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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Making the Most Out of Teacher Collaboration

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
How stupid could I have been! I should have taken the time and effort to collaborate!

I remember feeling so frustrated about classroom discipline that I had decided to teach college instead of high school. My teaching career began in the tiny town of Patagonia, Arizona. Looking back, I had an ideal situation: class sizes of no more than 15 students, in a small community where everyone knows everyone, and a four-day work week! I now wonder how different things would have been if I had taken the initiative and sought advice, wisdom, and assistance from the other experienced teachers.

Nope, I was intent on saving the world by myself. What did I need from my fellow teachers?

A lot of help! What did they need from me? Being a newbie, I couldn't really share pedagogy, but what they could have used to their benefit was my eagerness, energy, and enthusiasm.

Avoiding Teacher Isolation

Perhaps I am an extreme example of what not to do, but I have witnessed a general sense that teachers, when it comes to their performance in the classroom, tend to stick to themselves. This could be because of self-consciousness or embarrassment, but the attitude of professional privacy is not conducive to professional development. I was lucky to have a mentor in my next school that knew what teaching was all about. He would actually seek me out, ask me for advice and would share what he was working on in his classroom. I felt comfortable doing the same with him. I learned a lot from him. I could have learned even more if I had realized how much my professional development depended on effective teacher collaboration.

Personal Steps to Effective Collaboration

If I had it to do again, this is what I would do to get the most out of my formal and informal collaborations with other teachers:

  • Build relationships
  • Observe the best
  • Ask questions
  • Share
  • Come prepared

First of all, I would get to know them and not wait for them to get to know me. Even though I might be overwhelmed with paperwork, planning and preparing, I need to be with other teachers, not by myself. I must seek them out, spend time with them, help them, and build relationships. One of the benefits of this is that rather than simply having the other teachers know me as the "new guy," or the "weird guy," they will know my name and consider me a colleague.

Secondly, I would observe as many teachers as possible, and seek out the ones that I would like to emulate, regardless of the academic discipline in which they teach. I would arrange to visit teachers on my conference periods to watch them and see how they go about the business of teaching and learning, looking for things that I could use. Afterward, it would be beneficial to ask them questions about how to imitate what I saw, though care must be taken to not be inquisitorial, or judgmental.

Thirdly, I would develop a list of "how to" and "why for" questions regarding student data, instruction, discipline, etc. that I would ask these colleagues on my own. In those cases where I am lucky enough to have formal opportunities to collaborate, I would bring my list of questions pertinent to the agenda in order to pick the groups' collective brain for answers.

Fourthly, rather than wracking my brain for answers that others have already solved, I would share my frustrations, with these colleagues and get the answers I need quickly so I can go on to other important matters. In my informal meetings with teacher colleagues and in the formal "collaboration" meetings, I must be prepared to share what I have learned. Though my idea may not be 100 percent useful, it may spark other ideas from which the other teachers may synthesize even more powerful ideas. Common lesson planning is powerful especially when combined with common assessments, but even if all I do is share them with a colleague, I find that they always have a suggestion for improvement and can save me embarrassment and frustration by correcting mistakes in content or judgment.

Preparation is Key

Finally, and especially in formal collaboration meetings, but not solely, I would have to be prepared. What I mean by this is that one of the reasons that schools do not improve as fast as we would like them to is that when teachers get together for a purpose, rarely has research been done by the teachers, neither have ideas been mapped out prior to the meeting. So everyone in the meeting is flat-footed, and in the course of the short meeting, they are expected to come up with some grandiose solution from the top of their heads.

I remember spending a summer doing this for "restructuring" and the best that 100 educators could come up with were portfolios and an advisory period! So, for formal meetings, I would look at the agenda and do some thinking and research so I have some valuable things to share.

My experience has been that my preparation sparks much deeper conversation, more complete answers and better solutions. For informal collaborations, before I attempted to try out any new idea, I would ask one of my esteemed colleagues what they thought of it. In terms of assessments, the easiest way to improve the validity of the assessment is to have a colleague or group of colleagues review it. Of course, this assumes that I am on the ball enough to have prepared my assessment before I begin instruction (Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins of Understanding By Design would be proud).

What does this add up to? Teachers must take the bull by horns, and be deliberate in how we collaborate (i.e. work together in the business of teaching and learning). Michael Fullan, author of Change Forces, states emphatically that every teacher "...must be a change agent." The skills of individual and collective inquiry, as well as moral resolve that Fullan refers to do not come from the administration, they have to come from the true instructional leaders of the school: the teachers.

What have you found works best to get the most out of collaborating with other teachers?

Comments (35)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Sara Dunn's picture
Sara Dunn
Pre-K Teacher, Roxboro, NC- Person County Schools

Ben,
I have been working with children for many years, and I have always enjoyed collaborating with fellow teachers. During my first year in a public school, I felt the same way as you though. I wanted to make it on my own, and felt stupid for asking for help. Boy, was I wrong. I came to find that I loved haing a mentor, and many fellow teachers came to me as well for advice, help or lesson plan collaboration. Now I am in a different school system, and new from the beginning to talk with the other teachers. I have gotten to know them all on a personal level as well as professionally. I go them daily to get advice, talk about lessons or issues I am having. We have now set up times on Thursdays to collaborate about a numerous amount of topics. I am pleased that you found a way to seek out your fellow colleagues. I like your personal steps as well. You have helped me build another way to organize myself and I will be sharing your steps with my teachers on Thursday!

Emily's picture
Emily
Kindergarten Teacher, Eastern Washington State

Ben,
Even as a second year teacher, I have been deliberately trying to collaborate with co-educators more often than the scheduled formal meetings. My first year was a fantastic experience, and my 2nd grade professional learning committee (PLC) was outstanding in meeting informally once a week to discuss lessons, share teaching strategies, and reflect on anything and everything we had going on in our classrooms. Our team of four was very comfortable with sharing because we spent the time building trust with each other. Also, we ended our meetings with a plan on what we wanted to discuss at our next meeting so we could come prepared to use our time wisely.

This year, unfortunately, has been busier and more challenging in being able to get together often and with purpose. My kindergarten PLC this year includes a full day teacher, a half day teacher, and myself- a full day, half-day teacher (morning and afternoon classes). Also, my coworkers are not as able to meet before or after school, and our plan times are not in sync. As I am writing this, I realize that there will always be excuses, but that it is of the utmost importance and for the good of the students that we make it a top priority to get together and collaborate. I also realize I am missing the deliberate collaboration like I had last year because I feel I am missing out on so many things I could be learning from others this year.

I like your personal steps for effective professional collaboration. I especially value the "come prepared" aspect. A meeting with no guide usually ends up being not very productive. Thank you for your steps, I will share them with my kindergarten PLC.

Tricia's picture
Tricia
Special Education teacher from New Jersey

Ben,

As I read your post regarding teacher collaboration, it just drives home how important it is to our development as teachers. I am a special education teacher and over the years of teaching, I have worked with many different grade levels and many different teachers. I have always found it important to collaborate with these teachers on a regular basis, not only for myself but in the interest of my students. This year, the teachers I am working with have set aside one day a week to discuss our plans for the following week, any changes we need to make or any concerns we have about our students. I find it extremely helpful to have these informal conversations with my peers. As you said, being prepared for your collaboration provides a deeper conversation and one that is more meaningful. Thank you for taking the time to blog about this important topic.

Amy Goebel's picture
Amy Goebel
Sustitute Teacher from Guttenberg, Iowa

Ben,

I must say that I can relate to your feelings in regard to my first year of teaching. Although I am currently substituting, I did have a teaching position last year. I taught mostly Reading and Language Arts to 5th grade students along with other odds and ends. I too, felt that it was my sole responsibility to know what to teach and how to manage things in my classroom. I associated a sense of weakness with having to ask other teachers for help or suggestions. Boy, was I ever wrong! In my previous position I co-taught with another 5th grade teacher. We started out by scheduling a time every week to meet and discuss things. As the year progressed our meetings became less frequent and didn't maintain a clear purpose. We both were so overwhelmed with other responsibilities that our meetings were put on the back burner.

I recently started in on my master's degree and I am currently reading about PLCs and teacher networks. I now feel that collaboration is essential to teacher success in the classroom. No matter how busy schedules get it is important to meet with colleagues and have a plan for the time spent collaborating. I want students to be life long-learners and in order to meet that goal I must model learning as well.

Kelly's picture
Kelly
Kinder Teacher/ Teacher Director from Idaho

Hi there Ben,

I am struck while reading your post how much I miss my student teaching experience. Your advice on how to build relationships with other teachers, observing the best, ask questions, share, and come prepared all reminded me how well I did this back during my student teaching year. Three years later, while reading your blog, I found it to be a wonderful reminder to become "thirsty" again for knowledge and most of all, how I can teach my students in order for them to truly learn the material. Sadly, I work in a two-room school without many teachers to observe, but that will be no excuse for me! I will get out there and observe my peers in the district in order to collaborate with other Kindergarten teachers. Thanks for the great reminder of why I do what I do, and how I can become a more effective teacher!

Stephanie Staples's picture
Stephanie Staples
3rd grade special educator

Wow! I really enjoyed your posting. I feel that collaboration and developing professional learning communities would dramatically improve if we could make a point to come prepared, ask questions, observe the best, and share. I have never been in a school that worked hard at developing these ideas. Working and learning from each other would be a great opportunity to become a better teacher. Many teachers don't seem very open minded to try this. They want to keep their plans to themselves and not share them. Some teachers feel intimidated to share ideas.

Becca's picture
Becca
Kindergarten RC Michigan

Ben,
I enjoyed your blog about collaborating. It reminds me of when I first started teaching! I went to observe other teachers and tried various ideas in my own classroom. This was a reminder to me to do this. I haven't taken the time to observe anyone in 4 years. What am I thinking? I am totally missing out on some new ideas and collaboration with some fantastic colleagues. This week in my master's class we are discussing Professional Learning Communities. Your blog helped to inspire the whole concept of this idea. There is little time in my school to collaborate and plan as a team. I am fortunate that Kindergarten is given an entire day each month to go over curriculum and discuss new ideas. I find that if we come together with a goal and a purpose we accomplish so much more. There isn't time for the nagging or complaining that happens so often and easily. Teaching isn't a profession that is stress free...it is easy to get on a soapbox and go crazy about the things that bother us...

What works best for our team is having an agenda and sticking to it! When someone gets off task there is a leader who gets us back on track!

Thank you for your post and ideas, you have really helped to create a clearer picture of what our purpose is when getting together to work towards a common goal!

Dana's picture
Dana
special needs preschool teacher Atlanta, GA

I have to agree with your comments about taking the time on your own to collaborate with other teachers. In my district there is a lot of lip service given to collaboration, but very little useful collaborating. Teachers use this time to catch up on paperwork. I found that I had to build my own team of collaboration with people that I felt could benefit me in enhancing my teaching.

Craig Parrett's picture
Craig Parrett
High School Math Teacher from Tidioute, Pennsylvania

Ben, I agree with your personal steps to effective collaboration. I have taught at two different schools in the four years that I have been teaching. When I started at both schools, I made it a point to build relationships with my peers. Doing this allowed me to ask them questions and observe them when I needed advice. This builds on your other steps of observe the best and ask questions. Building strong relationships also allows sharing of important ideas. Being prepared is key and I agree. I do much better in my teaching when I am better prepared.

Jen's picture

I completely agree with your comments. Your blog has inspired me to, as you state, "take the bull by horns, and be deliberate in how we collaborate." There are so many benefits for the students when teachers have a Professional Learning Community (PLC) and collaborate with one another. Your steps to effective collaboration sound excellent. I cannot wait to try them!

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