Interview with Mary McGinnis
Mary McGinnis taught for 25 years in Missouri before moving to Oregon seven years ago. She teaches at Wilson River School, a small alternative high school in the Tillamook School District. As a member of Chalkboard Project’s Distinguished Educators Council, she played an active role in the council’s report on teacher collaboration time nationally and internationally.
What did teacher collaboration look like early in your career?
Back at the start of my teaching career, collaboration time wasn’t discussed. It just never came up. Every teacher was totally on their own to figure things out, and that model is still prevalent in many places.
Everything changed for me about 11 years ago when my district in Camdenton, Missouri, started professional learning communities. It was earthshaking, actually. I’d always considered myself a collaborative person, but that had always meant going to chat with the teacher down the hall. It was always informal.
What we started doing was something much more purposeful and focused on getting results. The district did a lot of training and gave teachers early-release time to meet in teams every Wednesday afternoon. We got the time to look deeply at problems of practice and what we needed to do to be better.
I would say collaboration has been the number one thing that has made me more effective as a teacher.
What has been your experience in Oregon?
Tillamook is doing some good work with collaboration. I was asked to lead a district-wide book review on professional learning communities and study what other schools are doing. And like a lot of things, different buildings are at different places.
I came to my school during a time of major turnover, and the staff came in with the mindset that daily collaboration was the way to improve. Teachers work together for an hour after school every day, and we meet twice a week as a staff or in teams. Certainly having 10 staff members makes that easier.
We completely changed the school educational system to a philosophy that if students weren’t learning, it wasn’t their fault, it was the system’s. We used to be one of the lowest-performing schools in Oregon, and now we’ve created a rigorous academic program and our students are really successful.
I can’t imagine coming as far as we have without the time and opportunity for teachers to collaborate.
You researched some international models of collaboration as a part of your work on the Council. Can you share some of what you learned?
Yes, the model I looked at most closely was Finland. They understand, in very concrete terms, that teachers get better when they have the time to work together. They have a national system in which teachers gets 2-3 hours a day for collaboration and planning. That time allows them to assess how every day goes, and to take care of the little details as well as the bigger things when it comes to instruction.
There’s a lot to admire about Finland’s system. There are many reasons why they’ve risen to the top of the international academic rankings, and teacher collaboration is definitely a major part of their success.
What are the main lessons of your own experience in the classroom and as part of the Council?
The main thing is that the vast majority of teachers want more collaboration, but they’re not getting the time. Teachers today understand the value of working together. Also, collaboration has to be owned by the teachers. The research shows that teachers need to have a strong voice in how collaboration is going to work if it is really going to be effective.
And finally, we’re going to have to do get public support around the issue of collaboration time here in Oregon. We can’t look at it as a tradeoff with instruction time, that teachers are only doing their job if they’re standing at the front of a classroom of students. We have to see the bigger picture.
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