4 Keys to Quality Collaboration

Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.
— Helen Keller

The brain is a social brain; it learns better with other brains (Caine & Caine, 1994). In fact, the power of collaboration among teachers is well documented (Schmoker, DuFour, 2005). By working together effectively we can support growth mindsets, multiply our teaching skill sets, and deepen our reflective practice. Effective collaboration will surely be what creates the tipping point in improving education in the 21st  century. But how many of us truly use our collaborative time in wise ways that create marked results in our instruction and with our students?

Think about it. Do you leave your collaboration time feeling energized and focused or more drained and exhausted? If we don’t use this time productively, it ends up feeling like one more “extra thing” that teachers “have to do” rather than a highly valued use of time and professional resources. Whether you are collaborating in Professional Learning Communities, co-teaching, or planning with teammates, having a plan in place will allow you to make the most out of your time together. Follow these 4 Keys to Quality Collaboration consistently, and you’ll be on the path to the rich, rewarding collaboration that not only helps students succeed and love learning, but also fills your cup back up rather than draining it.

  • Step 1: Create a safe, nurturing, professional environment: In order to learn and grow as professionals, we have to be willing to step out of our comfort zones and take some risks. Although that process can be scary and humbling, it becomes a lot more manageable when we feel supported and valued by the other members of our team. This type of trust can be fostered through creating and following group norms. The members of the team should develop norms that will encourage everyone to maintain growth mindsets, be willing to share struggles and triumphs without fear of judgment, and be able to stay focused and learn from one another. Each teacher brings a unique set of strengths and weaknesses to the collaborative process; so it takes time to learn to work together. Norms help you ride out the challenges of getting to know each other and stay focused on the goal. ( The National Staff Development Council has great tips on creating group norms.) 
  • Step 2: Stay focused: Because teachers have such eventful days, there is always so much to share when we finally sit down to talk. It’s easy to get stuck on one topic (usually frustrations with student behavior or new mandates), which will most likely not lead to professional growth or positive instructional change. Every single second of collaboration time is precious and should be used wisely and productively. The best way we know to achieve this level of focus is by deciding on one topic of focus before the meeting (ex: reflecting on a shared lesson, looking at student work, discussing a specific problem of practice, or co-planning a lesson, etc) and creating an agenda based on that topic. Allot certain time limits for each section of the discussion, and assign one person at the meeting to be in charge of maintaining the integrity of the schedule. Using focus questions, conversation matrices, or protocols can also help guide the discussion in a positive, productive direction. (See links and free resources on the right margin for examples of focus questions, protocols, and conversation matrices.) If every member of the group has committed to staying focused (part of your norms), and there is a clear goal for the final product of the meeting, then you will start to achieve tangible results. When we know that our collaboration time will not devolve into a venting session but rather evolve into a focused learning activity that will directly impact our work in the classroom, we will all feel much more motivated and energized by these meetings.
  •  Step 3: Be prepared: After deciding on the topic of discussion, writing an agenda, and choosing or creating a conversation matrix (or protocol), we should share this information with all members of the team at least a few days in advance of the meeting. Each person should know exactly which materials, resources, or data they will need to bring to the meeting and should prepare their initial thoughts ahead of time. (Again, showing up prepared should be one of your norms.) Collaboration time should not be wasted searching for a specific document or doing research; it is time to process information together and create a plan for action. This plan could be a tweak on a specific part of a lesson plan that didn’t work last time, or a list of ideas to support struggling or gifted learners, or a new instructional strategy to try. It should be a plan that will achieve measurable results with our students. It is only possible to create these types of high-quality plans when everyone is professional and arrives prepared to dive in to the topic at hand.   
  • Step 4: Follow up: There’s nothing more frustrating than setting a goal and then stopping just short of accomplishing it. That’s what collaboration time feels like when a plan for action is decided upon but there is no follow up or reflection on the results of the plan. In order to get the most out of our time together as professional colleagues, we should work through the full reflection cycle with every focus item. The reflection cycle includes: planning, implementation, and analysis/reflection. Without the last part of the cycle, our efforts will be disjointed rather than connected points on a clear trajectory of growth.  

Our follow up should always include looking at student work or data in order to determine the efficacy of the initial plan. When things did not go as well as was expected, looking at this data and hard evidence can usually help us determine the weak area of the lesson that needs to be strengthened. Sometimes important decisions are influenced by persuasive speakers, anecdotes, or the most commanding personality at the table. The use of data is one way to ensure that all voices are heard and decisions are based on a solid, rational foundation. Once teachers have analyzed and reflected on the data, a new plan can be created, and the cycle repeats. 

  • Conclusion: We, at Infinite Horizons, strongly believe in the transformative power that focused collaboration has on instruction because we have lived it over and over again in our own professional lives. We know that we are better able to provide students with the support they need and high-quality instruction when we work together towards that common goal. We are excited to support you on this path towards effective collaboration. Join our global community, and share your triumphs and trials with us on Facebook or Twitter. 

 Written by:  Michelle Leip with Kathleen Kryza