Today I had the opportunity to live the word collaboration in two settings. First visiting the Hockomock Area YMCA and meeting with executive Tony Calcia to talk collaboration and the vision of the YMCA. Then this evening participating in the first #aimsnetwork twitter chat led by Rae Hughart @RaeHughart and Bryan Zwemke @BryanZwemke . It was great to talk collaboration but for me, I try to pull apart “buzz words” to understand the true meaning. This blog has been a great avenue to do that and tonight with the day I had, my focus is on “collaboration”. That #aimsnetwork did not just happen overnight and building a culture of collaboration at the YMCA doesn’t happen by bringing it up in a meeting. It takes planning and leadership before the first invite is sent for #aimsnetwork or the first kick off meeting at the YMCA, so let’s dive into that.
When the word “collaboration” is spoken in a school, it is not always welcomed with open arms.
As educators, we encourage our students to share, cooperate, “ask three before me”, and to be classmates who work together to make their world a better place. In businesses, they emphasize creative thinking, brainstorming, teamwork, community, and building relationships. However, the common image of teaching is an insulated classroom where teachers are left alone to do their jobs, with an emphasis on individualism and isolationism. Teachers often aren’t given the time or opportunity to collaborate with their colleagues. Educators benefit from professional collaboration and support; and, by extension, the children benefit as well.
Educators or leaders who have had success or are comfortable working solo may feel they are being encroached on or that their ideas are being invaded during collaboration. However, when your school community respects each other and acknowledges individual skills and participation, all staff can move forward in a positive environment while also becoming learners. Effective collaborative leadership provides teachers opportunities for improved practices through increased leadership opportunities and a feeling of being valued in a school environment.
Unlike professionals who work in the private sector, teachers spend most of the day with children in classrooms. I fully understand they are teaching and their job is to be in front of students. However, we should be working tirelessly to find new ways for educators to work together when students are not in front of them. I also understand it’s tough to find three minutes to use the bathroom, let alone collaborate. But creating collaborative opportunities will reduce the feeling of working in a silo. Collaboration is rooted in a common focus: to promote collegial dialogue focused on student data as a means of improving teacher practice and student learning. This idea is not new, but it is often overlooked and underemphasized when talking about educational leadership. The impact of collaboration should not be underestimated, and the desire to collaborate should be encouraged and nurtured by school and district leadership. To create collaborative schools, we must have leaders step up and lead the efforts to design, maintain, and champion a collaborative environment.
Being a leader in a collaborative culture is more than merely leading a scheduled meeting, or asking teacher to share lessons or sitting through common planning-time. Collaborative leadership requires transparency, honesty, integrity, dependability, accountability, and educators’ commitment to shared goals. A school or district that supports collaborative leadership must be fostered and supported by administration for lasting success. Cultivating `a culture of collaboration will need structure, protocols and routines. It will be difficult to get teachers in the same room to work together if processes or structures are not in place.
Collaboration is a mitigating condition for teachers to grow in the profession and to accept and implement change effectively. Having leadership opportunities will provide teachers with workplace relationships that allow them to develop individual potential. Teachers are more prone to remain in schools were principals or superintendents support collaboration by seeking teacher input in decision making, offer sufficient teacher support, and create a community that fosters collaboration.
Building relationships with colleagues is critical to cultivate a culture of collaboration. Just like building relationships with students lays the groundwork for academic success, building relationships with colleagues lays the groundwork for effective collaboration.
As a principal for 11 years and a district leader for two, I define collaborative leadership as the presence of opportunities for shared leadership, educator ownership, and sharing of instructional and pedagogical ideas. Collaboration is a talent and skill developed through humility, patience, and vision. Collaborative leadership is a style supported by an administration that recognizes the importance of interpersonal relationships and cross-functional collaboration for school and student success.
I always hear “I want more” time but you only get 24 hours, 1,440 minutes or 86,400 seconds each day (cue Rent theme). When a leader begins the journey to create a collaborative culture, She/he maybe hit with “we don’t have the time” How you use that time depends on skills learned through self- analysis, planning, evaluation, and self-control. Much like money, time is both valuable and limited and it must be protected. A school day is constantly go-go-go, so most leaders arrive a couple hours before students and staff and stay at least that long at the end of the day to tackle the email, phone calls, paperwork. Change means stress and, as a result, school leaders can expect a certain degree of push-back with collaboration. Whether this push-back can derail a school’s efforts is dependent on the skill of the leadership team in supporting the desired shift. I believe the schools that successfully create a collaborative environment have leaders who walk the walk and show the actions needed to build a strong foundation. Because of the time shortage, these strategies are ones any leader can put into place tomorrow and then develop a blue print for collaboration.
- Clarity of school vision and mission: What does your school stand for? What are your core beliefs? Effective leaders can vividly describe their vision of the future and can paint a clear picture of that destination to others. Communicate your vision in newsletters, in staff room, and in your actions.
- Reach out to staff and stakeholders part1: One of the best ways to connect and create an authentic bond is to go to reach people who matter most. Spend a day writing a friendly note or just a hello and drop it in the mail or staff mailboxes. If time, deliver in person. It’s about the connections you make that breed collaboration.
- Reach out to staff and stakeholders part2: The next step after an initial communication note, will be to check in regularly with teacher leaders to see how everything is going and hold individual meetings with teachers who may initially be resistant to collaboration. Developing your personal relationships with staff so they feel comfortable voicing concerns or discussing classroom challenges will reinforce the foundation of a collaborative culture.
- Classroom visits: Collaboration increases when staff feel the leader is visible. You can’t lead collaboration without the pulse of the building or district. For school leaders to be visible and have the knowledge of instructional practice to deliver growth-providing feedback, he/she will need multiple methods of class visits to build relationships. The methods described will help leaders understand practice and understand the building. Observe the dynamics of teacher to students, student to student, and teacher to teacher relationship to foster trust with the staff.
- Have lunch with students: When staff observe their leader connecting with kids, they will be more open to collaboration if you model collaborative thinking and reinforce you are there for the teachers and students
- Use discussion and dialogue: We must remember to “use our words,” just like we ask of our students. Your collaborative team may need to select a new curriculum, analyze data, or study new instructional methods. Having a discussion enhances a conversation and allows group members to state their thoughts or ideas as you build consensus or make decisions. Moving from discussion to dialogue allows the team to broaden individual knowledge, incorporate multiple perspectives, listen actively, and stay focused. With an increase in collaboration there may be an increase in conflict. Dialogue may lead to conflict, so having strategies for your leadership team to monitor conflict as it arises will support individuals. This step takes professional judgment, trust, and often provides growth opportunities for your team.
- Assure all voices are heard: This may seem like an obvious statement in collaborative leadership, but knowing and doing are two different things. Being heard is more than participants speaking in meetings. A collaborative leader must facilitate participation from all staff and welcome new participants. When working together, encourage all colleagues to generate as many ideas as possible early on. Collective brainstorming creates a culture of risk taking and expanding thinking. Push each other to think about different ways that a learning goal can be executed. A leader should actively try to learn what all staff like and what they’re skilled at. Be attuned to moments of professional passion and excitement and disengagement. Use each other’s passions to help sculpt ideas or initiatives.
As I said earlier, collaboration is not always welcomed with open arms. However, effective collaboration provides teachers opportunities for improved practices and a feeling of being valued in a school environment. Known educational author on teacher effectiveness Harry K. Wong said, “the trademark of effective schools is a culture where all teachers take responsibility for the learning of all students.” The key to strong collaboration is when educators recognize that a student shouldn’t be the responsibility of only one teacher, but all of us. All teachers, leaders, and staff. This shift in thinking will open the door for collaboration in schools. When pushback comes, a leader must step up and continue to vision and drive to collaborate.
Collaboration in Action
As I developed as a teacher and grew as a leader, I was hired as a principal when I was 34. I share that because I was one of the youngest in the building, the only guy, I moved two hours for the job, and I walked into the school not knowing anyone and very nervous. I knew using collaborative leadership skills was how I would make my mark at the school. The first thing I did was ask, “Do we have a nickname or mascot?” The answer was no for both. The first week of school we created a poll for a nickname, had a schoolwide election, and then held a drawing contest for the logo. We quickly became the Hill-Robert’s Huskies and we had an identity. The PTO, staff, and kids came together, we had shirts and Spirit Days, and that initial collaboration and success started to breed and foster a community that led to teachers sharing ideas, staff meetings focused on classroom successes, and many other collaborative initiatives.
I also saw a pattern of heads down entering the building and a slower start to the day on Mondays. So why not “Celebrate Monday”. How the week kicks off sets the tone for how the week progresses and wraps up. When a school community is dreading Mondays, it could trickle down to students and attitudes within school and give the feeling that we don’t want to be in school on Monday. That is 20% of the learning week. To make a shift in approaching the start of the week we started to celebrate Mondays. We had community members or a collection of teachers at the door inviting students and staff enthusiastically in. Music was playing and smiles quickly followed. I would send out Monday announcements Sunday night to build excitement for the start with a silly story or joke. The PTO followed suit and began to provide a quick breakfast treat in the staff’s workroom on some Mondays. We would over post photos on Mondays to celebrate all the learning. Celebrating Mondays created a culture of every day matters, increase attendance, and was just fun to be a part of and think of new ways to celebrate and collaborate.
Creating the collaborative culture at Hill-Roberts turned the phrase “our school” into a common expression. And we went from a school scoring in the low 70s on the state assessment to high 80s two years later—with the same curriculum, same amount of staff, and same small budget.
I saw the positive effects of collaboration and made sure to infuse my next school with those strategies and ideals. I brought many of the same strategies to the new school, forming a teacher-leadership team, empowering teachers to present at state and national conferences, and allowing many voices to be heard in school-budget, initiatives, policies, and in crafting our mission. One collaborative activity that stood out was taking the staff for team building on the first day of school. Did the staff need to review the school schedule again, get information they could read in an email, or listen to me blab? Of course not. Instead, we went to the local YMCA and participated in the ropes-course activities to build teamwork and collaboration. Those activities-built skills in communication, conflict management listening, trust, and respect.
You can do this
When teachers are given collaborative opportunities to learn and grow or feel the principal is approachable and supports them, they feel valued and that positively enhances job satisfaction that lights the spark for more collaboration. Leaders are vital to the development and sustainability of educator voice to establish a collaborative culture in schools. Recent state and federal mandates focus heavily on student achievement and it often is an expectation that school leaders focus primarily on curriculum, assessment, and accountability. However, if school leadership solely focuses on student achievement and data, critical factors like fostering innovation, collaboration, and educator voice take a back seat and are essential in the development of a successful collaborative school.