Not So Simple Collaboration

The concept of collaboration seems simple but it’s not. Anyone who has actually attempted to collaborate with other teachers or team members in their community knows that great collaboration is both difficult and messy. The potential for all sorts of difficulties abound. Over-communication, under-communication, miscommunication, micro-managing, inefficient task completion, lop-sided workloads and unhealthy relationships are just a few examples of how things can go wrong.

However, being apart of a great team can be a really rewarding experience. There are things that a team can accomplish that an individual could never achieve on their own. A good team can motivate and support you in difficult moments, help you see blind-spots in your teaching practice and teach you new skills. Teaching teams also provide the potential to develop meaningful relationships that will last far beyond the present job or task.

As I write this blog post, I think of a number of teachers dwell in classrooms on my wing of our Middle School that have encouraged me to write this year. I would have never had the motivation to start blogging more regularly during this school year without their input and encouragement. I’ve become a better writer and had some great conversations this year due to their engagement with my writing. This blog is really an expression of collaboration and inspirations with the colleagues at my school.

Collaboration is equally as difficult and beneficial for students. For example, there are so many learning benefits for students when they provide each other with formative feedback. There are so many things that students can say to each other that they would never accept from a teacher. For example, they might admit and that they don’t understand a certain concept to a peer but feel defensive about admitting this to a teacher. Having good collaborative teams in the classroom multiplies the amount of formative feedback in your classroom exponentially. Sometimes students come into my classroom with the expectation that learning happens in a direct exchange between the teacher the student. I attempt to change the culture of learning in my classroom so that students recognize that much of the learning in our classroom also happens through interactions with classmates.

Two Pitfalls of Collaboration

Over-dependency on Others

In general, I think there are two major ways that collaboration can fail. I imagine these as two ditches that we can fall into while trying to move forward on the road of collaboration. The first is over-dependency on others. Over-dependency is a mind-shift that can happen the instant that a teacher mentions the words, “group project.” Immediately, someone in the class is devising a way to escape the essential struggle that is a part of every learning experience. An over-dependant collaborator might think, “The group can complete this task without me” or, “I can’t add anything to this conversation or project.” Under-valuing your own contribution or just refusing to put in the effort that is needed can get in the way of meaningful collaboration.

In my experience as a teacher, over-dependency on other teachers leads to a lack of innovation and creativity. Often there is a lead teacher that is made the front-runner for the group and the other teachers fall in behind simply mimicking his/her pedagogical moves. Is not that copying doesn’t help us learn sometimes, it does. However, if this kind of pedagogical mimicry becomes a pattern, it can inhibit the teachers impact on the unique learners in his/her classroom. Further, it can also prevent teachers from engaging in critical and creative thinking about their own practice.

Retreating to Silence and Safety

If over-dependency is ditch on one side of the road to effective collaboration, safety is the ditch on the other side of the road. By safety, I’m thinking about avoiding the necessary relational messiness of collaboration. True collaboration involves some sticky situations–there is no way around them. It depends on strong relationships with others, listening to each others story and members being vulnerable with each other. When we open ourselves up to offer ideas, give our opinions and perspectives, there will be opposition, disagreement and sometimes it will seem like discussions or project isn’t going anywhere. When confronted with those who aren’t doing their fair share of the work or those who act as if they know everything, it can be tempting to close your classroom door push forward alone. However, withdrawing into the safety of isolation doesn’t help anyone over the long term. Those who are not willing to take the relational and creative risks don’t learn anything new from their colleagues.

Suggestions for Staying on the Road

Group Norms Help Establish Expectations

One of the most helpful concepts from the Professional Learning Community model that I found helpful is the idea of establishing norms for collaborative groups. This post from Jigsaw Learning contains a Google Drive folder of many helpful samples of group norms. The idea behind the norms is not primarily to establish a code of rules. Instead, they help establish a common expectation for all the members in the group to prevent hidden expectations from separating group members. For example, consider a norm about disagreement or conflict that says, “We always communicate those who we have disagreements (or conflict) with before we communicate about them with others.” If I find myself in a situation where Teacher A is sharing about a conflict or exchange where they were hurt by Teacher B, it becomes a normal expectation for me to ask Teacher A, “Did you tell Teacher B that he/she offended you with his comment?” These common expectations help communication and enable us to build stronger relationships.

Group Norms Create a Sense of Ownership

It is also helpful to teach students to set norms for their group work because it gives them a sense of ownership. Writing down norms as a group gives a helpful reference point for everyone in the group and helps encourage ownership and self-regulation of behaviour in the group. Consider one of the most difficult group norms in my class, “We will contribute evenly to the workload of this team.” Having a group of students write this down and agree on it is often more powerful, at least in Middle School, than the teacher telling these expectations to the class. Sometimes Middle Schoolers are more concerned about pleasing their peers than the teacher. It also provides a student-centred basis of accountability. If students have discussed these norms, then they can hold each other accountable.

Further, if my students are feeling disengaged with what I’m teaching them, it is sometimes because I haven’t invited them co-construct the assignment or project that I’m asking them to complete. Empowering others by including them in the decision-making process often leads to feelings of ownership and engagement. The same is true of collaboration. Giving the student guidance and exemplars is important, but having them set the norms and giving them a chance to work through disagreements with those norms in place is equally important.

Team Innovations Encourage Creativity

Writing an article for Forbes, Stephanie Cartin suggests that team collaboration can be improved by hosting “Team Innovations” where each member of the team is encouraged to present an original/new idea for the team. This fun activity can help others come together as a group and give members of the team the chance to share their ideas. It also gives other team members a sense of what kinds of things are going on in other classrooms around them.

Implement Effective Task Management

Another key to successful team collaboration is implementing an effective system that manages the tasks and projects that your team is to accomplish. This is particularly helpful when a team of teachers is organizing a school-wide or grade-wide event with a number of different teachers and organizational tasks. Optimally, a task management system would include a place to store data such as a calendar, documents, and chat functionality. I’ve just discovered a task management, cloud-based software called Smartsheets. I love its compatibility with Google but am not sure if I want to pay for the subscriptions to use it regularly at this point. There are many task management tools like this that allow everyone to work within the same framework.

Spencers Seven Keys to Collaboration

Recently, I used John Spencer’s video Seven Keys to Collaboration video to remind my students about some helpful principles of collaboration. I recommend it as a great resource for teachers or students to create some good discussion about collaboration. Spencer’s Seven Keys are ownership, dependability, trust, structure, shared vision or directions, fun and candour.

If you have some helpful resources that you use with your students or teaching team, I would really appreciate it if you linked a website or named a book in the comments below.

Teachers as Human Beings

Building relationships with students is a foundational skill of a teacher. However, sometimes particular modes of instruction obstruct the teacher’s ability to build relationships, and therefore, the ability of students to learn. Teachers occupy numerous roles in their craft.  They act as tutors, counselors, evaluators, presenters, coaches, first-aiders and hosts (just to name a few). Many of these roles conceal the human-ness of a teacher.  In other words, a particular role can increase the relational distance in the teacher-student relationship making well-intentioned teachers into aliens.

Another way of illustrating this issue is to think about parenting. One role of being a father is much like law enforcement. There are certain rules of fair play in our family and when someone breaks a rule, I deal with the grievances that are reported and work to facilitate reconciliation. This often involves facilitating a small courtroom scenario where I listen carefully to both sides of the story and make an official ruling on the case. If I didn’t function in this role, I can only imagine the cycle of revenge that might occur. However, I don’t think that I would be a very good dad if I couldn’t switch out of my law enforcement role to also become a friend who has fun with them or a counselor who gives them advice. Teaching is similar to parenting in this way because no one wants a teacher that is always functioning as the rule enforcer or evaluator.

Of course, it’s easy to know that you should switch roles but difficult to create spaces where the switch can happen. In my experience, it often requires a different context and intentional planning. Struggles to find resources or parent support for experiences in different settings are real. With parenting, something as simple as taking one child out for ice cream might be all you need to create the space for a meaningful conversation. With a group of nearly 30 students, that switch of context isn’t so easy, and yet, if you are intentional about finding new opportunity to connect with your students, they seem to appear.

Finding Different Relational Spaces

Winding down the first term of school as we approached the Christmas break provided a number of opportunities to get to know my students as fellow human beings. Many of the year-end Christmas traditions in my class are focused on community-building.  In the past, I’ve approached these events as time-fillers or ways to manage students as their pre-holiday excited grew. This year was different because relationship building has become a bigger priority in my classroom.

One unexpected opportunity to connect with students was our Middle School, Christmas assembly that involved a teacher, lip sync battle. Even though performing on stage in front of 300 middle-schoolers was way out of my comfort zone, I accepted an invitation to pair up with another teacher and join the competition. Finding a Justin Bieber costume wasn’t easy and All I Want for Christmas is You was an awkward song to sing with another teacher but, in the end, we had fun with it. More importantly though, for those few moments on stage, I stepped into a different role and showed the students a different side of myself. Instead of being the “talking head” giving instructions in the classroom, I was the awkward, tall guy at the front doing my best pop-star impersonation and Fortnite, victory dances (which were terrible).

Ice skating was another grade-wide, Christmas activity that provides a unique opportunity to build relationships with students. Skating circles around an oval sheet of ice provides the perfect setting to talk with students about a variety of non-school topics. While it is still my responsibility to supervise everyone on the rink, it also provides a great space to throw some snow and have some fun with them–things that you may rarely get the chance to do in the classroom.

Rather than subjecting the students to another holiday movie, one of my teaching partners suggested that we have a class-verse-class dodgeball game. One unique part about this dodgeball duel was that both teachers jumped into the game as players. Because I don’t teach P.E. regularly, this was a rare opportunity to be on the same team as my students. Even though my class lost the game, we had a great time together and this shared experience bonded us together in a way that regular classroom interactions fail to do.

Sharing Your Experiences

I’m curious to know how other teachers create spaces to build relationships with their students as a fellow human being. I would love to read your thoughts or experiences in the comments below.