What does effective collaboration really look like?

As an aspiring administrator and a relative newbie in the role of mid-level leadership I’m always trying to learn how to become a better leader. I have a lot of learning still to do. Part of this process of getting better involves pride and ego. It means recognizing the areas where I can improve while also having the awareness to see those around me who are simply better in certain areas than me. Through Twitter I can see thousands of educators doing amazing things I could only dream of thinking up or having the time to pursue.

I was in the midst of writing a post on effective whole-school meetings when Andrew Miller beat me to it, writing clear guidelines much more concisely than I could have. He argues three important points: (1) Quit the announcements       (2) Teacher-Led PD          (3) Meeting Protocols

I instantly made connections between what I had already drafted in my post and his main points.

I have always struggled with the notion of announcements at meetings because they can open a can of worms that can lead down a long, dark road. If the idea is simply to inform the audience then it is best to do this through email or other forms of electronic sharing. I love efficiency and the time spent on announcements never seems well spent. If you consider, for example, that there are fifty teachers at a meeting and twenty minutes are spent on announcements then 1000 minutes of teacher time has been dedicated to announcements. If ten announcements are made perhaps only two will apply to each person resulting in a lot of daydreaming. Even within a team setting I like to reserve announcements for email. I put the onus on the team to read the emails I send and make sure only to press send when it’s absolutely necessary. This allows our team to focus on collaborating to accomplish tasks such as creating assessment criteria, discussing pedagogical approaches for upcoming outcomes or assessing data to make informed decisions.

I believe Teacher-led PD can be so powerful. Every single teacher has something that they know or do that can improve the practice of others. Actually seeing a strategy or idea put into practice within a classroom can be very helpful for teachers new to inquiry. The theory of how something works means little if we can’t see the actual form and function of it. This is especially important for a school like mine in Saudi Arabia where it is exceedingly difficult to bring in experts and leaving school for PD during the academic year is challenging.

I led a staff meeting once where I ended up with more questions than when I started. It was a mess because I didn’t engage the staff in a clear protocol. Simply having an agenda is not enough. We were also too many to negotiate an agreement as a whole group. Trying to reach a decision with a large group is challenging. Often the outspoken few lead the discussion while many educators with great ideas keep quiet because of the imposing large group setting. Reaching a decision can also be tricky because there’s always a counterpoint that leads down another road. A few days after my mess of a meeting I was able to get past my ego to see what a bad job I had done. As Andrew Miller wrote in his post, teachers like to talk. And talk. And talk. Without a clear protocol the conversation can go on forever and never actually accomplish anything.

Collaborating effectively in a small-group setting provides different challenges than the larger, whole-staff group. Last year, in my first year as a team leader I focused on important elements like collaborative planning tools, shared agreements for assessments and instruction, and team reflection. I had an incredible team that was completely open-minded and supportive of every initiative. There was a focus on collegial sharing and respectful discussion. I thought I had done a good job in leading the team. Then I discovered this rubric and other resources. After swallowing my pride I realized we needed to dig deeper, especially in terms of evaluating our practices. It cannot simply be enough to share practices and reflect thoughtfully at the end of the unit. We need to be evaluating whether our practices were truly effective and this can’t just be based on hearsay or recollections. This is where data needs to play a part. Cross moderation and peer observations play a pivotal role in the validity of this data. To say something worked well without being able to point to data to support this is a pretty empty statement. I know that our team did use data to impact our individual teaching but I never led us to do this as a whole group. Such a scenario adds an element of vulnerability because now the data is for all team members to see. However, in a safe and collegial setting this can be done successfully.


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Stuart Smith
    Sep 27, 2013 @ 00:02:32

    I really like Andrew’s three main points. We have spent too much time listening to announcements. I think that collaboration needs to focus on looking at how the children in each class learn and then make projections and predictions about what might possibly happen next, about the road the children might take, and about the interests that might develop. Then we will be ready to ask challenging question to bring them further. It is a pedagogy of uncertainty.


  2. brenchan
    Sep 27, 2013 @ 00:40:58

    I’m in the same boat as you- a new leader, learning how to deal with different personalities, different opinions, and making sure teachers’ valuable time is well spent during meetings. I must say, it’s been a process of trial and error so far!
    This post has given me some great ideas- I love the rubric, and will work on data-based evaluation of our teaching practices.
    Thank you for your insights!


  3. Marina Gijzen
    Sep 27, 2013 @ 01:43:05

    Thanks, Jeff, for raising an interesting topic. And thank you for the links. I continued to read on http://www.thinkingmind.com website (where the rubric came from) and read a post about learning through play…teachers playing. Play as Professional Development.
    ( http://www.thinkinginmind.com/2011/11/play-as-professional-development/)

    Here is an example:
    “In small groups teachers worked through rich math problems themselves first – not worrying about how they would teach a particular concept – but rather playing attention to their own problem solving approaches and working through the forming of conjectures, testing hypotheses and looking for patterns – just as they want they kids to do.”

    Neil Stephenson goes on to refer to another post where, in a video, Larry Rosenstock says, “Rigour is being in the company of a passionate adult who is rigorously pursuing inquiry in the area of their subject matter and is inviting students along as peers in that discourse.”

    I love that.

    Getting teachers more involved through play. Allowing them time to become passionate about what they are learning and then inviting the students along for the ride. How powerful is that?


  4. brenchan
    Oct 04, 2013 @ 07:05:45

    An issue that is coming up in my school is the reading of emails- or more accurately, NOT reading emails!

    I would like to make most, if not all, announcements via email and keep meetings for discussion items only. You said, “I put the onus on the team to read the emails”, but what do you do when teachers don’t meet this responsibility? How do you get messages across? We have the same issue with parents and other school community members, too- important information is being missed because people are not reading their emails regularly. When emails are not read, we have to spend *more* time catching everyone up.

    A colleague of mine says communication experts suggest messages must be communicated at least two different ways in order for the message to be received ie: written emails *and* verbally. But does this mean we are spoon-feeding people? Does this take learning opportunities away from people who should/need to be more responsible? Are we letting people ‘off the hook’ in terms of expectations?

    I find balancing the need to get the message through whilst also enforcing high standards of professionalism is tricky!

    What would the educators out there suggest?


  5. jeffmwoodcock
    Oct 08, 2013 @ 10:45:19

    I think it really starts with the approach to email on a school-wide level. If the number of emails being sent out becomes too high then filtering will start to occur. This is true for parents and teachers. We are struggling with this issue at our school. Additionally, if we want our emails to be read we have to limit how many we send out so an understanding develops that “Oh, Jeff sent me an email. It must be for a good reason so I’m going to read it”. Using the phone for individual communication also seems like a good way to limit emails while providing that second way to communicate that your colleague mentions. I will also walk down the hall and tell people something rather than send an email. At the end of the day though if we set an agreement regarding reading emails then we all need to honor it.


  6. McGuigan
    Oct 09, 2013 @ 06:50:09

    Really got me thinking about this Jeff. Thanks!


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