Taking the Doors Off the Classroom Through Collaboration

Teacher Collaboration

Isolation can be a side effect of becoming a teacher. It is very easy to get caught in the trap of walking into a classroom, shutting the door, and tending to your own students. This is how many schools function, with educators sharing nothing more than a parking lot. Some people like it this way, but an effective teacher is someone who wants to grow in the profession. An effective teacher wants collaboration.

What is collaboration?

Each day teachers gather in hallways, lounges, or other communal locations to talk. They talk about their families, movies they watched, difficulties they’ve had with students. Some would define this type of collegial discussion as collaboration. While these discussions are crucial to maintaining the morale and sanity of any faculty, do they help anyone grow as an educator?

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.

How does it begin?

When opening Heritage Trails Elementary in 2010, I had the opportunity to interview some of the very best teachers in my school district. The very first question I would ask each applicant was, “What is your ideal school environment?” The overwhelming answer was an environment where people could share ideas and learn from each other. This proved to me that the majority of educators wanted collaboration. This would become the vision for the school: collaboration with a purpose.

Although there is a willingness to work together, few teachers have direct experience with quality collaboration. This can lead to power struggles and frustration if there is not an understanding of the stages of team development. Educational researchers Parry Graham and William M. Ferriter labeled these stages forming, storming, norming and performing.

1. Forming

This is the easiest stage where a team comes together with a sense of excitement and anticipation. People begin to learn about each other and develop processes for how their group will function. It is not unusual for a few dominant personalities to try to lead the discussions.

2. Storming

Teaching styles and practices can be a very sensitive and personal area for many educators. Those who are used to working in isolation can find it difficult to share ideas or have their practices questioned. This can sometimes lead to conflict within the collaborative team. It’s not unusual for members to feel defensive or overloaded in this stage. There has to be a realistic expectation that not all groups will function at the highest level from the very start. Working together can lead to conflicting views of educational practices and team goals. Keep in mind that through conflict, growth will occur.

3. Norming

As educators continue to collaborate, they begin to see the positive side to collaboration. Teams begin to see an increase in productivity, interpersonal relationships improve, and meetings begin to focus on achieving consensus through shared input.

4. Performing

When a team reaches a high level of functioning, the academic and professional growth goes through the roof. When teammates disagree about a topic, they can discuss it with a sense of collegiality and an understanding that the ultimate goal is an improvement of the learning environment for everyone. Regardless of the stage of development, progress is easy to identify as long as collaboration exists.

Why does it matter?

Collaboration is not always a concept that is greeted with open arms. Educators who have had success working in isolation may view this process as an invasion of their pedagogy and a waste of time. 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.

Not only will effective collaboration improve teacher performance, but it also will improve student performance. Educational environments such as Waggoner Road Junior High and Baldwin Road Junior High in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, experienced a 20 percent increase in math scores from students whose teachers participated in constant collaboration. How does this happen? Increased effective collaboration exposes teachers to improved practices, which leads to stronger pedagogy. The more effective a teacher is, the more a student will benefit.

Teacher interaction can no longer be defined by the parking lot they share or the idle discussions in the lounge. A professional culture requires teachers who are willing to share, support, and explore together. Developing a collaborative culture will result in reducing teacher attrition, improving student learning, and creating the type of school that everyone searches for when they decide to become an educator.

Dr. Jason Perez is the head principal at Heritage Trails Elementary in Moore, Oklahoma, as well as a faculty member at Concordia University – Portland, where he teaches Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction courses, and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Central Oklahoma, where he teacher Master of Education Administration courses.

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