Strong teacher collaboration is intentional, organized, and grounded in norms of mutual respect, trust and professional relationships. And while collaboration can be fun and engaging, it can also require planning and at times, difficult conversations. Having a plan for collaboration is essential for ensuring that the time you and your team spend together is productive and efficient.
Start by establishing why and when you will collaborate. In some cases, collaboration will take place during time allocated by your administrators during staff meetings or professional learning days. In other cases, you may want to carve out some time with your colleagues during a planning time or when the team is voluntarily available before or after school to focus on more practical matters, such as cross-curricular unit planning or planning for a specific group of students.
Make the most of your collaboration plan by establishing a clear outcome for the meeting – you or one of your colleagues may feel comfortable taking the lead on creating objectives, or as a team you can determine the objective through email or a casual conversation. Establish a timeframe and honour that time – don’t be afraid to refocus the group if the conversation goes off-topic, or remind the group when time is winding down. You might even mutually agree to assign these roles to each other if the group is big enough, just as you would with your students!
Finally, ensure there is time at the end of the meeting to plan next steps and possible follow-up meetings or emails. Keep everyone in the loop that should know what is happening: support teachers, DECEs, administrators, or even students and families.
Attributes of Strong Teacher Collaborators
To collaborate effectively with others, we also need to intentionally be good collaborators ourselves. Over the years, I’ve had opportunities to work with so many effective collaborators – and those who were not so effective – which made me realize how much I still had to improve myself.
In my current role, I have the unique privilege of seeing teams work together. What strikes me about the teams that work best are their ability to talk openly with one another, even when disagreements arise. They understand the importance of each other’s time, make an effort to ask questions about each other’s lives outside of school, and maintain a professional dialogue that is authentic and respectful. They prioritize their own well-being and that of their students, and understand that everyone plays a role in reaching successful outcomes for the school community.
Let’s explore some attributes of strong teacher collaborators.
Good collaborators understand the importance of relationship building: establishing trust, getting to know your colleagues, and valuing the strengths they bring to the table. You are probably already building strong relationships with your colleagues without even realizing it – hallway conversations about your families, weekends, commutes, or shared interests are some small ways we build vital connections with others. When these personal connections are in place, it can be much easier engage in deeper professional discussions about teaching and assessment.
“Growth mindset” is a familiar term for many teachers, particularly in the context of math. It is important to bring the same growth mindset when we collaborate with other teachers. It is all too easy to get accustomed to our own way of doing things, especially when we see success. But there is also so much to learn, try, and explore, and many of your colleagues may have ways of managing their classroom or developing a learning activity that will enable you to enhance your practice.
It’s no secret that teachers like to talk, and as a teacher you may have been in situations with teachers where the talking never stops or people even start talking over each other! When collaborating, the act of listening actively and attentively is critical. Honour the ideas of your colleagues, ask follow up questions, and listen more. You might be surprised at how much you can discover about others and learn by being an engaged listener.
Don’t hesitate to be generous when you are collaborating. Be generous in your praise and encouragement where it is due, share your own knowledge, resources and ideas, and offer help when you have the time and resources. You will not only receive generosity in kind, but bring positive energy into your collaboration for strong professional relationships.
Ready for Hard Conversations
There will be times where discussions will lead to hard conversations. Sometimes you may be faced with someone that wants to confront, to question your statements, or simply is not interested in changing the way they work. It can feel challenging if not impossible to collaborate in a situation like this.
When you do find yourself in these conversations, stay focused on the work and utilize protocols for collaboration established by your school or board. If there is an agenda in place to guide the planning you are engaged in, use it keep the conversation moving. Keep in mind what matters most: that you are working together to optimize the learning environments of the students you teach.