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Relax on the Collaboration

The scope of this question is particularly bothersome to me. I like the way that Paula has discussed the inside-out phenomenon that many believe in where we all take care of the kids in our classroom and that creates a panacea for bad teaching in other rooms. I especially like this comment:

It is time to stop hiding incompetence and start demanding excellence from all of us.

It fascinates me that school leaders (teachers and administrators) talk about “transformational leadership” in education and continue to coddle teachers that are downright ineffective, lazy, and do an outstanding job of holding kids back. Maybe we need to stop and relax our herculean grip on collaboration as the savior in education?

At some point we need to be honest and admit to the fact that collaboration only takes us so far. In fact, collaboration isn’t the Holy Grail for fixing the teaching profession the same way that relevance isn’t the Holy Grail for engaging kids. We need to realize that we’re not all working towards the same goal and the utopian fantasy that many educators embrace is simply a fallacy.

At the same time, some studies and reports as recent as 2006 suggest that 50% of new teachers leave the profession within five years. So you want to have a bigger influence on education reformation: start working with the younger teachers and encouraging them to be dynamic and innovative while offering the social and emotional support to “stay in the game”. Take the energy you focus on collaborating with people who won’t change and apply it to something that will.

I think it is ludicrous the way that we spend so much time and energy “collaborating” with teachers that are rigid and refuse change when we have young, energetic teachers that are leaving the profession because they feel burnt out and frustrated. Forget the rigid teachers! Focus on those that truly embrace help. The reality is that our tenure system protects both good and bad teachers, but even reforming that doesn’t guarantee true educational change. All it does is grease the hinges on the revolving door.

I’ve spoken before about “Broken Window Theory”, and I have to say that I believe it is relevant for this question as well. Little steps forward lead to big rewards and gains. The problem is that a lot of the “collaboration” that occurs in schools is simply a stalled vehicle because of the individuals that are focused on the most.

If we work with all new teachers and encourage and support them to be dynamic and innovative teachers then we can slowly, but surely, change education. It won’t happen overnight, it won’t happen in a year, and it might not happen entirely in five years. Either way, it’s more progressive in changing the education system than everyone trying to jump people from 1970 to 2010 by telling them how much we value their opinion when we know their opinion is more of an effort to prevent any type of educational reform.

Let me be clear: I am not against collaboration in schools. In fact, I’m all for it, and I believe it is a necessary step in improving the quality of education for anyone. The key to my opinion is that I acknowledge something about education that most “pie in the sky” types don’t.

Collaboration is only collaboration when both sides come to the table with an open mind and a desire to change what is currently happening rather than one of the sides just bitching about the good ‘ole days.

Make a bigger impact on changing education? Start with the people who will listen.

About Aaron Eyler

Aaron is a U.S. history teacher in a Central Jersey school district. In addition, to his Bachelor's degree in History and Education certification, he has a Master's degree in Educational Administration and Leadership.


18 thoughts on “Relax on the Collaboration

  1. Aaron,

    This is keen advice. Collaboration can be a clunky and ineffective process that gets dragged down by the lowest common denominator–the unchangers, you describe. I think you are right on in advocating working closely with new teachers, helping them to balance the new demands they are meeting while also finding avenues for their enthusiasm and passion.

    You are right to call out administrators for failed leadership under the guise of some new fancy term.


    Posted by Adam Burk | May 5, 2010, 10:43 am
    • Aaron wrote: “Collaboration is only collaboration when both sides come to the table with an open mind and a desire to change what is currently happening rather than one of the sides just bitching about the good ‘ole days.”

      Yep. Sounds a lot like Washington, D.C., doesn’t it? And look where they’ve gotten us!

      Posted by Paula Lee Bright | November 22, 2010, 10:50 pm
  2. But my reach for the pie needs to exceed my grasp or else what’s #edreform for?

    All mixed metaphors aside, Aaron, I appreciate your point.

    But let’s take teacher turnover. Let’s take our shared failure with programs like KIPP and TFA to retain the people in whom we invest public dollars. Let’s take budget cuts and baby boomer retirements. Until we have folks knocking down the door to teach, even with out current personnel ratios, we need people in the classroom and we people need support in improving.

    On one hand, I’m all for a small group of like minded individuals starting their own public school to show another way. On the other hand, moves like that also take problematizers out of traditional schools.

    So, let’s say that we will continue to improve teaching as a profession for adults and as a skills set for our kids. Let’s say that we “successfully” sequester the firebrands into self-sufficient edu-R&D units. What then? How do we transform any culture without RIF-ing all its adherents?

    Thinking as a school leader, what expectations would you set up for all the teachers in a building on the front-lines of now? What support and follow-through would you establish to keep moving forward shared work on the kids’ behalf? How would you share-out and scale-up successful collaborations in your building? How would you plan graceful exits for teachers who hold visions of their work that compete with yours or with the school’s?

    Wrestling with the same questions,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 5, 2010, 10:52 am
  3. Collaboration is the buzz word around here. Every day is either scheduled with collaboration or meetings. All it has done is forced burn out for many. My most productive collaboration has been via Twitter and my PLN and has not been done at my school.

    Posted by Dayna Laur (@daylynn) | May 5, 2010, 11:00 am
  4. Well Aaron, You have three new teachers on here. Casey, Adam and I are going to be teachers in the next year or so. What help would you give us? But teaching is more about listening, so what do you hear from us? What guidance would you recommend to us? I agree with you whole heartily, but I worry the us vs them will leave a bunch of children in the middle….what can we do in the mean time, what can you do at your school level to encourage new teacher who are change agents to want to work in public schools? I personally do not want to. I want to work in a charter school because I don’t want to spend my energy fighting the system for the sake of the system. I want to help child….. just a food for thought.

    Posted by dloitz | May 5, 2010, 1:02 pm
  5. David, I’d love to hear what pre-service teachers want in a classroom. Your ideas about fun and productive workspaces might be closer to kids’ than mine. See

    I would caution you, though, to avoid us vs. them thinking in public schools vs. charters, as well. Charters are public schools. The use of charters as a tool to meet the needs’ of a variety of learners is a support to public education. Charters are a means to the end of realizing a vision of public education that better serves kids, their learning, their lives, and their world. If we want to advance charters, we have to have the buy-in of public school systems that authorize them, at least in Virginia. We need to proceed from a position of, dare I say it, collaboration with traditional public schools in identifying students and using the public dollars that follow them in new, more effective ways. My thoughts are here.

    Also, there is a great deal of “fighting” for a charter’s schools vision, resources, and early recruitment of teachers and students, though “negotiation” might be a better term to use in divisions and states sympathetic to the school choice movement. Beginning a charter school is a joyful time of a dream’s fruition, but it is not without its struggles; nor is it entirely apart from the greater context of the division of the students it serves.

    Tell me what you’re looking for in a classroom; how does it look, where does it go?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 5, 2010, 1:37 pm
  6. I never consider an “us vs. them” mentality to be bad until the point at which there are more of “them” and less of “us”. Personally, I think there are more of “us” in education than them, but the problem is we always focus on them. How can we help them? Why won’t they change? More professional development, more collaboration, and more involvement with their needs are only successful if they are willing to accept that assistance.

    I have the privilege of training all new teachers on our technology programs before they even step foot through the door. It amazes me how energetic and idealist they are over the summer, but when I check in with a lot of them a month in they are exhausted. Find someone in your department who is known as a high-quality teacher and learn the secrets as early as possible. There are keys to not being run down and drained beyond belief after a month of teaching. I was fortunate enough to have my pre-service mentor work diligently with me to provide high-quality instruction without destructing my quality of life.

    No offense to higher education (well, maybe), but every program sucks at preparing pre-service teachers this way. How can I make such a bold statement? Because there is nothing like working in a school environment, and they simply can’t replicate it.

    That’s why we need to focus on helping new teachers and start avoiding the ones who swear they “know it all.”

    Teachers- how many times have you been at a workshop and the same people are sitting in the back saying “we’ve been doing this for years” or “this is just like when I…”? That’s what I am talking about. They haven’t been doing it for years and, quite frankly if they have, their version hasn’t shown the results nor adapted to the needs of today’s kids.

    Working with recalcitrant teachers is often a fruitless effort that is more of a time-waster than a chance at reform. My hope is that they will realize how few of “them” are left and either leave or work diligently to become part of “us”.

    Posted by Aaron Eyler | May 5, 2010, 2:20 pm
  7. Hey Chad and Aaron,

    My post on Friday will address what i want to see in a classroom. I agree with you Aaron. I just think we always have to remember the children. The teachers are there only for the children. I wonder what change would happen, if the us organized the children to stand up and demand the them to change. The problem often with reform is that, the children know they don’t like the “them” teachers, but don’t understand they could do something about it. Can they? I think they can. What if you had every student write a letter to the distract. Had the student refuse to go class until something changed. Something real.

    Okay I got to go off to my nanny my job. I going to start a revolution today at the park! No sandpit until we get change in education!


    Posted by dloitz | May 5, 2010, 3:47 pm
    • David, if it’s safe for students, letters written directly to the teacher can go a long way, too. Another practice, like the Revolution! game (Paula, we need some coffee!), that I’ve not used for too long: quarterly feedback letters from all students to me, anonymous or not, electronically or not, in response to prompts based on a mix of specific assignments, general class structures, and how I came across as a teacher.

      Teachers deserve the first shot at improving themselves after getting candid and honest feedback on their work from administrators on students’ behalf. One might make the argument that tenured teachers have been around long enough to hear it all and that some of them have changed little. However, if school leadership is as disingenuous as Aaron implies, then perhaps we should start with new administrators, not new teachers, and see how far we get reforming practice through more genuine evaluation of teachers’ work.

      Moreover, if we’re going to demand that our leaders ditch recalcitrant teachers, we need to invite more in depth auditing of our practices, to be ready to support our work and educate administrators about it, and not to reject traditionally-framed feedback out of hand without seeing what we can learn from it, though we don’t need to go backwards for tradition’s sake either.

      There is a real human cost in firing (not to put words in Aaron’s post) teachers that is exacted from those fired and those doing the firing. If we get honest with feedback as Aaron is suggesting, then we should attempt a rescue and recovery effort before showing “them” the door. Even if “they” read the writing on the wall, “they’ll” need support and a reasonable measure of patience in becoming “us.” I don’t mean years, but I don’t mean tomorrow. I mean after some tough conversations, lengthy observations, and timely follow-through according to shared expectations.

      Aaron, I’m curious about “the results.” What are you looking for from “us” in terms of results here? #nonrhetorical

      Curious C

      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 5, 2010, 5:35 pm
    • Yeah! I’m down for that! Start revolutions, early and often. First the sandbox, next the federal department of ed!

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 8, 2010, 2:20 pm
  8. Chad,

    This is a great point. I wonder how you go about offering help in growth for teachers and leadership. I am guessing all these teachers would like the help and if not then helping them find other opinions for work should be an option. I am also guessing these teachers have seen it all in terms of reforms from above…that is why we need to listen from the ground up to seek change. Our US….is not right because we say so, the THEM not wrong just because they are traditional. I not sure professional training and workshops are the answer. I would like to see more ownership given to teachers at all levels. Not more time required, just more ownership. What happens when teachers are in charge of there work and not told what to do. They set up there assessment requirement and are required to meet them…you go from there. We expect a lot from Students and teachers, but the teachers are not judge on their innovation or passion but completely on their test scores…….

    More to come.

    Posted by dloitz | May 5, 2010, 7:41 pm
  9. I think role-play during the certification process is important in helping administrators frame teacher evaluation observations and conversations honestly and effectively. Certainly listening is important, and starting with questions: how do you think that lesson went? How do you think class is going? How do you feel at school? What crosses your mind when you pull into the parking lot? When you pull out at the end of the day? How’s life these days? What do you want to work on? How can I help you?

    You can tell a lot from a teacher’s answers. After follow-up observations evaluated against shared expectations, you can tell a lot about the authenticity of a teacher’s answers. Then you can have the follow-up conversation with teachers who still struggle with the school’s vision and offer them a choice: more structured help and support, or help and support moving on in a way that doesn’t hurt kids.

    I’ve been lucky to have had colleagues, administrators, and mentors who have had tough conversations with me and who have then given me opportunities to improve what I do for students. While I think I’ve improved after each talk thanks to my teammates’ support and my own initiative, I know I need to get better in many more ways to be the teacher I want to be. I also welcome these conversations and criticism because I’m task-oriented, but can get ahead of myself. Therefore, an honest “here’s what you can work on right now” is always helpful to me.

    It’s really hard for administrators to make the time for all of those conversations with all of their teachers. There is so much to do – administrators are asked to manage so much on top of leading and helping others lead. That’s another reason to begin with rescue and recovery teacher development – administrators need the help of veteran teacher leaders to do everything for new teachers that Aaron rightfully wants done. I think with honesty and follow-through, we can create more teacher leaders soon and help ourselves out retaining new teachers.

    Everybody can learn and improve. Not everyone needs rescue and recovery; not everyone wants to be rescued or recovered. Still, we should be honest and student-centered in teacher evaluation and career counseling.

    Where are you on the evaluation spectrum, David? Do you prefer questions or comments? Suggestions or prescriptions? To suggest your own plan for improvement or hear your administrator’s first? Are you somewhere in between?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 6, 2010, 9:01 am
  10. Hey Chad,

    I would love to work at your school I think. I have a problem with critique on a formal level because I have never had a good experience with it. This also might be that I tend to attract situations where I get to be the “agent of change” in the situation.

    I was actually fired officially for the first time this last fall after working at a this preschool for little over a month.

    I had started the job as a assistant teacher eager and willing to learn and gain added experience in a classroom setting. What I found instead was I learned a great amount how to be passive aggressive.

    My administrator did everything the wrong way. This preschool/school was small, non traditional in a sense and holistic child centered in theory. I was one of two males on staff, which is normal if not above avg. for early childhood care. There was a level of passive aggressive sexism from the start, but I pushed it aside because I want to learn and grown and was super passionate and willing.

    The first problem came with my assignment in a classroom with two new inexperienced teachers.The teachers I were assigned to were 7 years younger than me and had just graduated with a AA in early childhood education from the local community college. Looking back, I believe this was a problem of a administrator doing her job by the book and not with a holistic approach, grouping teachers that would formed a good group.

    I had over 4 years of experience working in as the head teacher of a afterschool program and teaching film classes, yet I could not be left in the room without another teacher. I should of known from the start it was going to turn out badly…but i am an optimist and wanted to believe teachers are at heart, have a level of maturity. I was sadly wrong.

    The second problem was I was never fully introduce to the very close knit crew of teachers who had all being working together for years. Which often led to assumption of me being naive and me being “green”. There was a weird sense of clic at the school also that made me the odd man out.

    At the time I was about 3 months in my studies at Goddard. Reading Ayers, Dewey, Ron Miller, Stiener…. and wanting to have conversations and reflections about practices and education….. no one at the school wanted too, nor do I believe any of them were told the power of true reflection. I could be wrong, but it felt like they had settled into their jobs and did not see themselves themselves as professional educators, but more of “daycare workers”.

    Within two weeks, the teachers and I had a minor disagreement over how to deal with a boy who had some behavior problems and home issues. I had been able in the short time there, really connect with him and he was responding positive to me…. long story short, they didn’t think it was good for him… “because it is not part of his plan” and ask me to stop…. one day he was uncontrollable and they could not get him to calm down using his plan…. and to my amazement and frustration they would not let me try…. it was a painful experience… and I figured a talk with my teachers would clear the air and maybe clear up the misunderstanding that were brewing…. I had decided that it was just growing pains as no great team develops overnight.

    I approached my teacher and talked to her and it seemed we had a mature adult conversation discussing misunderstanding and that a little growth had occurred. But to my surprise I was called into the administrators office the next monday to be told I was being put on a behavior plan myself.

    I was confused, bewildered and hurt. I told her that i had not come to her myself because I felt the first line of discourse should be between myself and the teacher… She also rattled off a laundry list of things I was not doing right… Mind you I had only been working at the job for 2 weeks and was doing what I was asked of me….but didn’t have the ability to know yet what i was suppose to do because well I had only been there two weeks. I tried to defend myself and offer my side of the story etc…. as she seem to understand and “hear” me, but still I was put on this behavior plan and given a week to make amends.

    I left the office with my tail between my legs….and confused. I returned to the classroom and just shut off my emotions/mind and just did my job. When i returned a week later for my follow up… I was told that I had improved all the areas discussed but did not seem “happy or smiling and this needed to change” I was completely honest with her and told her the hurt feeling i had….to which she nodded and said I understand but you still need to have a good attitude. I decide then and there to just be happy and forget the past…….

    But the lack of real leadership from her and lack of true reflection in my classroom nor the ability for me to truly have adult conversations and discussions of practices led to more passive aggressive experience from my teachers. Finally I confronted the problem, and tried to be proactive….but a week later I was told it was not working out and was let go… with out a hour notice. I have a 20 paper discussing all my issues and the experience of growth…. so sorry this is so long it is actually rather short….

    But so I have yet to have a good experience with mature leadership and critique in the form you describe. What i find instead is leadership that waits until they have you in there office so to speak to tell you “there is a issue” and lack the relationship to truly help growth occur.

    I think the critique can not just be top down and come from a authority but should come from a level of respect and trust. The critique is worthless if it only come after the fact and is reactionary and is purely from the “issue” stand point. It should be active and holistically done, informal and be of the give and take type. Not a you are doing this and this wrong….because it is never that simple. Yes true authentic assessment and growth is a lot of work, but should we not strive for that…over what we have now…. I think what you have proposed and it seems practice would work well.

    I am personally a very reflective person by nature and I think that this often my problem…. I go home at night and think over my day, relive it, and see my weaknesses and strengths…I have blind spots like everyone….but i think I hold myself accountable….but i don’t always see leadership doing the same thing. That is why at this point i have chosen to work for myself… and think i might have trouble working a traditional school….

    anyway thanks for the chance to discuss this issue…it is something I am passionate about.


    Posted by dloitz | May 6, 2010, 12:44 pm
    • David, This is a pretty powerful comment and identifies a lot of the dysfunctions of the culture: the push towards mediocrity and compliance, the ways in which the system is not designed to serve children, the ways in which those who are innovative or risk taking are pushed out or down. I’m sorry this happened, and maybe these are the seeds of your activist career?

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 8, 2010, 2:28 pm
      • I agree with Kirtsen, David, and am saddened by so much institutionalization at a school for students of such a young age. I have a pre-K and K-5 ideal in my mind that’s much more responsive to kids than secondary schools allow themselves to be. But there I go talking in grade levels. You were clearly managed and not led or acknowledged and valued. At some point I’d like to see us all post on the pivot points in our careers when “achievement” stopped trumping students and learning. I feel like I’m at a fulcrum.

        All the best,

        Posted by Chad Sansing | May 9, 2010, 7:31 am

    2009 PopTech Fellow James O’Brien assembled a staff of like-minded educators to create BCAM – Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School. The fledgling educational-innovation tank combines performance-based academics and professional training in media and arts to prepare teenagers for success in the 21st century.

    Posted by dloitz | May 6, 2010, 1:05 pm
  12. Aaron, I’m in an airport waiting lounge and have to go jump on a flight, so this is fast. My experience working with innovative, transformation districts is that at some point people (teachers) have to get on the bus about the work serving children, and engaging with how their practice does (or does not do this), or they are asked to leave. Leadership has to make it non-mandatory to do the work. Sadly, there are too few districts and schools like this, and a lot of things have to be in place. Okay, they are calling the flight. This is a bigger discussion.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 8, 2010, 2:31 pm


  1. Pingback: Try Something New « Cooperative Catalyst - May 6, 2010

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