There is a lot of research on the topic of teacher collaboration and how that collaboration has a positive impact on school culture and student learning. As far back as the early 1980s research demonstrates the importance of teacher collaboration. Teachers in collaborative schools participate in four “critical practices”: (1) talking, (2) watching, (3) planning, and (4) teaching about classroom practice (Little, 1982). Little goes on to describe what these practices look like: teacher “talking” is seen as teachers discussing classroom practices; “watching” is mutual observation that takes place between teachers; “planning” is teachers designing and preparation of curriculum; “teaching about classroom practice” happens when teachers are discussing instructional improvement.
These critical practices can only take place when there is trust built between teachers. Trust takes time and a willingness by teachers to openly share and to be vulnerable. When there is open dialogue, observation, planning, and discussing instructional improvement among the teachers the school becomes a learning organization. Senge (1990) describes learning organizations as places “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns on thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free” (p. 3) and it is through this openness to creativity within teacher collaboration that leads to an atmosphere where risk-taking, innovation, and improvement occurs (Louis
In digging into the research on developing a culture of collaboration one of the themes that comes up over and over again is the concept of shared leadership which is a strategy that good principals use to make decisions, empower teacher leaders, and create a culture where collaboration can materialize (Hord & Sommers, 2008; Leonard & Leonard, 2005; Louis, et. al., 1994; Wells & Fuen, 2008). Principals should not be seen as the ones with all the answers in how to improve the schools. Instead leaders need to connect with teachers and create the atmosphere for teachers to be able to connect with one another. Principals should develop teacher leaders and allow them to collaborate with their colleagues. Rosenholtz (1989) describes three different outcomes for when teachers collaborate with teacher leaders (1) they define a new way of doing things, (2) suggest and inspire ideas and discourse, (3) help others overcome difficult and challenging problems. When we have teachers leading other teachers learning and growing happen for all involved. This is how we get better. This is how we accomplish our goals and live out our mission. We can't do it alone.
Leaders who venture off on their own end up developing what Hargreaves & Fullan (2012) describe as the “my school” or “my vision”, and in these cases the management of the school turns into manipulation and collaboration turns into collegiality. In these situation there is a failure to develop a sense of unity and togetherness. I don't believe in the "my school" or "my vision" places that there is an overwhelming sense of belonging or success. A school should have a common mission that is understood by all in the building. This cannot be just the mission of a principal. The understanding of the work happens when there is collaboration and a sense that we are in this together. I think this quote captures the importance of having a collective understanding of a mission and goals.
If there is any center to the mystery of schools’ success, mediocrity, or failure, it lies deep within the structure of organizational goals; whether or not they exist, how they are defined and manifested, the extent to which they are mutually shared. (Rosenholtz, 1989, p. 13).
Without a shared understanding and responsibility for student learning it is nearly impossible for a school to be successful. It takes a collective effort through collaboration and a willingness for principals and teachers to grow and improve their practice. As I stated earlier there is a place for competition in schools. A healthy competition really rests with each individual and how they will use that drive, competitiveness, and willingness to get better. Collins (2001) shares the importance of embracing the brutal truth and being relentless on pursuing this truth. School leaders and teachers need to continue to reflect, learn, and seek the truth in how successful they are in meeting the needs of their students. They need to seek the truth about areas they need to grow. They need to seek the truth to determine where they are falling short. The relentless seeking of truth is where that competitive drive lives. The drive to improve and get better. When members of the school have that competitive drive you end up with better leaders, better teachers, and better schools. This competitive drive also opens us up to learning from each other, to collaborate, and to share in the mission of the school.
I have been fortunate enough to have been a part of two different schools that transformed into highly collaborative environments where teachers had the competitive fire to improve. In the first school I was the student services coordinator and we developed collaborative teams that worked together to participate in those "critical practices" of talking, watching, planning, and teaching about classroom practice. The end result was a dramatic improvement in student achievement. I was the principal of the second school that had a similar transformation. What happened at this school was equally as remarkable. Through the development of collaborative teams and creating a collaborative culture we embraced the brutal truth that our students were not making the growth we expected. The embracing of our truth was a motivating factor for us to make changes with our instructional practices. I don't think this would have been possible if it was not for that competitive drive, the will to get better, and the desire to do something about our truth. Teachers sought out opportunities to learn from each other. They discussed ways to better meet the needs of students. The culture shifted and our goal of having students grow was embraced by everyone.
Collins, J. (2001). Good to great. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishing.
Hargreaves, A. & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Hord, S. & Sommers, W. (2008). Leading professional learning communities: Voices from research and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Little, J.W. (1982). Norms of collegiality and experimentation: Workplace conditions of school success. American Educational Research Journal, 19(3), 325-340.
Louis, K. S., Marks, H. M., & Kruse, S. (1994). Teachers' professional community in restructuring schools. Madison, WI: Wisconsin Center for Educational Research, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Rosenholtz, S. (1989). Teacher's workplace: The social organization of schools. New York, NY: Longman.
Senge, P.M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Doubleday.