8 lessons from most-improved schools on building a collaborative culture

collaborationTalent wins games, but teamwork wins championships,  super athlete  Michael Jordan once said about collaboration.

Every school has its star teachers, but to truly win the “championship” and ensure that all students in all classrooms are learning optimally, teachers must constantly share what they know about instruction in a truly collaborative work environment.

What can you do to nurture collaboration in your school?

Here are 8 lessons from a recent study on school collaboration by the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy and EdVestors.  The report examines how 5 most-improved schools in the Boston area nurture collaboration among teachers. Each of the 5 schools has been awarded a prize of $100,000 by EdVestors in its annual School on the Move competition.

1. Build in structure.  Teachers need structure, protocols and routines to work in teams and collaborate successfully on instruction.  “If you don’t have the structures, you can’t get teachers—especially those differing in personality or vision—in the same room to work together,” says the report, Making Space: The Value of Teacher Collaboration. The process of developing and following structures itself helps cultivate a shared vision for school improvement.

Beyond creating teacher teams, it’s important to schedule regular meetings, provide agenda and develop procedures for how members of the group will address and respond  to teachers’ concerns about their own instructional practice.  Within a well-defined structure, teachers gravitate toward a role based on their specialized skills such as analyzing data, facilitating and leading teams, or developing plans for classroom interventions as they learn to function as a team.

2. Decide how you will manage conflict.  Conflict is inevitable in any collaborative work.  Teacher teams need to acknowledge this and decide how they will address conflict when it happens.  This is a key step on the path to more advanced collaborative work. Collective decision-making on how to manage conflict encourages teachers to consider new perspectives as they buy into a shared vision for school improvement.


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3. Encourage peer-to-peer collaboration. Teamwork and one-on-one peer collaboration are not incompatible. Teachers have always sought feedback from peers on a current challenge in their classroom.  This will continue to occur even when more formal collaborative work has been put into place.  Research has found that these deep,  personal conversations with peers drive the hard work of adjusting pedagogy to meet student needs. Such interactions often are more specific to teachers’ individual concerns about classroom practice than many team meeting discussions.  So, encourage them.

At some schools, teams even put into place more formal opportunities for these interactions such as instructional rounds, matching pairs of teachers  and arranging for them to share common prep periods, or formalizing reflective conversations within the team structure.

4. Make the right hiring decisions.  Chemistry is important. New hires need to be a good “fit” with your collaborative culture.  Discuss the importance of collaboration often during the recruitment and hiring process  (also discuss with job candidates).  Hiring has much more impact on enhancing  the collaborative culture in your school than working with new teachers to be more collaborative.  During the interview process,  ask candidates about their past experience collaborating with other teachers and try to gauge willingness to work with colleagues.  Tip-offs to great collaborators: Being receptive to feedback and being interested in constant learning regardless of years of experience.

5. Create matrixed teams.  To foster school-wide interactions among teachers, create “matrixed” teams instead of siloed teams.  In all the School on the Move schools, teachers are on more than one academic team, such as grade-level and subject-area teams.  The schools also have a bi-monthly instructional leadership team meeting to focus on meeting school-wide improvement goals.  Each team is linked to the goals of other teacher teams and to the school’s strategic plan. A matrixed team structure helps to improve two-way communication between teachers and school leadership.

6. Do the yardwork.  Establishing teacher teams and a school schedule to support meetings can be very time-consuming.  But once that is done you must continue to invest time in nurturing a collaborative culture. Check in regularly with teacher leaders or facilitators to see how everything is going.  Have one-to-one meetings  with teachers who are initially resistant to collaboration.  Develop  your personal relationships with staff so that they feel comfortable voicing concerns or discussing classroom challenges.

7. Brainstorm about individual kids.  Teachers often informally consult one another about challenging kids. Teacher team meetings create opportunities to formalize conversations and turn them into specific plans for academic and socio-emotional interventions.   In grade-level schools, some teacher teams make sure every student is discussed every 6-8 weeks, strategies typically only used with students with individualized education plans.   Teachers who regularly interact with the children meet with specialists to create instructional plans, share non-academic information about families or circumstances and information about pedagogical adjustments.

8. Transfer team leadership to teachers.  The ultimate goal for school leaders should be to provide support rather than leadership to teacher teams.  One school leader tells new teachers, “These are not top-down structures; you have to drive these,” says the report.   The transfer of leadership is not without tension.  When do you provide guidance and when do you leave teachers alone?  This is a question school leaders often struggle with especially when you suspect a proposal won’t succeed. But, remember that failure can be a great learning experience.  “This push-pull defines a learning experience for teachers and school leaders alike,” the report says.

Making Space: The Value of Teacher Collaboration, School on the Move Best Practice Research, Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy and EdVestors.

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