Teachers often experience a sense of isolation. Most often a routine is developed in which the teacher arrives at school, walks into a classroom, shuts the door, and for many and varied reasons does not emerge again until it is time to go home. In this scenario the only places for teacher interaction is in the hallway or parking lot as they come and go. There are many teachers who like it or even prefer it this way, but this limited interaction does not encourage teacher professional growth. To be a truly effective teacher one must learn from others in the profession. One proven way to accomplish this is through collaboration.
What is collaboration?
In many schools, teachers have opportunities to gather in hallways, cafeterias, lounges, or other areas in the school to talk. The topics of these conversations tend to be personal in nature and have very little to do with teaching or the teaching profession. The one exception to this may be if two or more teachers are working towards an advanced degree and they are in the same class. In this case, very often the topic of the conversation will be about what they are learning in their class and how it applies to their classrooms. These conversations may be helpful from the stand point of stress relief and building camaraderie among teachers but are not times of collaboration.
Professional Learning Communities co-creators Rick DuFour, Rebecca DuFour, and Robert Eaker would define collaboration as teams of teachers who work interdependently to achieve common goals — goals linked to the purpose of learning for all — for which members are held mutually accountable. This type of definition seems to take all the fun out of teacher planning time, but it is exactly what needs to be in place in order to build strong students and strong teachers.
It can be said that creating a culture of collaboration is often met with resistance. Teachers may feel that this is an invasion of their classrooms where their mentality is one of “they know what their students need because they know their students best” or “they have been teaching for a long time and have not had any problems yet”. Harry K. Wong, a well-known educational author, states that the trademark of effective schools is a culture where all teachers take responsibility for the learning of all students. The key to strong collaboration is recognizing that a student shouldn’t be the responsibility of only one teacher, but of all teachers. In this way, all areas of a student’s growth and development is shared among professionals, thus leading to a better rounded education. Effective collaboration also improves teacher performance. Increased effective collaboration exposes teachers to improved practices, which leads to stronger teachers.
There are 2 critical factors that will have impact upon the success of teacher collaboration. The individual teachers who “buy in” to the idea of collaboration will determine the level of participation and thus the outcomes. Secondly, an understanding of how to effectively engage in collaborative work with fellow teachers is critical to the process. Here are some ideas to consider as you think about collaboration in your school:
- Develop a collaborative community: Relationships among collaborative members is crucial. Mutual respect for each other can be gained by getting to know each other on a personal as well as a professional level. Pre-conceived ideas about others must be left outside of the group and there must be openness toward embracing each other in a new and positive way. This will take time to develop and will require a lot of work among the members. In addition, there must be trust in each other. All members must be counted upon to attend all meetings, show up on time, and be an active and contributing member and accepting of the ideas of others.
- Create a shared vision: Creating a shared vision will directly impact the level of ownership that is felt by each member of the group. In addition, goals should be created that will guide the group in the direction of attaining the vision. The vision and related goals will set the tone and agendas for the meetings. It is also necessary to continually assess the progress made towards the goals. This connection between the shared vision and subsequent goals will define the work of the team and can help members see the purpose and ensure ownership on the part of each individual.
- Establish Protocols: The level of transparency that is needed for effective collaboration can be uncomfortable. In order to progress towards the goals established by the group, our fellow teachers will see both our strengths and areas needing growth. The group must take the time to establish a climate of trust that is necessary for open communication. Areas to consider for developing protocols to ensure the smooth functioning of the group include defining roles and responsibilities, how the group will communicate thoughts and ideas, and defining time parameters.
- Proactively manage conflict: When engaging in conversations such as those taking place during collaboration, conflict may arise. This should be proactively managed by establishing a conflict management plan. There are many ways to manage conflict including providing support and time for individuals to work through the reasons that are causing conflict. All members of the group should be vigilant with regards to managing their own responses and interactions with their colleagues. A little professionalism in these situations will go a long way in preventing conflict.