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The spark of collaboration

The sound of a shutting classroom door is something that is synonymous with schools. In fact, in most schools on a typical day, teachers network and work together with other teachers during one defined short window of time during the day (the all-too-ironically titled “prep” period) and more if you can somehow squeeze a task into a thirty-minute lunch. The job of a teacher is centered entirely around students, your day filled with the excitement and chatter of youth, but teachers are usually isolated daily from the vast majority of their colleagues, their administrators, and the aptly named support staff. The traditional school environment is many times even set up to physically isolate adults, but what if there was another model?

Imagine a school built around collaboration and dialogue. A place where classes are interdisciplinary-focused and always team-taught. An environment where teacher leaders, staff, and administrators meet weekly and decisions made collaboratively. This place is not fictional - it is where I work.

The teacher-powered model is built on collaboration, but it is important to start building cohesion from day 1. The central staff at my school helped launch our school together - talk about building collaboration and cohesion! But our team set ourselves up for success starting with doing a day-long team-building activity away from our school. We did problem-solving outdoors tasks and shared childhood memories and stories as bonding activities. Then we immediately worked on building trust. Trust is key in a teacher-powered school environment, because in order to make the model successful you have to build strong foundational relationships and trust in one another. Nowhere is this more necessary than with your leadership.

My boss’s official title is principal, but we all prefer director. Because directing plays a huge role in a teacher-powered school. As an administrator her task is to direct energies of staff towards opportunities and challenges that play towards their strengths. As a member of my school’s leadership team we create public agendas for all staff to peruse our notes and discussion points during our weekly meetings. We also make decisions as a leadership team - collaboratively with no one person’s voice receiving more weight on the team. We have carried this leadership team over to not just school-based decision-making, but budgetary and HR concerns as well. We meet with teachers from all three schools that make up our consortium district plus all administrators of the schools and hash out changes, concerns, and opportunities together.

At my school emphasis is also placed on professional learning. We value the place that professional learning has and we jointly make decisions about what and how we want to learn. We decided to promote the philosophy that if someone has a new idea to freely propose it and take a risk, but collect evidence on the results. This risk-taking strategy in our school was positively embraced. A shining example of this idea occurred when last year we were concerned about the serious mental health issues that were facing not only our students, but our staff were feeling extremely burned out as well. We then looked for resources and support for addressing this concern. As a result, this year we are training as a staff on motivational interviewing our students and compassion fatigue for our staff. Instead of a top-down approach to professional learning, i.e. a principal saying THIS is what you need, our approach was WE need and now let’s find help.

Sparking collaboration is a desire that many educators have. No one wants to remain in isolation. By adopting the teacher-powered model and emphasizing trust, relationships, and collaboration, your doors will truly be open. Ready to start a fire?

Sarah Giddings is a National Board Certified teacher in social studies and history. She is currently an advisor, multi-subject instructor in Big History, social studies, and ELA, and curriculum coordinator for the WAVE Program with the Washtenaw Educational Options Consortium high school programs in Ypsilanti, MI. Currently she is a National Hope Street Group fellow, a Teacher Champion with the Collaborative for Student Success, and a Teacher-Powered Ambassador with the Center for Teaching Quality. She is also a post-residential America Achieves MI Fellow. 

10 Comments

Jeff Austin commented on January 21, 2017 at 11:26am:

I remember Admin meetings at

I remember Admin meetings at my previous school where the APs would lock themselves in the principal's office and meet about who knows what. That closing door sound has always been very familiar. Knowing that our current school has School Governing Council and Instructional Leadership Team meetings with open doors and transparent collaborative agendas makes those old meetings seem so archaic and illuminati-like. 

Sarah Giddings commented on January 26, 2017 at 10:07am:

Completely agree

These are things we have and value too. It's also why I feel like I'm not intimidated because I'm never "called into the principal's office!"

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

 

~Sarah

Justin Minkel commented on January 21, 2017 at 4:44pm:

Luxury vs. necessity

I love this, Sarah. One "nuts and bolts" piece that has to be in place is a prep period that is separate from collaboration time, and it has to be built into the school day. 

At a meeting for a committee shaping the vision for education in my state, I talked about how my school had 3 full hours built in each week for collaboration (looking at student work, observing other teachers to learn from them, doing book studies, and so on, along with planning together) in addition to a 30-minute daily prep period. A member of our state's department of ed looked at me sternly and said, "You have to realize that's a luxury." 

Legislators and department of ed staff aren't well positioned to help us create culture or vision, but they can make sure that the foundation for the kind of collaborative professional team you describe is in place. We have to have time to work and reflect together, as most successful countries do, and that time can't come at the expense of the "prep" time we also need.

Question for you: For schools like mine that are not a teacher-powered model but have a fairly high degree of professional collaboration and respect, what advice do you have on taking small but significant steps toward a more teacher-driven model? 

Sarah Giddings commented on January 26, 2017 at 10:11am:

Replying

It is a shame that a high degree of collaboration has to be seen as a "luxury". I think one of the best ways to start building a more teacher-driven model on top of this is deciding what your vision for teacherpower should look like and decide this as a team. I also think that developing a governance structure and charter collaboratively help along with open and transparent notes for how this structure was derived have helped our staff.

Thank you for your thoughtful response!

 

~Sarah

Ben Owens commented on January 22, 2017 at 4:04pm:

Sharing the magic of collaboration

I have to say that I had a smile on my face the entire time I was reading this post - not only because of the mental image of what must indeed be an amazing school but also for the many similarities to my own teacher-powered school. Just like Sarah’s school, we had our own off-site team, trust, and vision building retreat; we use a shared leadership model to makes all significant decisions for how our school operates; we have a dynamic principal who works tirelessly at the strategic level to ensure our staff has the tools it needs to our best for every student, every day; and we have an intense focus on building the professional capacity of each member of our team. It is a wonderful place to be a teacher and why it brings joy to my heart when I hear about other schools that share this same magic of teacher-powered collaboration.

The other thing I really loved about this article is the roadmap it provides for any teacher who wants to move away from the all-too-common closed-door atmosphere to one of open sharing and collaboration. Whether it’s starting within one’s PLN or pushing for school-wide change, the essential questions to consider are the same: Have you taken the time to develop solid peer relationships that are grounded on trust? Have you developed a shared mission and vision based on equal voice? Do you have leadership that understands the power of collective autonomy and is willing to work to give staff the time and place to collaborate? And can you work with your team to establish a culture of continuous improvement - where peers can candidly share ideas on how to grow as individuals and as a team? If you can answer “yes” to these questions, then I think you are indeed on the way to also share the teacher-powered magic at your school. 

Tricia Ebner commented on January 23, 2017 at 7:51pm:

One take-away

Something that struck a chord with me early on is the preferred term of director instead of principal. What a different feeling to the word! A director is someone who supports, encourages, facilitates. Having that kind of mindset--even when the official title may be principal--is powerful. 

Thanks for sharing your story. It is both thought-provoking and uplifting. 

Brian Curtin commented on January 24, 2017 at 4:02pm:

The Cost of a "Seat at the Table"

Like Ben, I read the post with my own school in mind.  While our administration does value teacher voice, we don't have a system in place quite yet to harness the power of collective teacher voice.  I've often wondered if systems and structures can get in the way of the ideology. In other words, even when an administration wants to leverage teacher voice, the system/structure may not support it.  So perhaps that's where the focus should be, shaking up the system, which sounds like exactly what your school did, Lori.

As a teacher leader, I've been fortunate to have a seat at the "proverbial table," but there haven't been enough of us there. There's a wealth of knowledge, skill, and expertise among our staff going untapped.  Our current reality is that the folks at the table are admins, department chairs, an Instructional Coach, and a select few identified teacher-leaders (like myself).  As one of the few without release time, having a voice is at the expense of time devoted to students.  This has lead me to daydream about a reality where the work of administration and department chairs is lessened to allow them time in the classroom.  Those in the classroom full time are released from part of the day to take on some of the responsibilities of leadership.  I love the idea of bringing additional talent to the table, I just worry about doing so without additional time to commit.

Rob Kriete commented on January 24, 2017 at 7:31pm:

Igniting the Collaboration fire!

Awesome, insightful piece, Sarah.  Anytime and anyway we can foster collaboration, it helps both students and teachers.  Even creating a conversation centered on these interactions is important. 

At my public, traditional, high school we implemented "3 and 1 observations" wherein teachers visit another teacher's class and offer three things that they really like or find effective during the visit.  Teachers also create one question for the host teacher about their practice-it could be about the lesson, assessment, student arrangement, engagement, etc.  From there, the two teachers have a discussion around the visit and what makes the lesson effective and how it could be improved.  It is just another example of finding ways for teachers to collaborate and share...without it being an official "evaluation."

Jessica Cuthbertson commented on January 25, 2017 at 12:09am:

Collaboration As a Catalyst

I love that regardless of where a school is on the teacher-powered continuum we can move our individual classrooms forward through collaboration. The simple act of "open door teaching" (literally and figuratively) changed everything for me as an educator. 

Moving classrooms from isolated, individual rooms of learning to learning laboratories where feedback is continous, reciprocal and ongoing can make a huge difference for practitioners and students. 

I echo Justin's question above: What best practices or starting places do you recommend for schools that seek to be more collaborative? Given the constraints of time and master schedules that are often not conducive to high levels of collaboration -- what small and systemic shifts do you recommend teachers advocate for and implement first to move further along the teacher-powered, collaborative continuum? 

justin kennedy commented on February 25, 2017 at 1:23am:

collaboration content

Awesome Even creating a conversation centered on these interactions is important. best wine opener

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