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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The greatest resource that teachers have is other teachers. But sadly, teamwork and collaboration are not commonly found in schools. Having taught for 20 years myself, I know how it works.

Teachers have very challenging and stressful jobs, and part of what contributes to their level of challenge and stress is a teacher's tendency to isolate him- or herself. How many teachers close their door and feel like they are all alone in fighting their overwhelming battle against ignorance and apathy and paperwork and standardized testing?

Isolation is Not Effective

I remember my first year as a high school literature teacher. I began by adopting those exact habits of preparing alone and working in isolation. I was a lonely superhero who went home exhausted each day without the encouragement or support of my more experienced peers. I was right next to people who had answers and ideas that could have benefitted me, but I was too proud to ask for them.

It was only by the grace and generosity of a couple of seasoned teachers from my department that I was able to appreciate what I had been missing. They reached out to offer unsolicited assistance, build a relationship, and share a few encouraging stories with me. I had assumed that I could be more effective when planning and working alone, but I eventually found that, when working with people, efficient is rarely truly effective. It took a long time for me to realize that I could accomplish more and be far more effective and energized if I was willing to share ideas, ask for help, and lean on others.

That experience of connecting with other teachers and sharing ideas throughout the year had a tremendous impact on me as a young teacher. Over the years, it is what led me to share with and reach out to others who I felt might need encouragement or ideas. I realized that teachers have too much of a history of closing doors and doing things their own way -- and that the isolated nature of teaching made it even more important that teachers have the time and incentive to collaborate.

The truth is that no industry succeeds in isolation or secrecy.

Building Meaningful Connections

Being a professional doesn't mean that you have the opportunity to work alone. In fact, professionals in most every other industry are required to work together to improve performance. Whether they're airline pilots, psychiatrists, or salesmen, successful professionals lean on and share ideas with others in their field.

There are two main types of isolation that teachers experience:

  1. Egg-crate isolation: This is what I call the kind of isolation that is due to the physical layout of school buildings. Egg-crate isolation is the result of physical separateness, where teachers have little contact with others and feel as if they have no support system. To alleviate this feeling, instead of being tucked neatly away in separate rooms all the time, school administrations should give teachers the time and opportunity to talk and plan together, and to share laughter, encouragement, and ideas.

  2. Avalanche isolation: This kind of isolation is the result of teachers feeling overwhelmed by their daily responsibilities of serving lunch duty, grading papers, making copies, attending meetings, learning new strategies, contacting parents, and the thousand other things on their to-do list. The best way to assuage this form of isolation is to focus on getting rid of egg-crate isolation.

Credit: depositphotos

The surest way to reduce workplace stress is to help your people build meaningful connections and feel like a valuable part of something larger than themselves. Building that kind of culture requires administrations setting aside time and emphasizing the importance of teacher teamwork instead of simply suggesting that it occur on its own.

Perhaps you could suggest a mandate that your staff spend just 30 minutes every week where one teacher can share a creative lesson plan, or where every teacher has to share his or her most challenging issue. These conversations open doors for sharing encouragement and insights while establishing the empathy that drives all great organizations.

If your school staff needs to share a few laughs, a day of teacher team building can be a powerful catalyst to boost morale, improve interactions, and establish a culture of collaboration.

Teamwork is not optional for effective schools.

Effective administrations ensure that teachers can work together to plan, share ideas, and support each other. Once educators experience the benefits of collaboration, they will appreciate the camaraderie and creativity it provides.

Does the staff at your school feel like a team? Do you and your colleagues discourage isolation and collaborate effectively? Please share your experiences and ideas below.

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Comments (14) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Gwen Pescatore's picture
Gwen Pescatore
President Home & School Assoc, #ParentCamp Organizer, Co-Moderator #PTchat

I understand that those in your building or district can definitely aid in district-specific policies/issues...but why limit your support system to your building or district? Social media and conferences like Edcamps can be a tremendous support and resource.

As far as staying connected to those in your building, create a "group" online where you can post questions, offer suggestions or share ideas in between those face to face opportunities.

And finally....engage your families and community. They most likely have much to offer and both would feel honored to contribute in ways that goes beyond asking for donations/money.

Sean Glaze's picture
Sean Glaze
Team Building Facilitator and Leadership Speaker

As you are a home-school teacher and advocate, I understand and agree that virtual groups and idea sharing is helpful - but I do think we should strive to value face-to-face interactions and empathy and collaboration as even more powerful connectors...

Gwen Pescatore's picture
Gwen Pescatore
President Home & School Assoc, #ParentCamp Organizer, Co-Moderator #PTchat

Sean, I no doubt agree face to face is #1.... I'm not saying to replace your face to face interactions with social media (nothing beats F2F) but use it to bridge those gaps of time when you don't have time to interact in person. I know that if I were to limit our interactions to only face to face, we run into the issue of speaking on rare occasions at times.

David Loertscher's picture
David Loertscher
Professor, San Jose State University

Are there specialists in the school? instructional coordinators, technology integration folks, teacher librarians? If so, here is some preliminary data from some research I am conducting. We asked teachers when teaching alone what percent of the student in a unit achieved their highest expectations. About 54% was the response. Then we asked pairs of teachers and teacher librarians who co-taught a unit together, planning goals, the learning activities, and the assessments what percent meto or exceeded expectations and the percentage success rises somewhere between 80 to 90%+ success. That is HUGE! Perhaps help and collaboration is just down the hall. Pounce on it.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Manager

@David Loertscher: Wow. Just wow. That's an astounding result. You mention that it's preliminary data... is there anywhere where someone can read more?

Diane Norbury's picture

I have been teaching for 10 years and the three schools I have worked in have all expecteded their staff to work in teams to varying degrees and in different ways - each of the schools has had a different culture and served a different market. The first being a government school in Australia and the others being International, bi-lingual schools in Indonesia. I can't imagine working in an environment where team work was not the norm.
Team teaching in the classroom is truly wonderful when you develop the kind of relationship where partners can step into each other's conversation at any time in ways that add to the lesson in progress. It is so much easier to reflect on and modify teaching when you are part of a team. The synergy created through sharing ideas and the close relatioonships with teaching partners certainly reduces stress levels while elevating the enjoyment and productivity.
However the perceived level of success in teamwork does depend a great deal on the openness of the team members and the willingness to serve each other at any time.

Susan Dewey's picture
Susan Dewey
High School Writing Teacher in Maine.

@David Loertscher -- There are two possibilities I can think of for this result. Both are important. First, that planning and execution of a unit is richer and more diverse if there are people from different disciplines involved.

Second, however, requires analysis of both how the results are reported, whether blind assessment of student growth, or anecdotal reporting. In judging student progress, the conversation about the quality of work is important. Different teachers are able to see different strengths in students and bring those to the fore. This can work positively for the way a student is encouraged to perform, as well as they way a student is assessed.

I would be interested in whether you attribute the improvement in student work to the lesson planning, or the discussion of the quality of their work.

David Loertscher's picture
David Loertscher
Professor, San Jose State University

I think you are quite right on both accounts. The comments so far from both teacher and teacher librarian indicate that a learning experience benefits not just from the two adults in the room with the learners but also their varying perspectives and skills. Both partners indicate a richness in the experience and the students I have interviewed recognize the save benefits. The struggle of course is the time needed to plan together. But, when co-teaching happens with skilled partners it works and that is the main point. For the specialist, it provides a way of tracking impact each time the opportunity arises. For the classroom teacher, it is an opportunity to go beyond the norm.

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

Teacher Evaluations Are Another Issue

One big issue this blog raises is related to teacher evaluation. Not only is teamwork not optional, but the cumulative effects of teamwork, or lack thereof, are sitting in everyone's classrooms at the beginning of the school year and determine a lot about how much progress can take place. Teaching is not an individualized and isolated perspective. So evaluating teachers as if this was the case, and especially linking salary to those evaluations, seems not only unfair but an incentive to minimize teamwork and collaboration. How can we raise the importance of effective teamwork and collaboration in our basic judgment of teacher competencies?

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