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Deep, Level III Collaboration for Professional Learning Communities

Occasionally people ask me, “Aren’t you introverted? Then why all the co-authoring and co-presenting?” Because collaborating with people who don’t think quite like me increases my chance of heading in a good direction.

If your colleagues or staff roll their eyes at the mention of professional learning communities, it just may be that they aren’t engaged in the kind of deep collaboration that makes meeting time invaluable to all involved. In preparation for facilitating the #atplc chat # 16 on Twitter , I posted this excerpt from my book Differentiated Coaching: A Framework for Helping Teachers Change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2006), pages 53-55.

Collaboration: to work jointly with others in an intellectual endeavor. That’s the dictionary definition.

In my first career as a financial controller, collaboration was the norm. At each new job, colleagues shared computer programs, spreadsheet templates, and every trick of the trade they knew to get me up to speed as soon as possible. The faster I could carry my own weight, the better for all. However, collaboration continued even after I was competent. We had no choice but to collaborate, for many reasons:

    • We often faced unworkable deadlines
    • Many tasks were too big for one person to handle
    • Coordination among departments was key to success
    • We needed to share resources
    • Often, tasks required skills I didn’t have; I partnered with others who needed my skills.

Look back through the list; those same reasons apply to educators as well, yet few teachers collaborate. When I first began working in schools, this lack of teaming astounded me. I asked a friend, head of the world language department at a large high school, why teachers didn’t work together more. She said, “Deep down, many view it as stealing. It took me years to get the other teachers to share lesson plans. ‘Competent teachers do it themselves,’ was their message back to me. And finally, when they used something I’d created, students said, ‘Ms. Hartman, did you know someone stole your idea?’ I made sure my name didn’t appear on anything after that!”

In a sense, teachers seem to use a second dictionary definition of collaboration: cooperating with the enemy. They avoid it. Yes, there is a push for teaming, professional learning communities, small schools-within-a-school, and other possibilities for deeper team work, but let’s look at three different levels of collaboration and see where most teaching teams fall:

    • Level I: Superficial collaboration. This includes teaming for administrative tasks such as fundraising, field trips, procuring resources, or discussing interventions for specific students. Ensuring that staff is building relationships with all students, while important, still falls within this level of teaming.
    • Level II: Segmented collaboration. Teaching teams might engage in cross-disciplinary efforts such as conducting an experiment in science and composing a related essay in language arts. Or, elementary teachers may divide up subjects, one teaching math in both rooms while the other teaches social studies. Team expectations for behavior, uniform rules, or consequences might also fall here.

Note that both Levels I and II add efficiencies and allow for a fuller picture of the learning profile and special needs of certain students. However, they seldom result in significant changes in classroom practices or increases in student achievement. As we saw in Chapter 3, teachers derive their practices from their own strengths and beliefs. Without input from colleagues, they may not be aware of their own blind spots. This in turn can leave students with very different learning styles in the dust (remember how the teachers on my pilot team cited students with learning styles opposite theirs as their biggest problems). For teachers to understand where, how and why to change their classroom practices, they need:

    • Level III: Instructional collaboration. Teaching teams engage in deep discussions about teaching and learning, serving as resources to each other in developing curriculum and lessons that meet the needs of all learners. Together, they unearth assumptions about teaching and learning, gain from each others’ natural strengths, share strategies and ideas, and learn more regarding what is possible in the classroom.

How deeply does your team collaborate?

Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

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