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Learning at its Best

Teacher collaboration is important, but not for the reasons we might think

I read a story in Miller-McCune last week on the value of teachers collaborating. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Here’s an excerpt:

A large body of research shows that mandatory teacher collaboration, sometimes called “professional learning communities,” gets results. The world’s best school systems foster a culture of sharing what works and what doesn’t. [They do this] not by firing teachers but by making them accountable to each other.

“Every year, the teachers say the single most important thing that’s made a difference in student achievement is collaboration,” [principal Sherri] Franson says. “Any other school like us could do the same thing.”

As a classroom teacher, I always very much enjoyed the times I got to collaborate with colleagues. And, I think it did make me a better teacher.

But the thing is, I don’t think those collaboration sessions made me better because I was suddenly “accountable” to anyone. And I don’t think I benefitted from “what works and what doesn’t,” because I don’t think it’s possible to separate the lesson plan from the teacher. That is, what worked for my friend Adam did not guarantee that it would work for me, simply because we’re different people with different styles. I wrote lesson plans that were fantastic for me but fell flat with colleagues because it didn’t come from within them.

Sharing lesson plans or classroom management strategies—“what works and what doesn’t”—transforms teaching from an art into factory work. It presumes that the unique relationship between the teacher and his/her students is transferrable to other teachers and students. I just don’t think it is, unless that relationship is merely superficial to begin with.

* * *

My memory of collaborating with colleagues is mostly about the joy that comes from feeling connected to other people. Teaching academic content to students who are in your classroom only because they’re required to do so, trying to help them achieve a breakthrough experience while they’re focusing merely on their grade—that’s a really hard job! It can be a frustrating, exhausting experience.

Sharing a laugh with fellow teachers about the challenges of our profession helps us through difficult times, and can provide a renewal of energy to push us on to the next day’s challenge. Because the sun is going to rise the next day and kids are going to show up in our classrooms again. And teachers get another day to share their art, to continue building those unique relationships, to find those special connections with students that make authentic learning possible.

So, yes, collaborating with other teachers probably makes us better. I just don’t want us to draw the wrong conclusions about why this is true.

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Discussion

8 thoughts on “Teacher collaboration is important, but not for the reasons we might think

  1. Would never imagine it changing “from an art into factory work”! But you allude to another point as well – considering you spend so much time around young pupils, teaching is a surprisingly isolating job with little interaction between colleagues unless you work on it. From someone who worked in business (IT) for several years and was used to constant interactions between staff, it was a major change and unexpected realization. I guess for me collaboration is very important as it helps you to improve on what you’ve created, stimulate new ideas and share notes.
    Alongside this, just because a lesson plan from within yourself and works for you to teach it, if other teachers find that they can’t teach it because it doesn’t suit their style, does it also potentially mean that your pupils won’t get the most benefit from it either as you think it’s good from you. The ultimate lesson plans should be good ‘guidance’ that you can put your own slant/ideas on, not are individual to your own style of teaching. so collaborating on projects is a good thing to get that overall goal?

    Random thoughts to start off my week! :) Great article by the way, really got me thinking.

    Posted by NMQ | August 29, 2011, 3:47 am
  2. I agree with your thoughts on accountability and I’d even go further to say the cumbersome process of PLC forms can kill the joy of collaboration and sharing how students are doing. For me, the best sharing of ideas, strategies and stories actually happened outside the classroom, over a shared meal or a pint.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | August 29, 2011, 10:35 am
  3. Steve and John, I completely get what you’re saying and I think that it’s a human nature thing that true collaboration and sharing of ideas comes from things that are not forced. In my career both in the classroom and in the cubicles, I always found “mandatory collaboration” to be forced and unproductive at least as far as useful products were concerned. Sure, we were able to contribute to discussions that the higher-ups wanted to have after we had our “breakout sessions,” but nobody really ever used much of what they walked away with.

    Though we did have some great bitch sessions ;).

    Posted by Tom Panarese | August 29, 2011, 6:22 pm
  4. Thank you for this prompt, Steve –

    I think we spend too much time sharing the stuff of what we do, and too little time sharing they why. I’m sure my colleagues could describe my work, but I don’t know that I’ve communicated my motivations and decisions and design processes clearly.

    In your mind, are those things independently valuable to share, are they just more “stuff,” or might they be heard symptomatically in the joyful collaboration you describe?

    Best,
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 29, 2011, 7:55 pm
  5. I would think ‘collaboration’ is a crititcal element of any relationship in which ‘learning’ is hoped to occur, and this would be true whether teachers, students or both are involved. I provide an article citation since it seems that the effects of collaboration (or communication) are not tied to social control mechanisms but to involvement with/in the process itself.

    Pingree, R. J. (2007). How messages affect their senders: A more general model of message effects and implications for deliberation. Communication Theory (10503293), 17(4), 439-461. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2885.2007.00306.x

    Posted by Brent Snavely | August 31, 2011, 2:48 pm
  6. I’m with Chad here. We have a million protocols and procedures for sharing stuff in school–which simply make us more busy in the busy, busy work of being a teacher or administrator–but rarely do we talk about why we do what we do–to what deep beliefs and convictions our actions are this attached.

    And those are what matter. And those ultimately are what connect us.

    Kirsten

    Posted by Kirsten | September 1, 2011, 11:29 am
  7. I enjoyed reading your post and understand your perspective on teacher collaboration. I am a big proponent of teacher collaboration, but prefer to promote the process as a way in which we can effectively use the expertise in our building to improve everyone’s professional practice (embedded professional learning at its best). How schools go about their collaborative processes is critical. I think we also have to distinguish between collegiality and congeniality. Probably the best professional article I’ve ever read on the topic was this piece by Roland Barth: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar06/vol63/num06/Improving-Relationships-Within-the-Schoolhouse.aspx. Highly recommended reading for any professional educator…

    Thanks again for sharing your ideas!

    Posted by bellce0 | September 18, 2011, 8:14 am
    • Thanks so much for the link! I totally agree with you and NMQ. I was also a professional in the military and after I retired, I decided to go back to school to become a teacher. Working together and learning from each other is so important and the climate of where you work dictates how well that works.

      Posted by Roseanne | May 27, 2013, 4:01 am

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