Collaboration: It’s Not Just for Students Anymore

Round Table

photo credit: mnadi via photopin cc

Like many teachers, one thing that attracted me to the profession was the idea that I would be in charge of my own classroom, my own little world. I like doing things on my own. I eschew book clubs and I do not exercise with a running partner. Two people cooking in the kitchen is one too many as far as I’m concerned.

Years ago, I was talking to someone about my plans to go into teaching and this person, who was not a teacher said, “You can close your classroom door and no one will bother you.”

It turns out that idea was completely false. If that model for teaching ever existed, it’s gone for good now. And I’m sure that we are better off for it. Still, we teachers are independent people. We are used to doing things ourselves, without expecting any outside support. However, we are at a point now where even the most isolationist among us our is forced to admit that collaboration is the way of the future.

My school district instituted Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) about ten years ago, but I don’t remember receiving any special training or professional development about how to participate effectively in a PLC. Teachers are told to use data to drive decisions, and that we need SMART goals and group norms. Armed with these rather nebulous concepts, we are left  to our PLCs, fingers crossed, hoping we can find a way to get things done.

But how do we work together? How do we  find the trust, mutual respect, and confidence needed to actually make instructional decisions together?

Since I am not expert on the topic, I did a bit of research on teacher collaboration and workplace collaboration in general. Here are some useful resources and tips I found.

The first two are taken from the world of comedy improv (and explained by Randy Nelson, former dean of Pixar University).

1) Accept every offer. 

As Randy Nelson states in the YouTube video below,”if you don’t accept that offer, it goes nowhere. So you’ve got a sure thing on one hand, dead end, or you’ve got a possibility on the other.”

This sounds obvious, but in many PLCs, it is much easier for people to point out what’s wrong with an idea than it is to truly listen and build on it.

2) Make your partner look good. 

This isn’t a competition. In order to build teams where members trust each other, people need know they aren’t going to be judged or torn down when they take a risk. They also need to believe they will get credit for their hard work.

The next two tips come from te@chthought. Even though these are meant to help student teams, I think they apply to teachers as well:

3) Build trust and promote open communication.

For student groups, this means teaching group members to allow each other to fully explain their ideas and to listen to each other closely. It also means that the teacher needs to help deal with emotional / social issues as they arise.

How does this concept fit into adult teams? Well, emotional and social issues come up there too. People should feel like they have an open forum to say their ideas and to let people know when there has been a perceived slight. Also, and this is a big one, people need to listen to each other without interrupting, allowing everyone enough time to fully explain what he or she is trying to say.

4) Use Problem-Solving Strategies.

Miriam Clifford, writing for Te@achthought, outlines a basic strategy procedure for this:

  1. Identify the objectives.
  2. Set the criteria or goal.
  3. Gather data.
  4. Generate options or courses of action.
  5. Evaluate the options using data and objectives.
  6. Reach a decision.
  7. Implement the decision. (See 20 Collaborative Learning Tips, Section 12).

Maybe this progression of steps sounds obvious, but in my experience, teacher PLCs tend to skip several crucial items. We may, for example, spend a meeting generating ideas without reaching a decision and finding a way to implement it. Too many PLC’s end with someone saying, “Good ideas, everyone,” and then we go off and teach the exact way were before the meeting.

Here is a tip from Elena Aguilar, writing for Edutopia:

5) Return to the Purpose. 

Elena Aguilar, a transformational leadership coach from Oakland, California, says, “…the majority of teams struggle because they aren’t clear about why they exist or what they are charged to do.” I see this all the time. The PLC meeting time is set. We are told to “use student data,” but we aren’t told our overall purpose. According to Aguilar, sometimes teams need to research and agree upon a purpose and then be reminded to reference it often. This would go a long way to making PLCs more productive.

I’ll end this blog post with a bit of interesting information from Ben Johnson’s Professional Development blog on Edutopia: “The Shanghai teacher reported teaching 15 hours a week and collaborating 7.5 hours a week. The Singapore teacher spends 18 hours teaching and 15 hours collaborating each week” (Professional Development in Other Countries section). Let’s compare this with the one hour, that’s right one hour a week for collaboration we have in my school district. We know that collaboration is important, but we need to keep our expectations realistic. We can only do so much in one hour a week.

Here’s a possible solution:

6) Use Technology to Communicate Better

One idea to make this hour a week go further comes from school librarian Susan Oremland, writing for Knowledge Quest. At her high school, the librarian partnered with several teachers from multiple disciplines to support students on junior and senior research projects. Because teacher time was limited and they did not have common prep periods, they had an initial meeting to “hash out the general goals and formats,” and then used Google Docs to, “create and share project timeline documents that designated responsibilities for each member of the team” (Oremland, 2013, p. 63).

Not all teachers are willing to spend that extra amount of time on the computer and unfortunately, not all teachers are comfortable with the technology, but I am positive that many PLCs would collaborate more effectively if they were to think of their one hour weekly meeting as the initial conference, starting a conversation which continues online.

I don’t think of this as more work for the teacher because he or she will be lesson planning individually anyway. If PLC members commit to sharing these lessons in a central place like a Google Doc, they will actually be saving each other time. Eventually, people will know that for every contribution they make to a given unit, they can expect that to come back to them several times over from their team members.

References

Aguilar, E. (2014). Tips for coaching teacher teams. Retrieved November 20, 2014, from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/tips-coaching-teacher-teams-elena-aguilar

Clifford, Miriam. (2014, September 23). 20 collaborative learning tips and strategies for teachers. te@chthought. Retrieved from http://www.teachthought.com/learning/20-collaborative-learning-tips-and-strategies/

Ellis, K. (Producer), & Sutherland, K. (Director). (2008). Randy Nelson on learning and working in a collaborative age. [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/randy-nelson-school-to-career-video

Johnson, B. (2014, October 16). How should professional development change?  from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/how-should-professional-development-change-ben-johnson

Oremland, S. (2013). Collaboration and Technology for Authentic Research Projects. Knowledge Quest,41(4), 60-68.

 photo credit: mnadi via photopin cc

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