What I've Learned About Being a Good Collaborator
This week's entry is dedicated to my current grade level colleagues: Annie, Chris, Martha, Claudia, and Laura. Thank you so much for coming to the table each and every week with open hearts and open minds. I am honored to teach alongside you, collaborate with you, and learn from all of you.
Collaboration is one of those education buzzwords. By this I mean it's a word that sounds like a great concept but in actuality, it's open to interpretation. I've learned a thing or two over the last 20 plus years about what it means to collaborate but also how to go about this important job. Simply put, collaboration is having an honest and open dialogue on the ways to best help students achieve to their full potential. To collaborate requires teachers, who are used to controlling many students doing many things at once, to let go. To truly collaborate you have to let go of the need to be right, the need to be the shining star, the need to be the expert, the need to be heard, or the need to hideout. We all have our moments of need but in my opinion, staying stuck in one of these "needs" can lead to a group that is functional but disengaged. They never truly collaborate about instruction but they will talk about schedules, calendars, and programs until the cows come home.
A good place to begin true collaboration is with a set of norms, behaviors or agreements everyone agrees to follow. There are lots out there so I am going to pick and choose from the norms I have found beneficial. The first one that I like to start with, especially when working with a new group of people, comes from Garmston and Wellman: presuming positive intentions. This means you need to assume that others want the best from their students just as much as you do; that they care about their students just as much as you do. So when someone disagrees with what you say, it's because they truly believe a better answer is out there. Another great norm I find helpful for collaboration comes from my work on policy teams with Educators 4 Excellence (E4E): step up, step back. This means being aware of how you are behaving in the group. If you have been talking a lot, quiet down. If you've been quiet awhile, speak up. Have the ability or mindset to be present with yourself and others.
So now is probably a good time to mention that when you first start working with norms, they seem completely unnatural. You can feel overly self-conscious but don't give up. I have found that the more you engage in norms, the easier it gets. People begin to disagree in a productive way, resulting in better decisions. The heart of collaboration is to not only to build great instruction and boost student achievement, it's also a way to have shared decision-making. I have found that you need a process to hear everyone's feelings on the final decisions being made, silence can be deadly (read more about deadly group behaviors here). At my school we call this coming to consensus. You have to walk away with consensus or everyone walks away feeling unsure of what just happened and nothing gets accomplished. (You can reach consensus in many ways. One way that works well at my school is using the "Fist of Five" to ensure everyone's voice is heard, especially those who come to the conversation with concerns.)
Collaboration is one of the hardest things to do as a teacher. It's much easier to shut the door to your classroom and do your own thing. I stick with it because collaboration yields the best ideas. Because of colleagues like, Annie, Chris, Martha, Claudia, and Laura, they make the very difficult job of teaching easier just by working together. I stick with it because together, we grow in our profession to become even better teachers.