Sunday, September 25, 2016

What Does It Mean, Really?

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On a hot, fall day, I am sitting in the lawn chair, watching football practice. Clusters of boys lined up, running drills, listening to their coaches, sweating under their gear. Quite the sight! I could be bothered by the little sweat bees that swarm my feet, or the humidity that stifles the air, making my hair fizzle and make-up melt. Instead, I am in awe of the new perspective that has rushed over me. A perspective that is now pulling me to reflect on a particular word that seemingly has infiltrated all aspects of education.


A buzz word in education. We hear it all around us. We even have meetings called “collaboration”. I hear that word in interview questions, in standards. We expect it from the staff and students. In order to become better, we must collaborate!

But what does it mean, really?

During football practice, I saw it. This is not to say I haven’t seen this level of collaboration before. However, before me, I saw kids working together for a common goal - to become better individually so the team would become better. I am a sports enthusiast, so it was striking to me that I have watched many practices or games, not noticing it before. This is what collaboration is. Collaboration is teamwork and learning, all in one. Using our individual talents, sharing those talents while also listening and learning the talents of others so that the whole can become better for all.

Collaboration is defined as “the action of working with someone to produce or create something”. (Webster’s Dictionary) We need collaboration in our schools in order to become better, creating the schools we want for our kids.

So, how do we lead and foster the level of collaboration we seek in order to better our schools for all?

Build Trust
Anyone would say relationships are absolutely critical in every walk of life. If we want to get something done, we must first invest in the people who are involved to get that work done. We must get to know them, learn their strengths and areas for improvement, being a listener and one others can trust to get the job done. I have found that the greatest practice I can offer to my staff is to lead by example, trusting my staff to do what is best for students. I do not want to micromanage them; they are professionals and I believe in all they do for our kids. I go to them for answers, not have all of them myself, as I trust their experience and judgment. I pull teams together to problem-solve, working on a common goal. All of this is done in order build trust, not only of me, but of each other. When we trust each other in our schools, we can have frank, open conversations. True collaboration cannot happen without trust. When I look out at the football field, players are building trust for one another, trusting that each person will do their part on the field, putting in effort to get it done, and encouraging each other along the way. They have trust.

Share Openly
With trust comes sharing. Once we trust each other, believe in each other’s capacity and ability, we can share what we are doing with each other. This is yet another cornerstone of collaboration. More often than not, teachers WANT to share ideas with each other. What worked? What didn’t? How did your students do on that quiz? What activity were you doing because that looked like fun? How do I help this student? What curricular goals are essential for this grade? With so many questions that flood our minds on a daily basis, we cannot do it alone. We must seek others for ideas and comradery, as this is the only way anyone can positively impact our educational realm these days. Our sharing has a great impact on our kids. They see it. When they see our positive interactions and sharing, they have great role models right in front of them, building their own collaborative skills to use in the classroom. We can have a great impact on our students by simply sharing what we do with each other. Not only does it support each child academically, but we become what we wish them to be.

Intentionally Create Opportunities for Teams to “Practice” Together
Without time to collaborate, we become isolated silos once more. While isolation is a choice, we also do not want to make it impossible for people to come together to share. Building trust and sharing are the foundations of great collaboration, but without the time to actually practice this sharing, teamwork, and problem-solving, the idea of collaboration only happens in moments throughout the day. We need collaborative opportunities built intentionally throughout the day and week, not just quick exchanges during lunch or in the hallway. This can come through creative master scheduling or simply designating a specific time each week for 30 minutes either before or after school for the staff to come together and focus on the work. That time together should not be a laundry list of things to do or housekeeping. Those tasks are left for another time, or even flipped for the staff. Collaboration is give and take in conversation, and that conversation needs time to develop and grow. As a school, it is my job as a leader to protect collaborative time so that teachers have time to share and build the experiences we want for kids. If we have a shared vision that we are striving toward, our time must be set aside to get that work done. It will not happen by chance. It will not happen in mini moments throughout the week. We need time to practice our collaborative skills, sharing, building our teams to be open and trust one another.

Build Capacity for the Leaders Within to Lead It
I am one person. While I may be the leader of the building by title, I will have a greater impact by building other leaders throughout the school. I cannot meet with every group at the same time, but each collaborative group needs a leader. By having clear expectations and the same group norms throughout the building, the leaders within ensure we are continuing to strive toward our shared vision. They will have a greater impact than I ever will have. Our collective efficacy depends upon the leaders within to model and build our collaborative capacity. Just as a coach leads the team, there are other players on that team that lead as well. Together, they work to achieve their goal.

Collaboration may be a buzz word, but it is an essential component in making our schools better. Every school and every person can grow and improve, and together, through collaborative efforts, we can make that happen. We must build each other up, support one another, intentionally creating the time for our school teams to “practice” the art of collaboration. When we do this, our students will benefit most of all. Not only will they have fantastic models for what great collaboration looks like, but they will also have amazing learning experiences to expand their minds.

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