On Collaboration and School Culture.


Did they “teach” us that one at teacher school?
Do you hear it talked about in staff rooms?

Do you know what it looks like or feels like?

It is like that urban legend you heard about in grade 4, someone’s cousin had spiders hatch out of their cheek while sleeping one night.

Yeah that one…the one that scared the pants off of you, even though you never actually met the person. I am not implying burnout is an urban legend, I am saying it is treated as such in teacher culture.

Teaching can be a tough job and there is a “survival of the fittest” culture in schools I have worked in. You can admit you are struggling…but only to a point, to certain people and in specific situations; if you show too much weakness others fear you might drag them under.

So how does this work if we are going to get teachers to grow, take on big bold risks, and try new things? How to support teachers when parents, critics or even other teachers have a go at what you are doing or trying? Attacks, no matter how well-meaning, can feel personal, consuming the small reserve in the energy tank.

Further, if the very adaptations that we as teachers have evolved over the courses of our careers have allowed for our survival how then to change AND not go extinct at the same time?

Last year I travelled through a wormhole of change. That I came out the other side is attributable it to one thing: a committed collaborative partner, Graham Johnson.

Graham and I, Pikes Peak, June 2011.
Graham and I, Pikes Peak, June 2011.

I have a strong support network outside of school, people who I trust, a husband who is in the biz, but they were not what kept me afloat. What kept me going and stopped me from giving up (cause there were days when I did consider giving up on change) were the continuous conversations that Graham and I had daily, sometimes hourly, about what we were specifically doing. When either of us hit a wall we dealt with it then and there, we brainstormed and co-created a viable solution. We established common goals (we wrote these out on paper) and committed to (even though he teaches Math and I Biology) common ground with certain practices (flexible assessment, Hot Seat, Whiteboarding, Learning Journals are all examples) We communicated via Twitter DMs dawn to late, phone chats and face to face debrief after school.

You might be thinking by now…yeah we know that collaboration is important, yesterday’s days news….next.

BUT. Hold up…

Collaboration is NOT just something you should really try someday and when you do it will be fun; it is like having a snow plow with no blade, a motor boat with no motor, or an axe with no blade. You cannot do the intense work of change without real-time continuous, connected collaboration that relates DIRECTLY to what you actually doing in your class. To collaborate I had to be willing to co-evolve, to commit to a common end (and by this I do not mean improve Grad rates) and at times (more than I might like) I needed to compromise; I had to first converge in the here and now to survive, before I could diverge and thrive later.

I used to think that if I controlled everything I could assure the final outcome would be high quality, this was a guaranteed ticket to burnout and was never sustainable. Now I know that through cooperating, compromising and collaborating I can evolve AND survive.

If we continue yelling out and waving our arms at teachers: Change this way! Come on let’s go! Pick it up! WITHOUT the collaborative, connected mindset and ecosystem firmly in place, we will perpetuate the medium for burnout.

We need to out the culture of “survival of the fittest” and replace with a flourishing visible ecosystem that is fluid, open and dynamic. We need to buoy teachers with collaborative partnerships, collective groupings, tools to connect in real-time and conditions that normalize collaboration as an integral part of the day-to-day.

Then…we can wave away.

“We can see the very beginnings of a new story beginning to emerge. it’s a narrative spread across a number of different disciplines in which cooperation, collective action and complex inter dependencies play a more important role and the central, and the all important role of competition and survival of the fittest shrinks just a little bit to make room.”
Harold Rheingold

4 thoughts on “On Collaboration and School Culture.

  1. School and work starts again tomorrow, and I’m depressed about it. I just now have realized how much the fall took out of me, and your post has helped clarify this. I’ve wanted real-time collaboration but it’s really hitting home just how hard change is without supports. It’s true that my collegues offer advice or give moral support to my initiatives, but in no way could I call it collaborative. My colleuges aren’t terribly interested in transformative change, and my voice is fairly lonely in the wilderness. I’m not sure how the rest of winter and spring will roll for me and my classroom. I know there must be people geographically close to me that are pursuing similar goals, I just haven’t found them yet…

    • Hi Doug,
      I hear and know what you are saying, i have tried change before and was never successful as it took too much out of me. At the time I did not realize how vital this collaboration was for my change process, but now looking back I can identify as one of the pivotal things that kept me going.

      That said I know many teachers who do not have a colleague physically close by 😦 but who have created virtual networks that provide the support and encouragement they need. I get how uninterested colleagues might feel, but there are lots of teachers out there who are interested 🙂 I hope you can find some goals up ahead on the horizon to look up at and keep moving towards. I know that keeps me going.
      Hope to see you at CanFlip in June Doug,
      thanks for sharing,

  2. How very fortunate you are to have a partner who will help you to “co-evolve” as you phrased it. What I am curious about is how the rest of the building/staff members are collaborating and evolving? Did you initiate this “wormhole” of change on your own or did the administration force it upon you? Change is a necessary evil. I combat negativity in every facet of my life. I wish that I had a partner like you did to help you through this metamorphosis. Unfortunately, I did not, which is why I chose to leave the middle education. I am on the road to higher education, which I am sure will have struggles to contend with on a daily basis.

    I’ll look for you through the #etmooc!

    • Hi Laurie,
      Appreciate the comment and that you can appreciate the challenges associated with change. This big reno to my classroom practice was initiated by myself (along with fellow collaborator) this is one of the reasons I think it was so powerful and successful for myself. I am not sure if the change had been forced on me if I would have bought in. Yes school culture can be hard to combat alone and I hear you on the challenges of facing it alone. I try to figure out almost on a daily basis how to combat the stagnation that seems to happen in certain pockets, it can be an uphill battle, but again I attribute most of my traction to having someone who gives me a push when I need it.

      Look forward to learning with during #etmooc, I am very excited to start!


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