching process. Collaborative lesson planning, in which teachers work together to design lessons, is a promising approach that can make planning less dreaded and more effective.
What Does It Mean to Plan Collaboratively?
A collaborative lesson plan is jointly developed by more than one person. This type of collaboration typically takes place among pairs or groups of teachers on a grade-level or content team. Instructional specialists, paraprofessionals, school administrators, and special educators may also be involved. Interdisciplinary teams sometimes collaborate to design cross-curricular projects. Ideally, teachers who plan together will not only produce lesson plans, but also jointly evaluate the outcomes of those lessons and plan further instruction accordingly.
The highest level of collaborative lesson planning requires more commitment from teachers than the common practice of shared lesson planning. To save time, many grade-level or content teams use a shared, “divide and conquer” approach. A team of four kindergarten teachers might assign each teacher a specific content area in which to specialize. One teacher will write mathematics lesson plans for the entire team, while the other teachers write and share lesson plans for science, social studies, and language arts. After sharing their plans with one another, the teachers might collectively discuss or critique these plans before implementing them. Although shared lesson planning is a form of collaboration, when teachers plan lessons in isolation and then distribute them to fellow teachers, they don’t realize the full potential of doing the work with other teachers.
Effective collaboration is generally characterized by shared goals, good communication, and equitable contributions by all participants. But it’s important to note that planning with others doesn’t automatically yield effective lessons. Collaboration isn’t a proxy for thoughtful, intelligent planning. To reap the benefits, teachers must follow the principles of effective lesson design, such as using assessment data to inform lesson plans.
Two Teachers, Two Experiences
Collaborative planning can be especially helpful for new teachers. Consider two first-year teachers who had very different experiences with lesson planning. Lucy was hired by a school that prioritized collaborative planning. Each week, Lucy met with two other teachers on her 2nd grade team to plan math lessons for all eight of the 2nd grade teachers at the school. This small planning team discussed difficulties students were having and decided how to reteach concepts, what to introduce next, and which materials to use. The senior teacher on Lucy’s team also offered teaching tips and suggestions to make the lessons run smoothly. Meanwhile, the other 2nd grade teachers jointly planned other subject areas.
After plans for all the subjects had been created, all eight teachers met to review and discuss them. The process of generating math lesson plans alongside more experienced teachers and then sharing and discussing plans for the other subjects was extremely significant for Lucy’s professional life. When asked to identify the highlight of her first year of teaching, she responded emphatically, “Team planning. Doing it together. Because I would be lost without it.”
By the end of the school year, Lucy felt particularly confident as a math teacher. She could look at her lesson plans and recall what her team discussed as they wrote the lesson, knowing, she explained, “how it’s supposed to look.”
In contrast, Kim was the only new 1st grade teacher at her school. Kim’s grade-level team decided to excuse her from lesson-planning responsibilities so she could focus on teaching and classroom management. Her team practiced shared lesson planning (dividing the work by subject), but Kim wasn’t part of this process. By the end of the school year, Kim’s students hadn’t met expectations for academic progress. Kim reflected,
I think I missed out because I was hand-fed [all my lesson plans]. I wasn’t involved in any of it, and so I couldn’t visually picture … what it’s going to look like. It was just like, OK, pull out page 221.
Although the other 1st grade teachers meant well by providing Kim with ready-made lesson plans, Kim was never asked to think deeply about lesson organization, teaching materials, or pedagogy. Sadly, she moved to a different campus the following year, and then left the teaching profession altogether. It’s worth asking whether Kim’s first years of teaching would have been different if she had taught in a context like Lucy’s.
An Abundance of Benefits
Collaborative lesson planning benefits experienced teachers, too. Joint planning brings teachers together to talk about their work and their students; thus, it fulfills one of the conditions identified as necessary for school improvement (Jalongo, Rieg, & Helterbran, 2007). When teachers have regularly scheduled, productive lesson-planning conversations, they learn from one another, feel less isolated and more empowered, and design better lessons.
Professional learning. As Lucy’s story illustrates, collaborative lesson planning leads to teacher learning. It provides teachers with new ways of thinking about pedagogy, materials, standards, assessments, and classroom management. Teachers at all levels of experience attend seminars, read articles in professional journals, take graduate courses, or learn to use instructional technology. Planning with colleagues gives them opportunities to share what they learn from these experiences.
Job satisfaction. Collaborative lesson planning may contribute to teacher retention by helping novice teachers like Kim feel more confident and fulfilled in their careers. In a recent survey, teachers who worked at schools with high levels of collaboration reported higher levels of job satisfaction (MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, 2010). When teachers work together in teams, feelings of stress and isolation can be reduced (Johnson, Reinhorn, & Simon, 2015). These findings shouldn’t be surprising; we know from Maslow (1943) that a sense of belonging is a basic human need.
Because planning lessons together is a type of collaboration, it’s logical to conclude that engaging in such planning might help teachers experience job satisfaction. Teachers who dislike or are indifferent to lesson planning will appreciate having others share the workload, and teachers who enjoy designing lessons will feel satisfaction as they participate in creating high-quality lessons. One middle school history teacher explained that when her subject team collaborates and “something great comes out of it,” she feels excited about her work.
Better lesson plans. The adage “two heads are better than one” holds true with planning. When teachers plan lessons together, they can help one another refine their ideas and draw on one another’s strengths. There are many examples of special educators and general education teachers collaborating to plan and co-teach differentiated lessons for students with special needs.
Anne Beninghof and Mandy Leensvaart (2016) describe how an elementary school in Colorado rapidly improved student achievement after adopting a model in which pairs of classroom teachers and English Language Development (ELD) teachers planned and taught lessons together. For instance, an ELD teacher and a classroom teacher collaborated to develop a 5th grade reading comprehension lesson, each drawing on their expertise. The ELD teacher taught key vocabulary terms “with visuals, gestures, oral rehearsal, and kid-friendly synonyms” (p. 73) and the classroom teacher assigned students to teams and developed an activity to practice the skill of sequencing events from the story.
Challenges—and Meeting Them
Collaborative lesson planning poses challenges for both teachers and administrators. Two significant barriers are lack of time and teacher resistance to collaboration.
Teachers are incredibly busy; time is a precious commodity for them. Setting aside time to plan lessons with colleagues means taking time away from other responsibilities. Even when teachers in the same grade level or content area have a common planning period during the day, those hours are often needed for parent communication, tutoring, making copies, setting up labs, interpreting assessment results, and countless other activities. Unless the school makes collaboration a priority, teachers will spend their time planning lessons alone.
Resistance can be strong. Individualism is deeply embedded in the culture of teaching. Teachers like having freedom to do—or not do—what they want, and many teachers resist collaborative lesson planning because it means surrendering autonomy. In a study of teacher teams in high-poverty schools, Johnson and colleagues (2015) reported how several teachers lamented their loss of autonomy when principals expected them to plan lessons together. One teacher called co-planning “rough and tough and exhausting” because her colleagues had very different teaching styles that made coming to agreement difficult (p. 22).
Collaborative lesson planning also forces teachers to expose themselves to critique and to change their routines. This can make even the most experienced or acclaimed teachers feel uncomfortable. And some teachers simply don’t get along. When personalities clash or values are incompatible, it can be difficult for teachers to work through their differences.
School leaders can address these barriers by strategically introducing, implementing, and supporting collaborative lesson planning. Many principals are now encouraging their faculty to try collaborative planning, and reports of successful and unsuccessful attempts consistently point to three essential elements for success: time, training and support, and trust.
Time. If collaborative planning is to flourish at a school, teachers must have adequate time to work together. Scheduling the school day to give grade-level or content-area teams regular, predictable, common planning periods is a start. Many schools and districts also bring teachers together during paid summer planning meetings, early dismissal days, and in periods freed through block scheduling. Principals can make collaboration worth teachers’ time by crediting time spent planning together toward required professional development hours or offering stipends to teacher leaders who facilitate planning meetings.
Training and support. When school administrators don’t provide sufficient training and support for collaborative lesson planning, such planning will either fail to reach its potential or fail altogether. Just as students don’t automatically know how to work in groups, teachers can’t be expected to magically make collaboration work. Collaborative planning demands strong teacher leaders who can facilitate planning meetings and talented administrators who help reluctant or weak teachers develop collaboration skills.
Teacher buy-in is also crucial. Teachers need a reason to collaborate besides “My principal makes me do it.” A clear purpose for collaborative planning—such as improving students’ learning—must be established and understood by everyone involved.
The work of Alicia Pérez-Katz (2007), principal of Baruch High School in New York, provides an example of effective training and support. Before pairing teachers for collaborative curriculum decision making and lesson planning, Pérez-Katz met with teachers during the summer to discuss the idea and listen to teachers’ concerns. She sent the staff on an overnight retreat, where all teachers studied a chapter about shared responsibility and teacher pairs got to know each other as they developed “working relationship plans.” Pérez-Katz cautioned that when pairing teachers, “it is important to think about who needs support and who will work well together” (p. 40). She saw positive results when she paired beginning teachers with more experienced teachers. However, one pair of teachers who had very different planning styles had to learn that they wouldn’t always agree.
During the school year, Pérez-Katz met regularly with lesson-planning pairs to discuss how the partnerships were going. She provided professional development opportunities to build trust and consensus among partners. When teacher pairs are having a difficult time working together, school leaders should become involved. Rick DuFour (2011) recommends that in addition to providing time for collaboration, leaders must also provide support, clarity of purpose, resources, and guidelines.
Trust. Trust between principals and teachers is key. If the goal of planning lessons collaboratively is to improve student learning, for example, teachers need to know they can take risks with instructional approaches without fearing reprimands from their principal if things don’t go as expected. Teachers need principals to check in with them regularly in ways that establish accountability for collaboration without micromanaging teachers’ every decision. Regular, ongoing dialogue with teachers helps them become productive partners and experience the benefits of the collaborative approach.
Whether a teacher is a novice or a veteran, a planning enthusiast or an avoider, collaborating with colleagues to plan lessons is a promising endeavor. When teachers plan collaboratively, with support from their principals, they make professional learning, higher job satisfaction, and better lessons plans possible.
Author’s note: All teachers’ names are pseudonyms.
Beninghof, A., & Leensvaart, M. (February, 2016). Co-teaching to support ELLs. Educational Leadership, 73(5), 70–73.
DuFour, R. (2011). Work together, but only if you want to. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(5), 57–61.
Jalongo, M. R., Rieg, S. A., & Helterbran, V. R. (2007). Planning for learning: Collaborative approaches to lesson design and review. New York: Teachers College Press.
Johnson, S. M., Reinhorn, S. K., & Simon, N. S. (2015). Ending isolation: The payoff of teacher teams in successful high-poverty urban schools. Working paper. The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA.
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396.
MetLife Survey of the American Teacher. (2010). MetLife survey of the American teacher: Collaborating for student success. New York: Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.
Pérez-Katz, A. (2007). Teacher support systems: A collaboration model. Principal Leadership, 7(9), 38–41
October 2016 | Volume 74 | Number 2
Powerful Lesson Planning Pages 58-62