The Spark of Collaboration

In this second blog for the Teacher-Powered Schools Roundtable, Ambassador Sarah Giddings shares about collaboration in her teacher-powered school.

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.