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Making the Most Out of Teacher Collaboration

| Ben Johnson
Image credit: iStockphoto
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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Comments (37)

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Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

I think Samer is right- if we

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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.

Director, Antioch Center for School Renewal

Ben, this is a great summary

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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.

Community Manager at Edutopia

I just want to highlight

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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.

Collaboration and trust

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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.

Special Education Teacher - Alexandria, Virginia

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Ben, I totally agree with your steps to effective collaboration. We as professionals need to have conversations that compels our learning to a higher order of thinking. I am a special educator; and when I began teaching as a team teacher with several general education teachers, we developed ways to integrate curriculums, so that the students with disabilities were able to have consistency in their learning. In my prior school district teachers were encouraged to work together and develop strategies to help the more challenged students be successful.

After leaving and going to a school which had no clue about collaboratively working as teams to increase student and teacher learning it was very hard not having that support. I began to be somewhat reserved with teaching but realized I needed to talk about my struggles within the classroom, so a colleague and I started exchanging ideas we used in instruction and also would go to workshops together and gain knowledge to make learning more inviting to conquer the woes.

Now, because of research my school district has come to the conclusion in the past two years that teachers need to work more collaboratively building professional learning communities in-house and with other schools. Learning is a daily process as a student and teacher.

I wonder, how could professional learning communities assist those who substitute?

2nd grade teacher, Las Vegas NV

I completely agree. I think

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I completely agree. I think it is very important for grade level collaboration. I really enjoyed reading all these posts.

Secondary ELAR Teacher, Laredo, TX

I recall when I was a new

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I recall when I was a new teacher, and believe me it was reasuring when I found a teacher that I could collaborate with. It's not always easy in the teaching field, so when you can find a friend/colleague to talk to it really helps.
When we have meetings, I truly believe that there needs to be structure. Time is so limited for us these days and being prepared to discuss items is always better when those involved know what is going to be discussed. It saves time in preparing lesson plans and other people can bring in their ideas to the discussion. Everyone then can contribute and have a sense of worth.

First grade teacher, Southern California

Ben, I am presently enrolled

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Ben,
I am presently enrolled in a master degree program and we are studying PLCs and finding related blogs to gain more insight into the process. I would love to start a PLC at my school, but the problem is that we are in class with students from 8:30 to 4:30 M-Th, with hardly any planning time at all. Fridays are half days, with students leaving at 1:05, but we are usually bogged down by district meetings, which leaves very little time for collaboration. When we do have a little time, it seems that the district mandates what we are doing during that time as well. I don't know how to approach this topic at school. I feel like if I were to mention something I would get my classroom egged and papered!
I agree that PLCs are mandatory for professional growth. I am the grade level leader for 5 other teachers, all in BTSA, and this would really benefit our entire grade level. I remember that during my first year of teaching, I also felt as if I should know everything; that admitting I needed any input was a sign of weakness on my part, and I am sure my co-workers feel this same way. What suggestions do you have to help us get started?
Thank you for your post!

Special Education all areas, program for long term suspensions, 6-12 grade

Thank you for relating.

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I first want to thank you for your relational and intriguing post. I so related to early in your career when you didn't fit in because you taught a different discipline. This is how I feel daily since I teach special education and all subjects in seven grade levels! Early in my career I also felt your frustration and the mentality that I will save the world by myself. I also learned pretty quickly the grass isn't always greener on the other side.
I was inspired by your ideas on the Personal Steps to Effective Collaboration. I liked how you mentioned that what you may say when collaborating with teachers many not be 100% useful but it may spark ideas in others. I agree and love that you have the courage to be able to speak up. I see this as a big problem in our collaborative meetings. It is almost as if we need to play getting to know you games, ice breakers, and 'reminders of our classroom is a family' (as we do in our own classrooms) before we start to build a collaborative team. We need to respect each other and remind ourselves that we all come with different autobiographies, experiences, and educational insights. We need to value each other so each person feels comfortable to be able to share and learn with each other. Imagine what a difference it would make if we were not hesitant when we were collaborating. The great ideas we could acquire would be endless.

first grade teacher

We have grade-level planning

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We have grade-level planning once a week for an hour. There are four first grade teachers at our school, for the most part we collaborate quite well. We share a lot of our ideas and lessons. We each take a subject and write the lesson plan for the week and then share them with each other. We are required by the adminstration to have common assessments for each subject. This collaboration makes it so much easier for all of us. We talk about what's working and not working. We look forward to this time to talk and share strategies with each other.

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