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Teacher Collaborations: What Works and What Doesn’t
December 1997-January 1998

What qualities do you see as being essential to effective, ongoing collaborations? Can you describe some "successful" collaborations in which you’ve taken part? Some  unsuccessful collaborations? What sorts of supports need to be put in place in order for authentic collaborations to be initiated and sustained? 

--Sanda Balaban

I’m in a dysfunctional team (English, Math, Social Studies, Science, and  reading specialists, 7th grade, inner city school in Newburgh). Nobody  sees a duty to discuss kids together regularly, doesn’t want to stay  afterschool (we aren’t given a prep period to meet together so we have to  do it afterschool, in conflict with other meetings and things so we don’t  meet regularly). I have a strong connection with my social studies  teammate because I like him and because his classroom is very near mine;  I don’t care for the other two and it’s mutual. The principal yells at  us once in a while but without a shared prep period and with a culture  (maintained by the team leader, a young teacher) of "do the minimum and  get by; principals are full of crap" there’s not much that can be  accomplished. 

The "functional" team seems to be very productive and have a lot of  satisfaction working together. I guess since schools are made up of all  sorts of folks, there will be functional and dysfunctional teams; and  until periods of time (with occasional supervision by facilitators) are  available for dysfunctional teams to be given support and stimulation to  work out their issues, they will continue to exist.  

The real issue, seems to me, is where the principal is at in all this.  If he focuses on parents as clients, kids as factory fodder and teachers  as airline stewardesses, he’s not going to encourage teaming. The overall  school culture needs apt leadership to attain a degree of collaborative  professionalism that supports the work needed for dysfunctional teams to  heal themselves. And even then, the dead teachers will have to end up in  some  sort of "morgue team" someplace.  

To summarize: some teams will just run well because everyone likes each  other and likes working together; for the rest, however, supports to work  through issues and function as a team include: a set time for teams to  meet, available facilitators, clear  guidelines on responsibilities (and empowerment to support that) from the principal. That’s my opinion after  a half-year of teaching in public school.  

--Bram Moreinis

Time, leadership, a supportive school culture (and colleagues)--yes, yes, yes, in an ideal arrangement. But what if such supports do not exist? What sorts of ways of "circumventing the system" have you created (or heard or read about) to start and sustain collaborations in the absence of external (and’or administrative) supports?  

--Sanda Balaban

Start small, build up from a successful working base.

I have always tried to find at least one colleague who is on my wavelength. If I can’t have a successful collaboration with a team, at least I can become a role model with one other person. It is usually easier to find one sympathetic person than a team. You can serve as support and facilitators for each other. Having been in both a good collaboration and a weak one, I know that in the weak ones you have to make your own smaller unit. That’s what I am doing now. 

--Benna Golubtchik

A successful collaboration needs people with a shared vision and philosophy. A common background is not necessary.  

I worked with people who had different backgrounds, approaches, and skills, but all had the same goal and philosophy of education. Our purpose was to write a proposal for a new mini-school. We all found the process exhilarating, frustrating at times, and, most importantly, extremely exciting. I grew from working with these people and learned an incredible amount. We all brought different skills to the mix, and we all took away more than we came with. 

Contrast that to a program which has been put into place with no concern for the educational philosophy of the participants. I have worked in an environment where people were brought together and expected to work together to create an educational plan, but spent the time defending their positions because they couldn’t agree on an approach. Without the proper foundation of common philosophy, successful collaboration is difficult, at best. Taking the time to bring people together who share a goal (or allowing them to self- select) is the most important aspect of successful collaboration. 

--Benna Golubtchik

This year I am involved in a critical friends group (cfg) as a coach and a member. Our ultimate goal is improving student learning by reflecting on our own learning. It took four months of trust building before we began the process of looking at our own work and student work. The group is small and very tight, meaning we seek each other out between meetings for mutual support. I know this group is doing real work because in other groups my thoughts tend to wander on to all the task that have to completed by days end. In this group I am so focused on what my colleagues are sharing that the role leadership fades in and out of the session. The group, maybe because of the size, six people, seems to be  an example of shared leadership or true democracy. I think cfg’s can be a vehicle for authentic collaboration.  

--Gwen Clinkscales

Collaborations can work when people are willing to work towards a common vision, communicate openly with each other, and sometimes even make compromises. 
In my school, the principal invites collaborations and tries to provide time during the school day so teachers could meet and work together. She has turned over prep schedule planning to teachers so their input is taken into consideration and common prep periods are scheduled if possible. Teachers who meet after school to collaborate on projects—grade-wise or school-wise—are compensated if at all possible. Time is always the major factor, especially during the school day, if teachers want to plan and work together. In addition, resources are important for successful collaborations and if the supervisor’principal can get allocations, this makes the job easier for teachers.  
Open dialogue is essential. Teachers need to be open-minded, willing to share as well as listen to others if they want to collaborate effectively. I’ve worked with teachers on small collaborative projects and their pettiness and unwillingness to make modifications caused stress and anger within the group. This can really divide people and sour them to work on future collaborations.

Overall though, I’ve been lucky to have worked on great collaboration projects with interested, caring, and visionary colleagues. They have invigorated my own professionalism and pushed me to constantly change and learn and improve . 

--Alice Hom

A brief recap on previous insights: 
* The importance of TIME, leadership, and a supportive school culture (All);
* Acting locally and starting small (Benna); 
* Having vision, maintaining communication, and making compromises (Alice);
* Developing a shared philosophy focused on a common goal (Benna);
* Conducting open dialogue and keeping open minds (Alice); 
* Building trust, incorporating ongoing self-reflection, and working in small groups (Gwen)

Judi posed some particularly provocative questions: Are collaborations "easier" at an early childhood level? If so, are there certain elements of these arrangements that we all could learn from and utilize in our collaborations? 

Judi also writes about being "steeped in the collaborative mentality since college," citing the importance of starting collaborations at a pre-service level and thereby inculcating the idea of authentic collegiality before even entering the classroom. Based on your experiences with student teachers, and your knowledge of teacher education programs, are such collaborations being embraced within pre-service programs? How? What are the effects? 

Are informal collaborations--the ones that individuals independently opt into, in the lunchroom or the hallways--more valuable’viable than structured ones--those imposed by the administration or department? What are some advantages and disadvantages of each? 

--Sanda Balaban

In our school, the principal (Headmaster) has initiated a teacher learning and resource center with professional development along the lines of "new" methodology, opportunities for collaboration, the creation of interdisciplinary curriculum, etc. What a great concept, but so far those who are going (it is voluntary )are the collaborator types already. Coffee, snacks and coverage are pulling out a few more, but it may be some time before the non-collaborators visit. I’ll keep you posted. Who knows, the Havarti or Brie may just put them over the edge. 

--Maggie Hoyt

This topic is of particular interest to me as I seem to exist in a collaborative school. We are a team of eight teachers and five classes (two 7th grade, two eighth, and one special ed). Our daily lives are completely intertwined (not always agreeably) because of having such a small school, being in close proximity and the lack of our Director to direct. Collaborations, for me, have been both successful and unsuccessful and I truly believe that ( to quote Alice) "Collaborations can work when people are willing to work towards a common vision, communicate openly with each other, and sometimes even make compromises" I don’t think that forced collaborations are successful or that administrative leadership is critical (unless you have Alice’s Principal). There are no time or financial allowances for collaboration in my school. Discussions happen at the morning table, in the hall, or on the phone. There has to be a willingness on the part of both teachers and flexibility—so that work load differences, project direction and unexpected difficulties do not become barriers. Collaborative partners also have to be willing and able to support one another in terms of making students accountable. By that I mean, students realize that the project "counts" in both disciplines (thus , it is easier if the teachers have similar standards). One recent collaboration, (that I wouldn’t even consider a true collaboration) was a disaster on my end as the students had little regard for the other teacher and they knew she would accept work that I wouldn’t. My most successful collaborations have been with colleagues who are willing, flexible and dedicated. 

--Lexi McGill

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on collaboration. You raise a good point with regard to how do we move beyond "preaching to the choir" and widen the circle of "converts" willing to invest in collaboration. Enticements alone—even the edible kind—may not be enough. I wonder what would be? Perhaps part of the remaining resistance springs from the preexisting culture, which may not have endorsed collaborations to the same degree. You wisely recognize what many overlook—it takes time to change a culture. The history of school change efforts shows us that we are often over-hasty in wanting immediate results without allowing enough time for reform to really take root--to stick and seep into the school culture. Keep us posted on the progress of this. It’s great that your principal is so supportive. (And Gouda can work wonders....) 

--Sanda Balaban

Lexi, you raise interesting points about the nature of collaboration at a school specifically  designed to utilize such interactions. It’s encouraging to hear that in some ways collaborations have been arisen to fill the void left by the leadership vacuum.--inspiration that all is not hopeless in the absence of administrative support. 

The qualities you cite—willingness, dedication, flexibility, and consistency—are key.  Have you discovered ways of inculcating such buy-in within the staff you’re working with?

I love your emphasis on "student accountability" as the bottom line—this is both the most worthy goal and something that all parties (hopefully!) can agree about, and which can thereby serve as an important unifier. 

--Sanda Balaban

Please excuse my late jump into this conversation. Collaborations are a life blood of my professional growth. I agree that professional collaborations work best when they are voluntary and have a common vision and goal. Even with a strong foundation, collaborations provide a challenge that comes from working with different perspectives. Growth comes with continual reflection and problem solving that includes different points of view. This is true of both collaborative teaching and collaborative learning. 

--Berta Berritz


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