George Lucas Educational Foundation

Schools That Work | Practice

Wildwood IB World Magnet School

Grades K-8 | Chicago, IL

Teacher Collaboration: Matching Complementary Strengths

At Wildwood IB World Magnet School, teacher collaboration fosters a supportive professional culture, lessens teacher conflict, and provides students with schoolwide best practices.
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Teacher Collaboration: Spreading Best Practices School-Wide (Transcript)

Karl: When we work together, we are able to create something great for our students. That collaboration creates an amazing school environment.

Mary Beth: One of the biggest challenges of any school is people go into their rooms and they close their doors and that's the way teaching used to be, right? So you have to begin making it not okay to close your door.

Karl: So often we hold all the good things we do to ourselves because it becomes kind of like a competition.

Georgia: But when you're able to collaborate with your colleagues, it really affects the students' education.

I'm not sure we're having the exact same idea.

Mary Beth: In terms of building a team, you have to think about where are the strengths.

Georgia: Our principal saw that I have this strength and he has that strength, so when she put us together, it was hard at first.

Okay, there are differences in opinion.

Karl: Yeah, big time.

The truth is, is that we didn't really like each other.

Georgia: Because we were very different people, different styles.

Karl: But when we started working together, we were both passionate about working, we were both willing to put the time in.

Mary Beth: They started talking to each other. "Well, what text are you using? How are you making that connection? How are you going to run your writing conference?" IT was like the conversation of the month.

Karl: We're both understanding that the main goal as a teacher is to get those students to learn.

Georgia: Okay, got it.

Karl: Got it?

Teacher collaboration at Wildwood is really intentional. In our schedule, when we have our preps, they're aligned to each other.

Georgia: I wanted to also talk to you about our current budgeting activity. Do you think they're ready to take a whole four day, three night vacation with the thousand dollar budget?

Karl: We didn't do this last year as far as doing the activity. We did the questions, we did everything like that, but we didn't do the activity.

Georgia: We didn't prep them as much.

Karl: Right. That whole area in that project.

Georgia: They struggled.

Karl: Was what they struggled on.

Georgia: Remember, because last year we also had a few issues with the itemized lists, that they weren't being specific enough with the costs.

Karl: What we can do to help them out with that is like every morning, we can have a little mini activity that will have budgeting that they have to do. Then moving on into the big activity, which is this vacation.

Georgia: Yeah, perfect, I like that, because it's just a little bit, we're building every day, so that's a good idea.

That relationship, when you can bounce ideas off of each other, it's to the benefit of the students.

Karl: We should be helping each other out and stop holding in all the things that we do great, and sharing it with others so that they can make those same gains within their classroom. And that's really what's important about it, is that the collaboration creates that equality for all students.

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  • Producer: Kristin Atkins
  • Field Producer: Megan Garner
  • Editor: Melissa Thompson
  • Production Coordinator: Julia Lee
  • Camera: Brad White
  • Sound: Steve Filmer
  • Graphics: Cait Camarata, Douglas Keely


Spreading Best Practices Schoolwide

Teacher collaboration at Wildwood helps to diffuse conflicting adult dynamics, fosters a collaborative culture that puts the students' learning first, and turns a teacher's best practice into a schoolwide best practice.

Teacher collaboration is a top priority at Wildwood. Here is what works for them:

  • Teachers share work products on a common drive.
  • Teacher preparation time is aligned by grade level, creating grade-level teams.
  • Protocols and agendas are set up to help conflicting personalities learn to appreciate each other and work well together.

"So often we hold all the good things we do to ourselves because it becomes kind of a like a competition," says fourth-grade teacher Karl Wiedegreen. "We should be helping each other, and stop holding in all the things that we do great, and share it with others so that they can make those same gains within their classroom."

How It's Done

Virtual Collaboration: Share Work Products on a Common Drive

By sharing work products on Google Drive, Wildwood teachers know what their colleagues outside of their collaboration group are doing. They also know how they're doing it. This enables them to replicate and/or get ideas from each other.

Even without meeting in person, they have instant access to work products, like:

  • Unit plans
  • Lesson plans
  • Curriculum maps

Schedule Time for Collaboration

"Teacher collaboration at Wildwood is really intentional," says fourth-grade teacher Karl Wiedegreen. "It's intentional with the common preps we have. We have grade-level meetings. We have opportunities when we want to come in the morning to work together, stay in the afternoon and work together."

Making time for that collaboration is often a burden that falls to the school's leadership. Mary Beth Cunat, Wildwood's principal, plays a large role in scheduling time for teachers. "A principal must do what it takes to remove the obstacle of 'too much to do' and 'not enough time,'" says Cunat.

Leveraging the master schedule to ensure common preparation time between her teachers is one way that Cunat helps make collaboration work for them.

"When we have our preps," says Wiedegreen, "they're aligned to each other so that those grade-level teams can meet and work together on anything that we're doing in our units. We can look together and say, 'OK, what are we working on? What are we doing? Are we in the same area? Are we at the same pace?'"

"When teachers are able to collaborate and have planning time during the day, especially built into the schedule, you have somebody there, a partner that has your back and will be there --because teaching is quite difficult," says fourth-grade teacher Georgia Melidis. "It's very involved. We wear many hats, and you need somebody there that really understands you, and supports you, and is there sometimes to vent to, or to ask to help problem solve."

Cunat works in other ways to support her teachers in making time for collaboration:

  • She provides a substitute teacher for half days once per quarter to ensure collaborative work.
  • She provides extra time for peer-to-peer observation.
  • She offers to create an agenda for teacher preparation once per week.
  • She encourages her teachers to attend conferences, school site visits, and professional development together.
  • She invites her teams to share out at school-wide staff meetings.
  • She encourages all staff to leave their doors open, fostering a transparent, collaborative environment.

"One of the biggest challenges of any school is when people go into their rooms and close their doors," says Cunat. "That's the way teaching used to be, right? So you have to begin making it not OK to close your door."

Create Collaboration Teams

Cunat pairs teachers by their grade, content, and strengths. When she paired Wiedegreen with Melidis, she looked not only at their teaching strengths, but also at how their personalities would complement each other.

"We are very different people," says Melidis about Wiedegreen. "Now when I look back, I see that that really works to our benefit because he is the more social one, and he has the energy of aliveness. I have more of the workability energy where we just work so perfectly as a team."

Once teachers begin experiencing success as a team, they start feeling connected to each other, expanding collaboration outside of their meetings and transforming the school culture.

"New teachers are oriented to it," says Cunat. "And anyone who might prefer not to still has to show up and offer their best thinking -- it is expected and unheard of to do otherwise. Once the teachers convey that, the move from a culture of compliance to a culture of commitment has started."

Use Protocols and Agendas to Resolve Teacher Conflict

Wiedegreen and Melidis weren't looking forward to working with each other at first.

"The truth is that we didn't really like each other," says Wiedegreen.

"We really did not get along," agrees Melidis.

When Cunat's teachers run into issues with colliding personalities, she recommends using protocols and agendas in collaborative meetings to help overcome those challenges.

"Protocols set the expectation that this is about the work, not about the personalities involved," she explains. "Building success through a protocol begins to help others see the value of a colleague's contribution. For instance, an inquiry protocol about a student work sample and the kind of thinking that had to have occurred to make it focused on students, not adult dynamics. This is always a win because teachers walk out of a meeting knowing they have done something right by kids."

Protocols and agendas not only keep the focus on the students' work rather than the teachers' personalities, but they also assure that everyone is on point during their collaboration time. They foster efficient and productive collaboration, and they help collaborators see their colleagues' value.

"We discussed that working together will create an easier experience for us in the long run," says Wiedegreen, "and it has because everything we do, we do together. Two minds are greater than one. I learn from her; she learns from me."

Through building trust, appreciation, and partnership, teachers cease to view their collaboration as a hindrance. Instead, it becomes an essential source of support, and the reflection, planning, and shared practices benefit the students.

"When she put us together, it was hard at first," admits Melidis, "but when we were able to sit down and get to know each other and plan our lessons, we started appreciating each other and our differences. And we really worked on our strengths, put them together. And now, I can't teach without him, it seems like, because we sit down and plan together after school, before school, and any time we have a break during the day."

Co-Plan Your Lessons

A typical planning session between Melidis and Wiedegreen starts with preparing their lesson for the following day by supplementing the materials together, strategizing how they'll teach, and asking each other how they think their kids will respond to the lesson. As collaborative teammates, Melidis and Wiedegreen can bounce ideas off each other and problem solve together.

"When teachers plan, it really positively impacts the students," says Melidis, "and this is because the teachers are prepared, they have problem solved already, and they're reflecting on all their lessons together."

"We've created this type of relationship," Wiedegreen reflects, "where it's OK to come in and say, 'What are you doing on journal prompts? I need to know right now and take it.' Or, 'What are you doing in the afternoon for math? I know that we're working in fractions, but do you have anything that you're going to do besides what's being asked inside the curriculum?' Or, 'Hey, I know we're reading this novel. Are you starting to introduce the characters? Are you having them look at it before we read, or are you looking at it when you're reading?' . . . So when we have a partner to work with and to collaborate with, it makes it so much easier. My job is really easy when I have someone to help me burden the load, help me when I'm in need of support, and be there so I can actually support her, too. It makes our job way easier, and we actually have a great relationship that way."

Getting Started

When first exploring teacher collaboration, Wiedegreen describes how humanizing his colleagues helped the process. His tips for teachers getting their feet wet with teacher collaboration:

  • Talk to each other.
  • Get to know your peers.
  • Understand that your colleagues are human with their own issues and lives.
  • Share your ideas instead of keeping them to yourself.

"By sharing things that you do really well, it's going to give every school -- every student in that school -- an opportunity to thrive and to learn great things," says Wiedegreen. "So instead of saying, 'Wow, that's really weird, and I would never do that, and your class is crazy,' think and ask them why they do these things, and what are the benefits. Start to realize maybe they're crazy because they're all talking together, they're all learning together, and start to see the great things that we're all doing at the school."

More on Teacher Collaboration

  • What if your principal doesn't schedule collaborative time?
  • What if you don't have a principal to create your agenda?
  • How do you create collaborative teams if you come from a small school with one or two teachers per grade?
  • How do you create a culture where asking for help is OK?

For more ideas on making teacher collaboration work at your school, visit "Making the Most Out of Teacher Collaboration." Explore and delve into the rich discussion in the comments.


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Katie M's picture

Hi there,
Thank you for all the wonderful ideas to help with starting to collaborate with another educator. I think teacher collaboration is fabulous and I do as much sharing of ideas and lessons I find as possible with my colleagues. I have a common planning time this year with a new teaching partner and would like to co-plan as much as possible, but it is hard for us because my students catch on to concepts much faster than the other group. My question is, what do you do when you have students that are at very different levels academically? For example, my students are at a lot higher levels than my team teacher. It takes the majority of my students much less time to understand a concept than the other teacher's students. Do you have any ideas for co-planning when this occurs? I don't want to continue working on a skill they already have mastered instead of moving them on just to wait for the other teachers students, if that makes sense. Thanks in advance for any advice you may have!

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

Katie, great question. Is it possible to mix together your two groups of students so the ones who catch on quicker can help support the ones who need more time? Or a way to do a project with different roles so those with different strengths can contribute to various sections or aspects? I wonder about a combination between PBL and differentiation being the sweet spot.

monkap's picture

This is an awesome read. To my understanding, effective collaboration requires a common vision and a shared goal that has some sort of a social value. Evidently at this school, the quality of students learning is a priority. I really appreciate you mentioning the use of technology to facilitate collaboration. I recently created a Powtoon Montage of just a few of the numerous free technologies that are available for collaboration. I really like the idea of using technology because the workspace can be accessed from anywhere and by anytime, changes and progress can be monitored over time, and work can easily be presented and shared. I really appreciate that in this article, it is mentioned that the administrator must plan schedules so that collaboration time is a part of the teaching routine. The board hat I currently work for is also under Work-To-Rule, meaning we do not have staff meetings, and determined by our union. However, I have previously had a position in a school where the science department was very aligned interns of the order of units, the projects that were carried out, and time frames for assessments. I really like the routine because planning was greatly reduced and so was preparation time. For example, if one of us set up a single experiment, we would leave it out for the next week or so, so that each class got a chance to use it. It was definitely more time-efficienct! At the end of the article, you raise some very important questions.

a) If the principal doesn't schedule collaborative time ( like my school), or doesn't create an agenda... it is important to express to colleagues that you are interested in investing a little bit of time to meet and share ideas. Encourage colleagues that the little time investment will be very beneficial !

c) I also thin kith if you come from a small school with one or two teachers per grade, teachers should be pared with someone teaching the next higher or lower grades. This could be very helpful because that way the teachers will know what skills the students should have developed in the previous year, an also discussion can take place regarding what skills will better for the future!

Thank you for this article, it gave me a lot to think about!

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