Your staff is full of educators and administrators with diverse backgrounds, varying levels of experience, different hobbies and unique interests. When all of these skills and ideas come together, you can create a thriving learning experience for your school.
But how do you bring all of these skills together? How can you foster an environment where everyone collaborates and shares their time and abilities with others? Follow this guide to foster improved collaboration across your department, grade level, and even your entire school.
Collaborate on a Micro Level
You don’t have to launch a school-wide collaboration. Start by collaborating with individual teachers to improve lesson plans or help individual students.
According to a teacher collaboration survey by The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 61 percent of teachers discuss the learning development of specific students at least once a month, writes Aakriti Kalra, education consultant at The World Bank. Almost half (47 percent) exchange teaching materials with colleagues on a monthly basis too.
This micro-collaboration helps educators support each other and foster a culture of teamwork. Instead of solving every problem on your own, you can seek out a second opinion or ask for help from an experienced teacher.
“Several studies have shown that students with disabilities in schools with collaborative culture outperform similar students in schools without these structures,” writes education consultant Lindsay DeHartchuck. “Collaboration can bring together teachers with different perspectives and different knowledge to meet learner variability.”
DeHartchuck uses the example of a general teacher working with a literacy specialist to develop effective lesson plans for students at different learning levels. You don’t have to be an expert on every learning style. You just need to ask for help.
In fact, you may find that starting these smaller collaborative groups and teams is more effective than trying to create a school-wide initiative. This will allow you to address your immediate needs without trying to please everyone.
“As the number of schools in chains, trusts and alliances has expanded, many have struggled to retain the quality of the support they offer,” says the team at teacher professional development platform IRIS Connect. “Spreading limited resources more thinly risks losing the depth and quality required to make sustainable change.”
These limitations come in many forms. Training across an entire school or district often comes in a “one size fits all” model, where one size actually only fits a few. There is also less time for meaningful discussions and questions when a program needs to be shared with the masses.
As you expand your collaboration efforts, keep your micro-teams in place to help with small issues.
Fight for Planning Periods
Many educators want to collaborate, but they simply lack the time. When planning periods are removed and other responsibilities added, teachers don’t have time to meet with each other and help their peers.
“The biggest impact a school leader can make in the quality of instruction for all learners is to give co-teachers common planning time,” writes Sarah Riggs Johnson, a learning specialist at Tampa Preparatory School in Florida. “I was lucky to start my career as a special educator in a school where my division head handed me a blank schedule with two periods already filled in [for common planning].”
For an hour each week, Johnson worked with other teachers to collaborate on lesson plan ideas and work through problems together.
“If teachers meet in teams on a regular basis, they can facilitate the exchange of ideas and work together,” writes Katya Henderson at MTSS platform Branching Minds. An example she gives is of one teacher focusing on lesson plans for a unit while another plans the upcoming unit. This prevents duplicate work and teachers save time as they aren’t each creating a full semester of lesson plans.
“Time is a teacher’s most valuable resource, so anything that helps improve efficiency is a win,” Henderson writes.
Create Opportunities for Collaboration and Engagement
Time is the first ingredient for collaboration, and opportunity is the next one. As you start to grow your collaboration efforts, look for ways to get other teachers involved. This is a great way to bring in teachers from different departments to focus on one goal.
“Just as engaged students learn more, engaging your teachers grows their efficacy,” says Jeff Makelky, 2020 Wyoming Principal of the Year. “At Big Piney High School, each teacher serves on at least one leadership team. Each team meets monthly with a stated purpose and agenda. This allows a small group of teachers to focus on schoolwide issues within their team’s domain.”
The teams at his school include technology, culture, peer mentorship, data and assessment.
By creating these teams, teachers can become leaders in their schools. They can take steps to move the institution forward rather than reacting to changes made by other parties.
“When teachers are change agents, they are leading a transformation in their schools or their local and professional communities by supporting [and inspiring] others to make changes that will have a meaningful and positive impact for students,” writes Deb Meyer, professor of education at Elmhurst University in Chicago.
Set Goals for Collaboration
When you start meeting with teachers who want to collaborate more within your school, set goals for each scheduled event. You lobbied hard for this time period and encouraged people to participate — don’t waste their time or yours. Consider drafting a charter explaining the purpose of your group.
“A team charter is a simple document that starts with a vision and mission, and serves to formally codify norms and the team’s envisioned impact,” writes James Hilton Harrell, a doctoral student at Harvard University. “Each person on the team aligns his or her role to the purpose and objective of the team.”
For larger projects and groups, you can also break out the necessary roles needed to accomplish your tasks. These can also be defined in the charter.
“Decomposing a difficult task into parts saves time,” writes Miriam Clifford at teacher development platform TeachThought. “You can then assign different roles.”
This allows you to divide a project based on the strengths of other teachers or by how much they can take on. Not every teacher you collaborate with will have an equal amount of time and energy to work with you. Some might want to help but feel stretched thin. By setting clear roles, collaborators can understand the commitment they are taking on.
Finally, only meet if your collaboration efforts serve a purpose. “When you do find time to meet, be prepared,” writes the team at educator resource site Your Therapy Source. “Have a list of questions or suggestions of what you would like to accomplish.”
Following these steps will make your group more effective, and prove the value of your meetings to others.
Create an Empathetic Culture
The culture in your school and within your team can make or break its success. Reflect on how you plan to approach this team and what you hope to get from the other members.
In a conversation with Tierra Leustig at Dyknow, Elizabeth Walhof, assistant principal at Air Academy High School, says empathy is critical across the school setting. Different departments need to approach each other with empathy and appreciation. Instead of taking a competitive view or trying to hoard resources, schools can thrive when teachers share what they have and work together to build each other up.
Without empathy, it’s hard to form connections and professional relationships with your fellow teachers. It will be even harder to motivate them to give up their time and resources to help others.
“Collaboration is all about building relationships,” says Lauren Davis, director of marketing operations at merit-based student loans provider Funding U. “Taking the time to get to know your colleagues and relate on a personal level develops a greater sense of respect and trust. Like any relationship, collaborative teams take time to develop and increase in strength and productivity over time.”
Invite Others To Share Their Skills
It’s possible to engage your entire department and school in your collaboration efforts. With the right empathetic culture, you can create opportunities for teachers to help each other and feel comfortable reaching out when they need assistance.
“Often a very simple barrier to effective collaboration is not being aware of the vast array of skills and talents that is contained in every staffroom,” says Dr. Eoin Lenihan, an education consultant. “It is a good idea to mount a whiteboard in the staffroom and invite teachers to add their specialist skills to it along with their name.”
You can divide this board into categories like technology, arts and science, and invite teachers to share their skills in each category, he adds. So, instead of trying to master virtual reality yourself, for example, you can ask someone on the skills board to help incorporate a headset into a lesson plan.
This skillshare board can also help teachers find similar skills, which can help when educators need a second set of hands. It can also inspire teachers to seek out new skills they can use to help others.
“Cross training can save the district in productivity by continuing functions while staff are out for vacation, illness, or training,” writes Steve Baule, an assistant professor at Winona State University. “It can motivate staff to learn deeper skills or expand into a new area. It helps staff prepare for future challenges and promotion opportunities as well.”
For example, if a music teacher needs someone to cover for them at the last minute, they might ask a PE teacher, who noted a musical background on the skillshare board, for help. Even if the teachers don’t know each other, they can feel safe asking for help based on the skills and interests listed.
Finally, remember to showcase your own skills. Don’t downplay what you know and how you can help others. You are just as valuable as your peers.
“Your colleagues may benefit tremendously from what you’ve learned,” writes K-12 edtech professional Gwendolyn Smith. “Helping your fellow teachers, and learning alongside them helps students, and helping students is at the heart of why we all teach.”
Collaboration comes in all shapes and sizes. Two teachers can work together to create a better environment for one student. Groups of teachers can form committees for the school. All of these collaboration efforts are built on a foundation of understanding, empathy and a desire to help. Start with the right culture and see where your collaboration goals take you. Your school will be better off because of your efforts.
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