Collaboration: Part One - The Tale of Two Schools

by Brianne McGee

I have always appreciated this quote by Charles Darwin, but I didn’t fully understand its meaning until this past school year. During my four years as a public educator, I have found that most of us firmly believe we should be teaching our students how to successfully collaborate with one another. Unfortunately, I recently learned that many educators don’t actually practice the skill themselves.

Over the past four years, I have had the opportunity to teach in two different states – Texas and South Carolina. Upon first glance, the schools for which I was employed appeared to have a similar approach to education. These two schools were classified as Title I, since the student population was primarily from a lower socio-economic background. Both schools had a growing number of ELL students being enrolled each year. These two schools wanted to provide a well-rounded education; however, one was successful and the other was not. 

The major difference between these two schools was simple. One school fostered collaboration and the other did not. 

The Tale of School #1

I had just graduated with my BA in Elementary Education. I could not wait to begin my journey as an educator. I started the year off confident that I knew how to build strong relationships with my students, manage any type of behavior that might show up, and plan an excellent lesson that would engage every student in the room. It took about five days for me to realize just how unprepared I was, but thankfully, the school that I worked for provided an atmosphere that fostered collaboration. 

Hausman and Goldring have found that “the more teachers collaborate, the more they are able to converse knowledgabely about theories, methods, and processes of teaching” while ultimately improves their instruction (as cited in Goddard, Goddard, & Tschannen-Moran, 2007, p. 879). My first year of teaching would have been wildly different if collaboration had not been a priority. Our administration had very clear expectations. We were to meet three times a week to discuss the upcoming curriculum. During these meetings, our instructional coach would guide us through the state standards, before allowing us to brainstorm the best way to teach a particular topic. Each person in the room would attentively listen as one of our colleagues explained his/her ideas. I remember the room always being full of chatter. People were sharing their own ideas, asking clarifying questions, or simply listening. No matter what approach you took during the meeting, by the end, you would have a solid plan for how you were going to teach the next skill/strategy to your students.

This type of collaboration allowed us to compile a wide-variety of ideas; but my favorite part of this type of collaboration is that the choice was mine. I could pick the idea that would work best for my students. This freedom was extremely beneficial since each of our classes had different needs. 75% of my students were classified as English Learners (ELs) , so I often had to design my lessons with that in mind. A colleague of mine had four students in her class who were new to the country and didn’t speak English at all. Her lessons had to reflect that, but because we had the chance to collaborate each of us was able to find success.

By the end of the year, my students had grown a tremendous amount even though they had a first-year teacher trying to educate them. Each one of my EL students improved their TELPAS scores from the previous year. 85% of my class passed the state exam in reading and math. None of this would have been possible had collaboration not been a key component at this school. Godman, Godman, and Tschannen-Moran (2007) found there to be a significant correlation between teacher collaboration and student achievement. My experience at this school perfectly aligns with their findings, which is why I will forever be a proponent of teacher collaboration.

The Tale of School #2

Let’s fast forward, I now have three years of teaching experience under my belt and just obtained my Ed.M. in Language and Literacy. Words could not describe how excited I was to get back into the classroom. I was eager to set up my classroom, build relationships with my new staff members, and most of all teach another group of third graders. Unfortunately, my excitement quickly turned into worry as I realized that this school had not developed an atmosphere that fostered collaboration.

Pauline and Lawrence Leonard (2003) found throughout their research that many schools are still “largely mired in customary practices that are counterproductive” and therefore impede schools from reaching their full potential (p. 1). I did not understand how difficult it would be for my students to reach their full potential until about two weeks into the school year. This is the point in the year when many of us switch from introducing/practicing routines to diving deep into the state standards. As I sat in my apartment, attempting to write lesson plans, I realized I was completely lost. I only had a partial grasp of the state standards. There was no pacing guide for me to follow. The curriculum had never been explained. I literally was not sure how I was going to teach my students.

I went to school the next day hoping that our team meeting would shed some light on how to proceed. That was not the case. Our meeting lasted approximately forty minutes and yet all that was discussed was what unit we should be teaching. There was no discussion of potential activities. There was no discussion of possible learning targets to use. There was hardly any discussion at all. I sat in that room and realized that this year would be a difficult one, because I would be on my own. There would be no collaboration. 

Lessons Learned

Research has found that many schools are not equipped to foster collaboration due to a continued belief in “teacher individuality and organizational isolationism” (Leonard, P. & Leonard, L., 2003, p. 6). As someone who was privileged to experience collaboration from the beginning, I was unaware that many schools did not have the systems in place to foster collaboration within their own schools. Although I have only been an educator for a short time, I can without a doubt say that this past school year was the hardest of my career. I was surprised with how difficult this year was, considering I managed to survive my first year of teaching even though I had awful classroom management. Collaboration is the key and now that we have this understanding we can begin to answer the following questions.

  • What is considered effective collaboration?
  • What are the different types of collaboration?
  • How can I fit collaboration into my schedule?
  • Who should I be collaborating with?

If you want to know the answers to these questions, please look for the article entitled “Collaboration: Part Two.

Citations:

Goddard, Y. L., Goddard, R. D., & Tschannen-Moran, M. (2007). A Theoretical and Empirical Investigation of Teacher Collaboration for School Improvement and Student Achievement in Public Elementary Schools. Teachers College Record, 109(4), 877-896.

Leonard, L., & Leonard, P. (1). The Continuing Trouble with Collaboration: Teacher Talk. Current Issues in Education, 6. Retrieved from https://cie.asu.edu/ojs/index.php/cieatasu/article/view/1615 

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