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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Team Building and Collaboration: A Necessary Combination

Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former Edutopia.org blogger
I have seen big initiatives, large grants, and schoolwide efforts that haven't achieved the results that were hoped for, and in some cases, the reason can be tied directly to a lack of buy-in and schoolwide collaboration.

On the other hand, I have seen some large-scale projects, as well as very small ones, in which collaboration was a key component, and when the key players actively built in a structure for collaboration, as opposed to just hoping or assuming it would happen, the project ran more smoothly.

I suggest that in most cases the reason school faculties, and district central offices, aren't collaborating is because a truly unified front has not been developed and acted on. Our general mode of operation is to do things the way we've always done them. For example, a science department, with its own budget, applies for a grant to provide professional development for science teachers. Mostly out of sheer habit, the only people involved in the grant planning, writing, and development are those in the immediate reach of the science department. Of course, this isn't an intentional effort to exclude others; it's a mind-set, a part of a culture in which we're pushed for time and overly busy.

Making a concerted effort to include others in all aspects of brainstorming, project planning, and writing, developing, and implementing projects, however, can only add to the chances of success and will yield a collaborative mind-set that continues beyond the life of a project. However, I don't think that's going to happen by wishing. It must be an agreed-on procedural issue from the bottom up and from the top down. Once we get into practice of thinking collaboratively, and concretely and procedurally working to make it happen, we change old habits.

When I work with schools and districts on team building, I have a specific chart I use for a reflection activity. I also encourage schools to print large poster-size copies of it, and I suggest to principals and school district leaders that they go so far as to mandate that all faculty actively use this kind of document. Once this becomes part of the general mind-set for planning, it encourages collaboration across the board and begins to render itself unnecessary.

What concrete efforts do you make to encourage collaboration beyond the superficial?

Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former Edutopia.org blogger
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Chris O'Neal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)
Great thoughts... Bryan - my suggestion isn't at all to add tasks, but to get the disconnected tasks connected by making a concrete effort to unify faculties, etc. Teachers are, in my opinion, one of the absolute most swamped people on earth with time and number of tasks. Working hard to collaborate doesn't involve additional time, it involves thinking differently. For example, a school I visited recently had science department meetings after schools on Mondays, math meetings after school on Tuesdays, enrichment on Wednesdays, and so on. These departments never once met together in the past school year, other than a beginning-of-year kickoff faculty meeting. What happened was a huge waste of the overall time in the school - several grants were written and received that, if written collaboratively, would have yielded a much more efficient use of time, funds, and energy. Instead, numerous staff members kept having to do repetitious tasks without even realizing it or needing to! I'm hoping schools can look inward to find inefficient uses of time and coordinate those better! I'm also pushing for all of us in education to just start now - make a new effort to collaborate in a way we haven't done before. It's certainly easier said than done, but I think making a concrete, tangible plan to do so will make it more of a reality than accepting that it probably can't happen. Small steps at first lead to huge gains. I've seen it first hand!
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that "team building and collaboration are two of the most important components of an effective school" (O'Neal). The problem for me is that my grade level never meets. I am a new teacher, and I could definitely use the guidance from other teachers. Not only will I benefit from team meetings but my students will also benefit from them. What can I do or say to get my colleagues to meet more often?

Nicole's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Chris,
I could not agree more with your opinion that collaboration and team building are essential to effective schools. I am fortunate enough to work in a department that is all about collaboration and working together to provide the best education possible for our students. We take the time to plan lessons together and to observe and give feedback on such lessons. However, I know that there are many teachers out there who are not fortunate enough to share in this experience.

According to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, all teachers should be members of learning communities and should strive to collaborate in order to benefit the students and school district. Why is it then that some teachers are so unwilling to work with others? I think some teachers are not willing to put the time and effort needed to effectively work together. I am an educator and truly understand how much work is involved in teaching, but I do feel it is essential to work with other teachers, administrators, and parents to ensure the best education for students. I think schools need to sit down and consider the importance of collaboration and strive to incorporate more ways to work together within the school.

Teresa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that team building and collaboration has been beneficial to me. It has given me the opportunity to learn new strategies and share techniques that can be incorporated into our daily lessons. Within my district, we have mandatory grade level team meeting each week. During these meetings we analyze data to determine areas where the students need growth. We develop fun and exciting lessons to meet all our students needs. We demonstrate how we are planning and teaching lessons to see what works and ways to reteach the concepts that were not mastered by our students. I do believe that when teachers are collaborating it raises student achievement.

Melisha Bowen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is very stressful being a new teacher and I am sure it is very difficult not having a strong team. It would be beneficial for you to seek out the most effective teacher in your grade level and ask for his/her guidance. I am sure that you also have a lot to offer. Maybe when the other teachers see you working so well together, they will be inclined to collaborate as well.

Melisha Bowen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mr. O'Neal,

Teamwork and collaboration have been very helpful to me. I am fortunate that I work in a school in which collaboration is a top priority to administrators as well as teachers. My colleagues and I meet weekly to plan instruction, create assessments, view standards and discuss ways to implement them, and to share ideas and strategies. We work together as a team to improve instruction across the curriculum. This teamwork and collaboration has enabled me be a more effective teacher.

Sincerely,

Melisha Bowen

Manish's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

good thoughts indeed...

K Clark's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mr. O'Neal,

I couldn't agree with you more. I am fortunate enough to have a building principal that believes strongly in teamwork. He has made a concerted effort to provide our staff time to collaborate within grade level and schoolwide teams. The benefits are amazing. Being able to bounce ideas off of one another and share strategies makes an already difficult job a little easier.

Michaela's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach in a PLC (Professional Learning Community) high school. This means that collaboration between colleagues is one of the primary goals of our school. The administration feels that the more teachers are able to collaborate with one another, the better our teaching becomes and, therefore, more student learning takes place. At my school we have late start Mondays. This means that the first 45 minutes of every Monday we spend working in one of our two teams. We share project ideas, come up with common assessments, and evaluate student work. It is not time to work on a calendar (What are you doing tomorrow in class?), but rather a time to have a discussion about what works well and how we can reach more students. I had never heard of PLCs before I arrived at my school. But, as a newer teacher, it has helped me immensely to become more focused on what's best for my students.

Jen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too work in a school that values collaboration. We have early release Wednesdays that are intended for staff development. The only problem is that the agenda is set by the school district leaving little or no time for us to discuss our needs as a staff. When we do have a Wednesday to work on our school goals, we have too many needs for a single meeting again leaving us without time to talk about our students. I think it is time for us to focus on supporting teachers by giving us time to collaborate and grow in our professional knowledge.

I do want to mention that we meet as grade level teams on a weekly basis to set and monitor a montly action plan for reading or writing. As a team we decide what is our biggest need and we focus our attention on meeting that goal within the month. This is a great time where we can give support and ideas to our teamates.

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