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All I Really Need to Know About Collaboration I Learned in Kindergarten

Note: Jennifer Medbery, founder and CEO of Kickboard, is guest posting this week.

It's mid-August, and here in New Orleans that means this week is the first week of school for most students.

Specifically, I've got Kindergarten on the brain. Just yesterday, I had the opportunity to watch 75 six-year-olds step off the school bus and, with pride and a bit of hesitation, follow their teachers into bright and welcoming classrooms to begin their formal academic journey.

As a former high school teacher, I couldn't help but think about the skills these young people would be practicing throughout the year - skills like collaboration and team-building we learn at a young age that serve us well over and over again throughout our adult life.

Before I go any further, two quick notes. First, thank you Rick for sharing your soapbox with me for the next few days. I'm humbled by the invitation. Second, a shout-out to all those who blog with regularity. I don't maintain my own blog, and every time I'm invited to guest blog, I'm reminded about how hard it is to actually write something that will challenge conventional wisdom, provoke debate, and/or inspire action. Exhibit A: the first few drafts of this post. There is, after all, a reason I majored in Computer Science - those 40-page theses my English-major friends were writing were seriously intimidating.

Truth be told, those first few drafts of this post bore the title "Teaching is a Team Sport: Best Practices for Teacher Collaboration." Snore, I know. How many times have we been subjected to that article already?

So, here's my commitment to you, fellow Straight Up readers. No platitudes. No fluff. No hype about silver bullets. Let's dig many levels deeper over the next few days and get practical. As best I can, I'll channel Rick's ability to eloquently stir the pot. And if you want to challenge my assertions or push my argument further, let me hear it in the comments below.

With that, let's get back to Kindergarten and collaboration.

The "Captain Obvious" Dilemma

According to a study published this year in Sociology of Education, researchers found that students whose teachers regularly collaborated and participated in professional communities showed greater improvement in their math scores than students whose teachers did not participate in collaborative efforts.

The study, which drew data from a population of nearly 5,000 students, also linked teacher collaboration to smaller learning gaps between diverse racial and socioeconomic student groups.

While this seems obvious, collaboration doesn't happen out of thin air. It's not a straightforward process you can automate with technology. It involves human beings, and as such, it can be messy and non-linear. And let's be real - teachers are busy, and change is hard.

Educators with the best intentions may very well head into the new school year enthusiastic about co-planning lessons, observing each others' classrooms, designing interdisciplinary projects, and yet that initial commitment falls to the wayside as the diagnostics and essays and lab reports stack up. Sound familiar?

How do you actually sustain collaboration beyond surface-level commitment? What is the secret sauce?

"To be successful, I knew our school needed a culture where teachers feel comfortable pushing each other to strive to greater heights," says Niloy Gangopadhyay, principal of Success Preparatory Academy, a K-6 turnaround charter in New Orleans.

"Teaching often feels like a very private act, so school leaders can offer ways to bring teachers together to break down walls, learn about one another and develop empathy and understanding for each other, which enables them to better support their colleagues."

All well and good, but what does this actually look like in practice?

Gangopadhyay says, "We focus on team-building exercises during our professional development sessions to help instill collegiality, professionalism, and vulnerability in our school culture so teachers are comfortable receiving feedback, addressing shortfalls and sharing ideas."

Not to be Confused with Trust Falls and Kumbaya

Let's be clear that the type of team development we're talking about isn't the touchy-feely kind. Instead, it has everything to do with enabling a school team to be laser-focused in achieving its organizational mission.

In my discussions with school leaders and teachers across the country, common themes often emerge. It's easy to see which resources get results, have staying power, and spread quickly to other schools.

Here are three such ideas for fostering collaboration and a true sense of team as your staff heads back to school.

1. To build the foundation of vulnerability-based trust that Mr. Gangopadhyay describes, start a faculty meeting with the personal histories exercise from 5 Dysfunctions of a Team. Lead your team to discover their preferred working styles with the Whole Brain model, and you'll notice how naturally colleagues refer to each other as reds, yellows, greens and blues when working together throughout the year.

2. Many schools in the Kickboard community start every morning with a "standup" meeting where staff members share what they're focused on. To make this your own ritual, adapt these three questions to ensure the daily routine is beneficial and creates a greater visibility between classrooms. And get comfortable being uncomfortable, as you're going to have to insist on consistency when people make excuses for being late - and they will - until it becomes a welcome routine.

3. Take a tour of Achievement Prep Academy in Washington, D.C., and principal Shantelle Wright is quick to point out the collaborative planning room. Make this idea your own by moving all the teacher desks into the same room and you'll literally encourage staff to run into each other and exchange ideas. And nothing gets a group of adults more jazzed than a room that's been IdeaPainted.

Granted, building a strong, collaborative staff culture is not something you can simply check off a back-to-school checklist. It requires sustained effort throughout the year. What it doesn't require is a lot of money or shiny new tools. (Yes, the irony of being an edtech CEO advocating for some good old-fashioned team building and furniture rearranging is not lost on me.)

As Patrick Lencioni writes, "In an age where we have come to believe that improvement can be found only in complexity, it can be hard for leaders to embrace the simple and straightforward."

The secret to successful collaboration may very well be what we learned in Kindergarten - do the simple things consistently well even when it gets difficult.

No doubt I've overlooked a few practical pearls of wisdom - in the spirit of collaboration, please do share your thoughts below or find me on Twitter: @jenmedbery.

--Jennifer Medbery

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