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Making the Most Out of Teacher Collaboration

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Nose to the grindstone, I prepared for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday -- what to teach, what to test, and how to learn. I gave it my best shot, alone. I was the only Spanish teacher. What did I have to say to teachers of other disciplines? Other than collegial greetings, I did not seek them out. How stupid could I have been! I should have taken the time and effort to collaborate! 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?

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David Harris's picture

As others have commented, my early teaching experience mirrored these experiences in terms of feeling isolated in my classroom. Worse than that, the pressure to perform, given the evaluative nature of the tenure process in most schools, worked against collaboration because the vulnerability of admitting what I didn't know outweighed the perceived value of learning how to teach better from my peers. Just having department "collaboration" time built in didn't help because the school culture itself was not collaborative. Once I started to actively share and my peers and I started to trust each other, admit our weaknesses and, discuss and try new approaches, the impact on student learning, and my personal enjoyment of my job, dramatically improved. In retrospect it makes sense that if teachers are open-minded to learning from peers and improving their practice, their students are likely to be more open-minded to learning and improving. Adult culture drives student culture.

The culture in many schools does not allow for active collaboration and collective learning and, even when it does, educators are often the only ones doing their particular job, whether that be teaching Spanish, running the school as the principal or being a district director. That is actually why I recently set up www.job-alike.org as a site where educators who have the same roles in different schools or districts can meet via video to share experiences, to collaborate on ways to improve outcomes and to refine, rather than reinvent the wheel. If you or others are looking to actively collaborate with peers who face similar challenges and opportunities, please tell them about the site.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

I just want to highlight something David wrote, which I think is right on: "Adult culture drives student culture."

And this modeling of professional collaboration will become more important over time.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Ben, this is a great summary of what it takes to collaborate effectively. I appreciate two things particularly- first, that you focus on collaboration, which implies a shared commitment to the success of all parties, and second that you recognize the need to build relationships and trust as a stepping stone to collaboration. I'm often surprised at how often an assumption is made that all teachers will feel safe enough to deprivatize their practice and share their work- a risky proposition for most. If we're going to expect teachers to speak honestly about their struggles and challenges, we have to build safe communities in which they can do so.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

I think Samer is right- if we want to have a better school culture overall, Students take clues from the adults. This makes modelling collaboration and cooperation even more important, and tends to ease the tensions kids face especially later on in Middle School and High School when kids have many more teachers/bosses and obligations to balance.

Collaboration with assignments across subject matters or even between team members in the same department is great- (I love project based learning!) and it's even better if it helps everyone have a deeper understanding on the demands and scheduling students face, to make sure kids have a humane set of expectations to meet as well.

Betsy's picture

One primary thing that teachers value is that of teacher collaboration. Teachers meet and discuss ideas, review data, plan and prepare lessons. When teachers collaborate students reach the high expectations set for them while still maintaining individual styles and flexibility.

TeachCow's picture
TeachCow
Podcaster & Teacher

I love Ben Johnson's honesty and asessment of his past teaching and lessons learned. I definitely will be referring to this as we tackle this topic on Teachers Talk Live with our panelists. I believe collaboration is KEY and as teachers, we cannot wait on others to establish that climate if it isn't there. We must make it happen. Our talk is Wed. November 4th at TeachCow.com and we will be chatting simultaneously as well!

Kim Bartek's picture

I enjoyed your insight Ben. I remember my first few years feeling so isolated. I was too afraid to seek out my colleagues because I did not want them to think I was incapable of doing my job. It's such a tough balance sometimes. Thanks for opening me up to some new ideas.

monkap's picture

Hello Johnson, thank you for sharing your advice on why collaboration is important in the teaching profession, especially for new teachers. Being a new teacher, I can definitely relate to this myself. Last year I had my first even long-term placement where I was working for a teacher who had just gone on maternity leave. Being a little bit shy, I spent the first week or two in my classroom, isolated from the staff, rarely made conversation, and didn't consult anyone regarding what lessons or activities they had planned. Since I had 5 preps, i quickly found myself exhausted and tired from all of the planning. One day I decided to check in with a teacher who had a few classes in common as me, and it turns out that she directed me to collection of ready materials that the department had been compiling over years. The resources that I had access to had been perfected and tested over years, worked well, and were easily adaptable. This really helped reduce some of the stress and I also got a lot of helpful hints from a more experienced teacher. I think that one of my favourite things about collaboration is sharing resources! It's great now that we have technology so once we share our materials with someone, they can continue to modify them and adapt them to meet the needs of their classroom! Thanks Johnson!

monkap's picture

Hi Laura, I appreciate that you mention EFFECTIVE collaboration. Its important to remember that there are actually many elements of collaboration that will determine whether or not it is worthwhile for everyone. I personally think that building relationships is the most important because that way people will feel more confident and open to risk taking. I also think that establishing community before engaging in collaborative inquiry will be beneficial in the long run, because it could help prevent conflicts between different individuals.

This whole idea of community and trusting relationships reminds me of the principles associated with TRIBES!

monkap's picture

Hi Becca- very neat, I too am currently enrolled in a Masters program and as a part of an assignment, we are exploring Professional Community. I have chosen to explore Edutopia. I have never used this website before but like Ben highlighted, it is such a wonderful tool to collaborate. I particularly enjoy this platform because educators from across the globe can come together to swap ideas. Its unfortunate that the schools we work for don't encourage the use of such collaborative tools. I look forward to using Edutopia to share my experiences with colleagues, and also to seek out solutions to challenges that I will encounter in my workplace! It's interseting that you mention gathering together with your department in order to collaborate. The board that I work for is currently on strike, so I haven't participated in a staff meeting or collaboration in quite some time. It's really unfortunate, collaboration is such a fruitful project!

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