Building Teacher Collaboration School-wide

Teacher collaboration has been a common element of middle grades initiatives for years, typically one or more of these three organizational models: common planning time, professional learning communities, and critical friends groups.

Each model is distinct, yet they share common features. They 1) advance teacher learning, 2) address context-specific issues, 3) foster collegiality, 4) reduce teacher isolation, and 5) lead teachers to greater insights about teaching and learning. The overarching, and arguably the most important common element, is the goal of improved student learning.

What makes each organization model unique? First, the teachers are organized differently in each model: interdisciplinary teams, disciplinary teams, or self-selected teams. Second, the starting point for teachers’ collaboration differs. In common planning time, teacher teams begin with an analysis of the holistic needs of students; in professional learning communities, the teacher teams begin with the analysis of students’ academic progress; and in the critical friends groups, the teacher teams begin with an identified need or interest for improved practice. The recognized features of each organization model are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1. Organizatonal Models That Promote Teacher Collaboration

Common Planning Time Professional Learning Communities Critical Friends Groups
  • Interdisciplinary teams teachers share same students
  • Coordinate team policies and procedures
  • Discuss students
  • Meet with parents
  • Plan team activities, thematic or cross-curricular units
  • Examine student work
  • Participate in professional development
  • Disciplinary teams
  • Ongoing process of collective inquiry and action research
  • Collective analysis of student assessment data in relation to specific learning targets
  • Use of data to inform and assess effectiveness of instruction
  • Group gathers voluntarily to improve practice through collaborative learning
  • Uses coaches and specific protocols used to guide sessions
  • Identify school-specific student learning goals, reflect on practices for achieving the goals, collaboratively examine student work

Strategies for Building Teacher Collaboration

Organizational models facilitate, but do not guarantee collaboration. How teachers engage in a model can make a difference. Teachers’ personal stance about whether they “have to” or “want to” participate in an organizational model is critical to successful collaboration. Equally important is understanding how to engage effectively in collaborative work with colleagues.

As with other skills, we gain a greater capacity for collaboration with the opportunity to practice. To initiate or revitalize teacher collaboration in your school, try these five strategies.

1. Create a truly shared vision and goals. The level of ownership they feel in the process influences how much teachers actually invest in collaborative work. A shared vision and goals can lead to that sense of ownership. For example, identify your team’s shared vision of caring for students and student learning, set goals related to that vision, discuss how the team’s work can help attain those goals, and check in often to assess progress. The strong connection between the work and the vision of the team can help individuals see purpose and assume ownership in the process.

2. Develop a sense of community. At its core, collaboration is relational. Getting to know your colleagues, understanding their passions, and taking the time to connect on a personal level can help members gain mutual respect and look past perceived eccentricities in others. Establishing shared values and commitments can unify the group and provide purpose for their collective work. Like all relationships, a collaborative community develops over time and requires work to maintain.

Trust influences the effectiveness of collaborative work. Respecting group commitments such as being fully present at meetings and seeing the best in others helps establish trust and build a cohesive community. Other ways to develop community include establishing traditions, celebrating accomplishments, and recognizing individual contributions.

3. Identify group norms. Let’s face it: collaboration can be uncomfortable or stressful at times. When we are transparent about our work and our beliefs, our colleagues can see our limitations as well as our strengths, placing us in a position of vulnerability. Sharing with and trusting colleagues requires courage and humility. A climate of trust can help establish the safe environment that’s necessary for open communication.

Identifying and establishing group norms also can help develop that safe environment. Norms might include defining roles and responsibilities, using protocols for interpersonal communication, and outlining parameters for time management.

Taking the time to get to know the learning styles, needs, interests, fears, and hopes of each team member helps shape the norms for how the group engages in the shared work.

4. Use discussion and dialogue. Whether they are integrating curriculum, analyzing data, or studying a new practice, teams should understand the roles of, and differences between, dialogue and discussion. They are equally important to the group process.

Discussion moves the conversation forward. In discussion, individuals state their opinions for the purpose of building consensus or making decisions.

The goal of dialogue is to share and broaden knowledge. Dialogue invites multiple perspectives, values the exploration of biases and assumptions, questions the status quo, and entertains new ways of knowing and being. Dialogue requires active listening, willingness to state beliefs, the ability to bear the tension of ambiguity, and belief in the transformative potential in the process.

5. Work through conflict. Dialogue can cultivate deep professional learning as individuals and teams explore new ideas for practice. However, dialogue may also lead to conflict. It can be helpful for your team to develop a conflict management plan and to monitor conflict as it arises.

Teams can help manage conflict by providing time, space, grace, and support for individuals as they work through their emotions. Individuals also should monitor their own emotions and practice self-care.

Using professional judgment, your team can determine when to explore the roots of conflict and when to provide space for reflection and cooling down. While sometimes uncomfortable, conflict often provides growth opportunities.

Teacher Collaboration

Strong collaboration and collaborative cultures develop over time and require commitment to the process. While the benefits are clear, genuine collaboration is complex.

Patience in the moment and anticipation for the outcome can lead to deep teacher learning that translates into tangible student achievement.

What will it take to maximize organizational models for productive teacher collaboration in your school? School leaders—principals and teachers—need to work together and commit to a collaborative culture. They need to ensure dedicated time for the organizational model within the school day.

Common planning time, professional learning communities, and critical friends groups each require regular, dedicated time for teachers to collaborate. With time, teachers can develop authentic collaborative communities in which they address common issues, shared goals or school-wide initiatives; engage in mutually beneficial endeavors using communal resources; and advance their skills, knowledge, and dispositions related to student learning.

Micki M. Caskey is the associate dean for academic affairs in the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University. She is past chair of the Association of Middle Level Education’s Research Advisory Committee and past editor of Research in Middle Level Education

Jan Carpenter is chair of the Education Department in the School of Graduate Studies at Marylhurst University. She is also chair of the Association of Middle Level Education’s Professional Preparation Advisory Committee and past chair of the Oregon Middle Level Consortium.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2014.