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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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Bryan Wilkins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You left out a key component of this team bulilding and that is having the time. If it is just another task to do amoung so many others already, it will fail. If you add a task on an already burdened group, you have to take something else away. "What we will not do so that we have time to do this other?"

Bryan Wilkins
Sultana High School

Celia Szelwach's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mr. O'Neal,

I agree that Teamwork and Collaboration are competencies that are sorely needed within the school systems. As a parent, educational consultant, and adjunct faculty for a local college, I've personally observed the silos that exist within schools, between schools, and with the larger community. Since my background is primarily in the business sector, I've been asked to work with several schools to develop a better appreciation for teaming and collaborative behaviors to support career pathways development and in-service programs for faculty.

The concrete efforts I use include:

1. Asking faculty members to identify their stakeholders--who they serve. Often, there are more stakeholders than the faculty and staff recognize including seeing themselves as serving one another.

2. Identifying the barriers to teamwork and collaboration, then asking the faculty to develop strategies to remove these barriers which often exist only in their minds. In other words, a function of the status quo culture and fear of change.

3. Discussing a model for Trust Building with stakeholders and conducting "role plays" and case studies in fishbowl formats to demonstrate how to build trust and collaborative communications.

4. I asked the assistant principal and development director for one of the private schools I work with a simple question: How are the teachers collaborating to ensure the students gained maximum learning from their trip to DC next Spring? Was it possible to visit certain museums and touch upon more than just "History" with this visit? Couldn't they work together to create a brief learning guide that embeds multiple subjects into the trip and maximizes every learning experience?

I believe the shift to small learning communities has changed the structures within schools to enable more collaboration. The challenge now is to shift the cultures, mindsets, and behaviors within the schools to create a truly collaborative learning environment.

Celia Szelwach
Bradenton, FL
Creative Collaborations Consulting, Inc.

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