You want me to collaborate? I’d much rather engage in parallel play

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A school culture that involves a high level of collaboration is viewed as being crucial to supporting student learning and a trademark of a being a successful school. So, why is it that some teachers do not buy-in to collaboration?

This is a question that I have considered for many months prior to writing this post. Schools can value collaboration, they can encourage it, they can work hard to provide more time for it, yet getting everyone to willingly collaborate remains a challenge.

Most schools have a number of very collaborative teachers who wish to engage with one another and work together to improve student learning. They readily use the time given to them and, in many instances, make their own time to collaborate further. A frustration for both school leaders and teachers who are ready and willing to work together is, dealing with those teachers who display less desire to be part of a collaborative effort in the interests of improving each other as teachers but also, most importantly, in the best interests of their students.

To address the issue of reluctance to collaborate it is vital that we try to examine why this behaviour exists for some teachers. To many, it is difficult for us to understand why a teacher would be disinclined to collaborate. Collaboration in schools makes sense, we can plan together, we can review student work together and we can share practice with one another. Working together interdependently has far greater benefits than working independently. Surely everyone has to buy-in?

Not necessarily so, and here’s why:

For some, working in a school is often more about the teacher than it is about the student. This post from Sam LeDeaux sums up a teacher-based approach to working in schools with some claims not necessarily matching our actions  Whilst this may not be the general pattern of behavior for all teachers and may be confined to a few, depending upon your experience, human nature means that there are things that we prefer to do and those things we would prefer to avoid. Todd Whitaker, in the book ‘School Culture Rewired’  notes there are school cultures that have teacher focused decision-making as opposed to student-focused decision-making; essentially putting teacher needs ahead of the needs of students. This does not mean that teacher needs should be ignored. There are number of factors that negatively impact upon the morale and efforts of teachers that school leaders have to work hard to address but, ultimately, teaching is about serving students – it is a selfless profession.

It is possible to work independently as a teacher and still be successful. There are teachers in our profession who do not feel compelled to work collaboratively, as they are confident enough to just go it alone. Teachers can have quite a high degree of autonomy; we are used to managing our own space and time, independently making lots of decisions about how we work with colleagues and our students every day. There are schools with great teachers who work as independent islands, not challenged to collaborate with their colleagues and left alone by leaders because the students like them and they do a pretty good job without complaints from students and parents.

Schools will not fall apart if teachers work independently. The team aspect of teaching is interesting. A team of teachers in a school is very different to a soccer or basketball team. In sports teams, if a player does not play as part of the team, despite any differences that they may have with their team members, the result of the team will really suffer. This is visible to all on the team. In fact, if there is a player on the team not pulling their weight, then others of the team will get on their back about it. If a player on the team makes a mistake, the members of the team will continue to support and encourage that person, for the good of the team. In schools, teachers are particularly good at the latter but tend to avoid the former. Less often, do we see teachers speak each other about their role in the team. Why is that? Perhaps, the fact we are not playing to win a game has something to do with it? I asked a colleague of mine what they thought about this and they felt that a key difference with sports teams, is that they know that they cross a line when they go onto the court or pitch to play, which allows for a change of behaviour. In schools it is different, we do not deal with tense situations as well as a sports team may nor may we fully understand what is at stake.

The art of compromising is difficult for some teachers. Collaborative relationships in schools require us to, at times, be competitive and assertive, be accommodating and also search for compromise. This is a difficult task to undertake. There are considerable differences of opinion in education about how we go about doing things, along with different levels of skill and expertise. What works for one teacher may not work for another. Teachers have different styles and personalities, what some teachers do may feel unnatural and uncomfortable to others. If not handled well both both leaders and between teachers, we can deter some of our colleagues from collaborating. The collaborative environment needs to be safe with just the right level of challenge with a pace of change that is not overwhelming.

This last point is probably the place where we need to first start with collaboration. We have to improve relationships in our schools first for the collaboration to happen. This is coupled with a leadership team, from department chair level upwards that is committed to seeking to understand why some members of their team are less willing to collaborate. What we must not settle for, however, is the parallel play that can occur as teachers work in their ‘caves’ or on their ‘islands’. It is the responsibility of leaders and teachers to challenge each other to collaborate and work together, unless of course, the result does not matter?

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