This article “Teacher Collaboration: The Missing Link in School Reform,” addresses the idea that when teachers have strong ties with peers, gained through participating in collaboration, student achievement “invariably goes up.” I agree with this entirely.
In a recent conversation with my school’s very small English department, we were discussing all the new changes we are trying this year. Another teacher and I have taken some pretty dramatic risks this year: an all inquiry-based honors class, incorporation of daily learning goals, and converting entirely to the CCSS. We are seeing positive changes already, which is always exciting, but we both admit that it’s a daily challenge not to revert to our comfort zones. When the question arose about getting other teachers to buy in to new teaching methods that are working, I admitted that without the support of the English department, I would be unwilling to take these risks. I know, given my brief time with these teachers, that no matter what I do, or fail to do, my kids will be okay because there are two very successful teachers who will follow my teaching and fix anything I did wrong. This is the kind of supportive collaboration that encourages teachers to take risks, helps them fix things that are going awry, and propels them to try again. This, I believe is the kind of collaboration discussed in the article.
Interestingly, though, this kind of collaboration requires input and advice from seasoned teachers. Seasoned teachers provide a level of comfort and experience unfamiliar to newer teachers. A recent study by the National Center for Education Information, found that teachers self-reported more comfort with classroom management, content knowledge, and ability to motivate children after the 15-year mark. It takes this kind of knowledge and experience to make a collaborative group most effective.
I am finding that teachers tend to fall into categories, and it takes representatives from each of these categories to make collaboration really work. Let me preface this by saying I am vastly overgeneralizing from my mere five years in the classroom full-time, but I find myself deepening my belief in these generalizations the longer I stay in education.
I’ll arrange these from “most seasoned” (read: older) to “less experienced” (read: younger) teacher types:
1. The Experienced, Unchangeable
- Description: This is the teacher in the building who has been in education for years, is drawing ever closer toward retirement, and exists in the comfort zone. He (or she, but “he” for the sake of typing) prefers to pull the same “tried and true” lessons from his shelf year after year. He likes the classroom styles of decade’s past, with students seated in rows, facing forward, silent during class time. This is the classroom he grew up in, and this is the classroom he believes in.
- Pros: These teachers have perfected classroom management. Observe in his class and marvel at his ability to get the kids to stop talking. These are also the teachers who have seen the cycles in education, know the passing fads, and take a relaxed view of education reform. They don’t get up in arms about RtI or changing standards because somehow, they have been through something similar before.
- Cons: Because these teachers have been through the cycles, they do tend to be unchangeable. When faced with change, they tend to adopt an “I’m just biding my time” approach. Differentiated instruction may be challenging because they prefer teaching to the mid-50 of the bell curve. These teachers need to see it in action, and see the improvements firsthand before they agree to take any risks. This teacher would probably not incorporate new technologies into his classroom without being forced to do so.
2. The Experienced, Changeable
- Description: Like the unchangeable experienced, this person has been in education for years and is drawing closer to retirement, but he still likes to challenge his comfort zone. Maybe he sees taking risks as a way to liven up his classroom and keep himself motivated and interested. Or maybe, he truly subscribes to the idea that education must change to keep up with society. This person probably has a nice balance of straight row and grouped classroom seating arrangements.
- Pros: The experience. Again, this teacher has perfected classroom management. Observer in his class and you should see similarities to the unchangeable experienced. This person may not get up in arms about modern initiatives in education, but he tries to see the value in progress. He is willing to try out new technologies and teaching methods because he is interested in doing so; he doesn’t wait to be forced.
- Cons: The only con I can think of might be the lack of technology know-how. Some in this category may not keep up with advances in technology and may not know what technologies exist to incorporate in the classroom. Additionally, because technology changes so rapidly, this teacher may get frustrated by falling a step behind after taking a step forward. He needs one-on-one support to learn new technological tools.
3. The Mid-Level Choosing His Path
- Description: The mid-level teacher is at a crossroads where he must decide whether to choose the changeable or unchangeable path. At this level of experience, this person probably has a more solid understanding of classroom management, and a system of organization for the units he has taught in the past. He probably does not find himself taking home mountains of work each night, but he might find himself spending time over the summer updating lessons and trying new technologies. This person is in a state of learning–learning about his content, classroom strategies, technologies, the field of education. He may be pursuing advanced degrees or administrative licenses. He is choosing the path he wants to take in future years: to be comfortable and complacent, or in a state of change.
- Pros: This person is in a malleable state. Fill his head with options, provide him with access to education and training, support him while he learns, and he will become an agent of change. Neglect him, let him hide away in his classroom, and he will stagnate. On a team, this person provides a good balance between the new teachers and the experienced ones. This person will probably be willing to try new things, but he also has enough of a foundation in education to feel comfortable.
- Cons: If this person is feeling too comfortable already, he may be reluctant to learn from trainings. He may be in a place where he feels done learning–he finished the necessary degrees and has finally gotten to a time in his career when he doesn’t have to work all night just to prepare for the next day’s lessons. Why would he want to burden himself with even more classes and professional development?
4. The Inexperienced, Idealist
- Description: We’ve all been there before. This person is fresh out of college, molded in such a way to reflect the college curriculum of the time. When I graduated (just a few years ago), I was so well-versed in standards-based education that I was ready to write learning outcomes for every formal daily lesson plan; this is a reflection of the standards-based college education training I received. New teachers are experienced in technologies (if you compare the inexperienced to the experienced, you will see the technology gap firsthand), comfortable with change (it may give them anxiety attacks, but they have lived in a state of constant change throughout college), and comfortable with new teaching methods (as they just learned them in school). These teachers may not have control in their classrooms, they may not be experts in teaching their content (though they should be more than proficient in the content, itself), and they may not have any sense of procedure and organization in their classrooms, but they will try. They will stay up late, labor over lesson plans, shoot for engaging plans that kids will enjoy, and worry about whether or not they are doing well. They are all over the place but they work hard.
- Pros: If you want energy in a teacher, new teachers have massive amounts of it. They will volunteer for everything (and they’ll tell you they want to volunteer for everything in their interviews if it will help them get the job!), they are well-versed in technology and can use it in their classrooms, and they want to get better at their craft. Inexperienced teachers remind us why we became teachers in the first place because they are typically positive and optimistic about our role in society and our ability to improve the lives of our students. Inexperienced teachers improve morale.
- Cons: When we talk about instability in teaching, we are talking about the plight of inexperienced teachers. Because they are so willing to take on so many tasks, to work so hard, and to do, do, do, they can become easily overworked. When they see that their hard investments are seemingly getting low returns in terms of what they expected versus the reality of student abilities, they become disillusioned. If they make it past that fourth year to become the mid-level educator, they will find the comfort that comes with several years of experience, but so many of our young teachers don’t make it that long in education.
I think it takes all of these people and all of these mindsets to make collaboration work in a school environment. We need jaded teachers and disillusioned teachers; we need the unchangeable and changeable, the inexperienced and experienced, the “school marm” style and the student-centered. We need the comfortable and the risk-takers. This is what makes collaboration effective because we have a wide range of opinions and perspectives to influence us as educators.