Time to rethink school collaboration days? 

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Collaboration Days.

Just say those words and likely everyone around will have something to say about them.

Proposed as an addition to the Professional Development days (6) fought for and won by teachers from the province in the 1970's, Collab Days, as they are known, are intended to give teachers an opportunity to learn from each other and take best practices back to the classroom.

They are different in that Professional Development (PD) days are established in local and provincial collective agreements, and collaboration time is time established with staff consensus and through the local school calendar input process. It is not mandatory for teachers to attend, but in our district the attendance is extremely high.

Since at least the 1970s, school calendars across Canada have contained four to eight PD days.

The research is beyond reproach when it comes to the benefits of having school-based collaboration, yet there remains a negative undertone to the debate none-the-less.

Everyone can agree that teachers are some of the most important people in our lives. I'm sure many can recall that one educator, or coach, who impacted a life so much that it caused real, positive change. And it may have happened anywhere along the continuum from elementary school, to high school, to university or trade school.

So if we value teachers so much and we recognize the value of professional development and collaboration why do so many people struggle reconciling the inclusion of development of learning in the school calendar?

Of course there a myriad of reasons, but several stand out above the rest, and leading those are concerns over health and safety of the students. Looking back over the years in Whistler, collaboration days have moved from an early-dismissal model to a full-day model, not least because it meant that parents could generally more easily plan for the care of their children.

At Parent Advisory Council meetings attended over the years there were stories of young elementary-aged students getting off the bus to find no one was waiting for them due to parent, or caregiver, mix up about the early dismissal day. And in some cases it was just a fact that the kids, no matter how young, would come home to an empty house because there was no flexibility for a caregiver to take time off.

Added to this is the cost to families for these extra days or afternoons — working families have to take time off work (read vacation days), or hire a nanny or pay for an after-school program — if one is even available.

Is any of this the teacher's problem, or the school's? Strictly speaking it is not. And, as has been said to parents many times, school is not daycare.

But as a society we have crafted our economic engine to run on two-parent working families, and school has in fact become the place kids go during the day while mom and dad work. That is just a fact.

And let's not even get into the debate around the educational benefit of swapping collaboration days off for a few extra minutes added to each school day.

Last night, March 11, the school board met to adopt the school calendars for the next two years. As part of that there is a revamp of Collab days.

Since Pique went to press before it made its decisions about the calendar it is not possible to comment on the Board's action, but a look at the proposed calendars show a real mish-mash of collaboration time — including the slashing of time in Whistler from at least four full days a school year to two half days — Sept 16, 2015 and Feb.17, 2016.

In Pemberton the preferred slot of collaboration is Wednesday afternoons, with the elementary schools taking two per school year and the high school taking four.

In Squamish it is all over the map from none to several.

It is hard to understand that if collaboration is, in fact, a "best practice," why the schedules are so varied. Surely there should be a district policy on its implementation.

Whistler is not the only place looking at professional development in its global sense. A recent story in Nova Scotia's Chronicle Herald has the province's education minister considering moving their PD days outside of the school year — presumably to weekends, the summer break or during other holiday times.

The move is in response to a system-wide review, which gathered feedback from 19,000 Nova Scotians. The days, it found, were "disruptive" to parents.

But teachers also said that a focus on using the time for school improvement rather than the development of teacher skills made the PD less valuable.

One of the few reports ever compiled examining PD days in detail was done in 2010, in the face of plummeting U.S. test scores in math, sciences and reading. A team of Stanford researchers took a close look at education systems in Singapore and Finland, two countries that routinely top the charts in rankings of student aptitude compiled by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

What it found was that while North American teachers were spending 80 per cent of their time in front of a classroom, teachers in Helsinki were able to spend as much as 40 per cent of their time analyzing lessons, meeting with students and going over new teaching methods.

So as we take a look at collaboration time, and professional development as a whole, maybe it's time to really look at what works to help teachers, and then let's work together as a community to make that work for families.

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