The Final Frontier: Designing Space for Teacher Collaboration
The allocation and formation of space can be pivotal in creating a productive learning environment not only for students but also for teachers. This article describes how the design of a new faculty work space, intentionally programmed with the school’s vision in mind, created the conditions that allowed an enhanced culture of collaboration and creativity to flourish.
In 2012, de Toledo High School purchased two buildings on five acres of property, and had the opportunity to reconfigure the new space according to our needs. We began our thinking about the faculty area by focusing on our core values and goals: collaboration, community, networking, and a beit midrash approach to learning. To those ends, we designed 2000 square feet of open space as the core faculty area, surrounded by 1500 square feet of private offices, work spaces and meeting rooms. In essence, the space looks like a page of Talmud with the Mishnah and Gemara center stage, and the commentaries on the outside borders. The school principal, who serves as our educational leader, has her office at one end of the space, providing an open door and easy access for all teachers.
The next step was to determine what kind of arrangement of desk space would engender the desired values. Given that the space was much longer than it was wide, certain limitations were apparent. It was decided to line the desks along all surrounding wall space and place as many as we could down the center of the room, with teachers positioned to face each other across their individual desks. We also arranged the teachers in department clusters, and placed selected departments in close proximity to one another. For example, the English department is across from the Jewish studies department and next to the history and science department. Hebrew, Spanish, French, ASL, and Chinese are all in a group. And arts of all kinds are centrally located since everyone loves to integrate arts into their academic programs.
Selection of chairs was also important. They needed to be very comfortable, but most importantly, they needed to swivel and be on wheels. This makes it easy for teachers to “roll” over to another area for collaboration, or flip their chairs around to form a “campfire” setting for more collaboration and networking. The desk and chair configurations also engender ease of communication with those sitting across or behind, enabling teachers to form beit midrash-style dyads to discuss curriculum, recent articles, student issues or learn Torah.
The open nature of the space, in which people can easily see everyone else at work, encourages an informal networking culture. One is never more than 100 feet from a colleague in any of the departments. An English teacher, for example, who has an idea to create a joint project with the history department, simply needs to walk over to her colleague, grab a chair and ask, “What do you think about this?” From such collaborations and easy access have emerged our unique “Museum of the American Teenager,” our Senior Capstone project, final exams written jointly by the English and Jewish studies departments, exchange of ideas on how to use technology in the classroom, and dozens of other communications and collaborations that have enhanced the learning of our students.
One unplanned outcome of the space was its power to promote a social environment among the faculty. Teachers feel comfortable simply walking over to colleagues, schmoozing about current events, asking advice about finding good child care, providing suggestions for excellent car mechanics, offering to set up an exchange for used children’s toys, clothing and car seats, or simply making plans to meet after work for coffee or dinner. Making weekend social plans is also not uncommon. It is also a space to provide support for those who may have lost a parent, or simply need guidance about how to handle a personal situation. Bottom line: the space has helped teachers to form a strong sense of community that goes beyond their professional work. It creates trust and thereby enhances the professional relationships and creativity, as well.
Another surprising outcome of the space has been the organization of faculty Shabbat dinners. Because of the close proximity of the teachers, last year an idea was floated to join one another for Shabbat meals. The idea caught fire and teachers quickly offered to host Friday night meals for colleagues. This program is especially important for our non-Jewish colleagues who never experienced a Shabbat meal. The outcome, of course, is a deeper understanding of Jewish culture and how that culture permeates all we do in the school.
For centuries, back to the time of the Tabernacle in the desert and the First Temple in Jerusalem, architects have designed sacred spaces to enhance prayer, inspire awe, and feel closeness with God. So, too, the formation and allocation of space in our schools is one of the vital ingredients that drives learning, joy, community, collaboration and a sense of wellbeing for all.