How many times have we given the instruction ‘please work together’ or ‘in groups’ to our students? How many times have we expected from our students to work together, cooperate and collaborate with their classmates in order to do a task? But what about us? Are we open to collaboration and working with other teachers? Are we open to a collaboration or a healthy conflict with our colleagues? Are we open to discussion and exchange of ideas without judgment? Well, not a hundred per cent. For the past two months I have been thinking about the teachers I have collaborated with - what I have liked and why. I did the same thing about my not-so-fruitful collaborations. I feel so lucky because I have been working with teachers from a different learning and teaching background around the world. In a nutshell, what I have liked most is the enthusiastic and passionate teachers who can share, who are reliable, who do not judge, who actively listen and understand without criticizing. They are open to discussion, they are open to learning (they do not assume that they know everything) they set clear goals, they are fair, they forgive, they respect, they are creative, they cultivate a sense of belonging and, my favourite one, they have a sense of humour. Now you can understand about the not-so-productive collaborations.
What is collaboration?
According to Cambridge dictionary, collaboration is “the situation of two or more people working together to create or achieve the same thing”. Teacher collaboration is defined as “teams of teachers who work interdependently to achieve common goals regarding the improvement of students’ learning and whose members are held mutually accountable” (Cambridge). If we break down the above definitions we will notice that collaboration is all about a shared goal or vision (i.e. students’ achievement, progress, effective learning), teachers who work effectively with other teachers, a sense of community, teachers who work through ‘healthy’ conflicts and teachers who share responsibility.
So far, so good. So, why can’t we collaborate or find it challenging or sometimes difficult?
The main barrier of collaboration is isolation. We feel that we do not know or that we know everything, we feel that we are not capable enough or we feel that we can do everything, we are afraid of asking questions, we are afraid to show our skills and competences because someone may judge us. We also find it easy to label other people; therefore, we do not find it difficult to label our colleagues as well (novice, experienced, inexperienced, innovator, traditional, lazy, expert, you stole my ideas, copycat and many more). All the above mentioned facts feed insecurity in teachers. A lot of us are experiencing or have experienced such barriers before and this is the result of a fixed mindset and of course this is a result of the traditional setup of school organization which all contribute to the teachers working by themselves. Individualism means that we may struggle to share our experiences and views which means that we do not interact with our peers or help them develop. The outcome is burnout (the positive scenario) or a teacher who does not wish to develop or change (worst case scenario). However, there are cases in which there is a collaborative atmosphere in theory, but in practice it is a totally different story.
What can we do?
- Avoid criticism, especially in big schools. I have witnessed conflicts among teachers about simple things which could have been avoided if they had taken a simple step; discussion. Believe me, no one is willing to listen to someone telling them what to do and what not to do in a non-constructive manner. Our brain does not work like this, I’m sorry.
- Peer coaching: a pair or a group of teachers who are willing to work together and provide constructive and meaningful feedback and support each other while trying something new or while teaching a new class or level.
- Collaborative planning: a group or a pair of teachers who are discussing about trying out a new method, materials, approaches, an online tool. They then reflect on what has worked and what hasn’t. Please remember that failing to implement a new approach is absolutely fine. It means that it could not work at that specific time with the specific students. And that’s OK. It might work later on.
- Create things together: support other teachers in any possible way. If you feel that they have something to say, then encourage them to speak and present their ideas.
- Improves student achievement (Louis et al, 2010; Dumay et al., 2013)
- Increases teaching effectiveness, (Graham, 2007)
- Improves instructional quality (Hochweber et al., 2012)
- Improves self-efficacy (Puchner and Taylor, 2006)
- A sense of belonging
- A sense of trust
- Improves skills and knowledge
- Improves productivity
- Gives a sense of purpose
Collaboration is difficult; too many cooks spoil the broth, they say. However, I prefer the Greek proverb which simple says «κράτα με να σε κρατώ να ανεβούμε το βουνό» or many hands make light work. As human beings, we need the other point of view, we need the input of our colleagues, someone to advise us or to simply listen to us and understand us. Teaching is not a lonely route. It is a collaborative process.
- Cambridge Dictionary, “Collaboration”, [Internet], Available from: < https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/collaboration> , [Accessed 20th September 2021]
- Dumay, X., Boonen, T., and Van Damme, J. (2013), Principal leadership long-term indirect effects on learning growth in mathematics, School J. 114, 225–251.
- Graham, P. (2007), Improving teacher effectiveness through structured collaboration: a case study of a professional learning community, Middle Level Education, 31, 1–17.
- Hochweber, J., Steinert, B., and Klieme, E. (2012), [The impact of teacher cooperation and instructional quality on learning in English as a foreign language, Unterrichtswissenschaft 40, 351–370.
- Louis, K. S., Dretzke, B., and Wahlstrom, K. (2010), How does leadership affect student achievement? Results from a national US survey, School Effect, 21, 315–336
- Puchner, L. D., and Taylor, A. R. (2006), Lesson study, collaboration and teacher efficacy: stories from two school based math lesson study groups, Teacher Education, 22, 922–934.