Educators often say that education is frustratingly isolating. And if you talk with them about collaboration, you quickly learn that they know it can be a powerful tool to improve teaching and learning—and many feel a growing expectation to collaborate.
Reducing the isolation starts with the recognition that collaboration is a learned skill. Educators can begin to learn it by focusing on five key aspects.
Collaboration Requires Trust
As you think about potential collaborative partners, connect with someone committed to improving teaching and learning. Whether you’re working with a longtime friend or someone new, work on building trust into the relationship. There are two steps to building trust.
Create a safe environment: Like Becky Putzier, a librarian at the Bertchi School in Seattle, you may find it challenging just getting to the point where you can collaborate with another teacher. She recognizes that “educators are good at creating safe spaces for students to learn, but they don’t always do the same for teachers.” Her first step was to find out what was going on in her learning partner’s life and classroom. Putzier believes that if she hadn’t created this safe space, “I wouldn’t have been able to talk about professional issues.”
Show respect: Annie Tremonte, a coach in the Renton School District in Washington State, says that “respecting the ideas, opinions, and perspectives of your learning partner fosters a natural, productive relationship between peers.” Using norms such as “presume positive intentions” can help the two of you create and maintain respect. When potential differences surface, use this norm by asking your peer to explain their thinking and how their approach reaches your shared goals. This opens the discussion instead of letting emotions shut it down.
Collaboration Should Focus on Student Learning
Whether they’re co-planning a learning activity or debriefing after observing a peer, successful collaborators discuss student learning, not the teachers. Following this norm keeps the conversation safe by anchoring it on the students, and it provides an avenue to talk about changes needed to meet student needs.
Collaboration Must Be Manageable
The demands for change in schools may seem overwhelming to some educators, so avoid adding to the problem—instead work to keep change manageable. If your learning partner believes you’re pushing for too much change, they may stay with current practices or end the collaboration.
Nicole Tanner, an elementary school peer coach in the Richland 2 School District in South Carolina, reminds us, “You don’t have to jump the whole distance the first time.” Instead, she suggests setting small, achievable, intermediate goals. Keeping it manageable meant that Tanner’s learning partner “was excited about small successes and wanted to continue to collaborate. Small steps eventually build up.”
Luis Melo, an elementary school teacher and peer coach in the Flagstaff Unified Schools in Arizona, keeps change manageable by “going slow to go fast.” Moving slowly while reaching intermediate goals, Melo says, “gives you more security that what you are doing is working. Eventually these slower first steps mean you can move faster toward your goals.”
Collaboration Should Be Supportive
Supportive collaborators understand the value of learning with and from each other. When co-planning learning activities with peers, Tyler Abernathy, a peer coach at a middle school in the Richland 2 district, says that he “listens carefully, engaging in give-and-take discussions, sharing your own ideas, getting other ideas, and building on both sets of ideas.” The result of this kind of collaboration, Tanner says, “is a really nice mosaic.”
You may find an answer on how to be supportive in your classroom. When a student needs assistance, do you give them the answer or help them develop the skills and strategies needed to solve their question? If you use the second approach, you have a proven strategy for supporting peers. Instead of advocating for a solution, educators successful at collaboration find that inquiry helps peers answer the issues they are facing, and develop their capacity to improve teaching and learning.
Successful use of inquiry relies on effective communication skills like listening and asking probing questions. Coaches can help you develop these skills, and you can also use resources like the Pocket Guide to Probing Questions to learn and practice them on your own.
Collaboration Should Consider Peers’ Privacy
No one involved in collaboration wants to see any of their failings aired in public or to have their learning partner share something that is used in a formal teacher evaluation. But we need to challenge our ideas on privacy if we want to see collaboration influence learning across our schools.
If the results of your collaboration help students learn, work with your learning partner to define what you want to share, and with what audience. Melo says his school’s Friday “Dare to Share” sessions, where teachers explain what they’re doing to improve student achievement, creates a “friendly environment that encourages learning from each other.”
You may want to start by sharing at a team meeting. But don’t stop there. Blog about your work, participate in discussions on social media, and share at conferences. We all face the same challenges, so make your work public to help others.