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[Professional Development] End the Isolation by Collaborating in Your Educational Community

[Professional Development] End the Isolation by Collaborating in Your Educational Community

This post is written by Kristy McIntyre, a member of the Edmentum Educator Network. The Network is a professional learning community dedicated to helping educators share ideas, learn from one another, and make genuine peer-to-peer connections.

Have you ever really thought about the daily interactions of a classroom teacher? Maybe you are the teacher. I thought about how I spent my days while in the classroom. I hurried in each morning, shuffling my own children to their classrooms before entering mine. I spent all day without adult interaction, other than the occasional quick chat while supervising students at lunch or asking a question of a colleague during my planning period. After my students left, I would grade, plan, and prep for the next day before leaving the building to continue my duties as a mother.

I spent all day with little people, but I was alone. I worked on a team with four amazing ladies who were teaching the exact things I was, yet only once a week did we ever meet to discuss things. Too often, we were too busy catching up on our additional paperwork and certification or documentation requirements to find time to work together. What if we had the time and opportunity to share our duties and lessen our load?

Change is coming—and needed

The traditional roles of the principal, teacher, student, and parent are becoming obsolete. Schools are evolving into learning communities in which everyone has and uses a vision of learning that is collaborative. This role change is shown first in the vision used by a school community and reinforced by the school leader. The created vision is only effective if the educational community involved sees the relevance of the vision to themselves as individuals and shares a commitment to its accomplishment.

Where did the idea of collaboration come from?

The topic of collaboration is at the forefront of all educational settings. Collaboration refers to the availability of ideas to flow within an educational community, no matter the person of origin. The idea of coming together—a “meeting of the minds”—has been employed from the 1900s. John Dewey (Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, 1916), Lev Vygotsky (Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, 1930), and Benjamin Bloom (Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook I: Cognitive Domain, 1956) all focused their work on how students learn. Their ideas have led educators to create more student-focused lessons and put students at the center of instruction.

Leadership as a community effort

People utilizing their voices can transform a school into a community. As Cal State Curriculum and Instruction professor John Shindler describes, it is the teachers, parents, principals and other members of the broader community who, united, lead children into their learning. As professor and veteran educator Linda Lambert states in her book Leadership Capacity for Lasting School Improvement, an environment of discretion, autonomy, reciprocity and professionalism needs to be created prior to learning taking place. When people work together in professional teams, their talents and expertise are combined. Teams broaden the leadership base in the school, help their members form professional learning communities (PLCs), and keep the focus on student learning through research and shared visions.

Leadership capacity has several interpretations, though, especially in the education setting. So, who is the leader anyway? The classroom teacher? The principal or superintendent? Ultimately, the most effective leadership is a group effort—it is an organization sharing a vision, using data, and reflecting in a collective way to achieve school improvements. Each member of the school community plays a vital role in the achievement of the school as a whole. Group leadership involves a community working toward a common purpose, utilizing reciprocity to work collaboratively to mutually produce learning. A community is not a solitary, secluded teacher in an isolated room.

“Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller

Teaching itself is an isolated profession. Yes, there are regular staff meetings for training or for discussion of issues in the educational community, guidelines and procedures to follow for testing, and variations in the typical schedules that get educators mingling with their peers. However, after the meetings are over, teachers retreat to the isolation of their classrooms. Keep in mind that a typical classroom is home to one adult and 20 to 30 students. Regardless of the teaching and learning styles being utilized, that one teacher is the conveyor of information, the distributor of procedure, manager of many—and alone, often left out of critical decisions mandated by federal, state, and local administrations.

But I have a boss?

The standardized, mandatory meetings in place in most schools and districts are conducted to determine collaborative responses to institutional issues and provide teacher accountability—but they’re not necessarily effective. They are not always about collaboration and sharing of information but often about the telling of that information. This article from The Washington Post discusses the issue in-depth, including the telling comment: “The low-income districts and schools that have demonstrated the greatest improvement in student outcomes are generally characterized by deep collaboration between administrators and teachers.”

Practice and decisions should be informed by inquiry-based information; PLCs are one method to accomplish the goal. These groups help individuals involved in the practice build comfort in understanding and questioning the work of others as well as broader school policies and initiatives. They help teachers more effectively utilize guidelines to discover insights from classroom data and communicate it with others in making decisions. Additionally, giving teachers the chance to assume leadership roles helps spread the positive effects of “action-oriented” attitudes, accept responsibility for student learning, and develop a stronger sense of self. As Lambert wrote in Leadership Capacity for Lasting School Improvement: “High leadership capacity schools provide teachers with opportunities for skillful participation, which in turn allows their leadership skills to flourish.” The educational community should encourage reflection and guidance from the individuals. It should also establish and use a system that keeps all members involved in the process.

“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” – attributed to Henry Ford

Professional development, version 2.0

Staff professional development sessions can be used to develop needed collaboration and protocol for activities to extend leadership. But, it’s critical to think beyond the traditional “sit-and-get” format. Teaming must be used in a way that takes the emphasis off the individual personalities of each member. Role designations and incorporating specific skills within protocol will enable success. The key is to have teams develop shared goals, use each member’s strengths, and communicate openly with each other.

Students can also become leaders when involved in the processes where feedback is valued and used. Students can assume peer service roles, join research groupings, and influence district decisions like budget planning. And, as Lambert describes in Leadership Capacity for Lasting School Improvement, parents become leaders when they “establish an advocacy/activist stance toward education” and “build collective responsibility,” while they still follow the broader vision of the community. The result of this shared leadership is more effective communication, closer collaboration, and deeper investment from everyone involved.

“Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than in the one where they sprang up.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Looking for more ideas to improve training and professional development in your school or district? Check out this blog post for outside-the-box ideas on What Social Anthropology Can Teach Us About Effective In-Service Training!