Creating a genuine collaborative school culture in schools takes a significant amount of time, commitment and effort. If school leaders were to truly reflect on how collaborative our teachers are, the responses would vary considerably. No doubt, the thoughts of teachers would differ, to some extent, from leaders and between their peers. If a discussion forum on the topic of collaboration took place, mixed emotions relating to successes and frustrations regarding collaboration would most likely emerge from both school leaders and teachers. In a nutshell, schools can make tremendous progress through teacher collaboration but engendering such a culture in our schools can be a painstakingly difficult process.

A great deal of the literature on improving schools pushes the notion of a collaborative agenda and removing silos and bridging islands, so that teachers are more connected and interdependent in aligning with and working towards the school’s goals. Many initiatives concerning the improvement of student learning in schools hinge on teacher collaboration and, in some cases, will fall over because of a lack of collaboration. For school leaders, some of the greatest frustrations experienced come from teachers and leaders not being able to effectively work together.

It is worth noting that huge tensions in schools can exist around collaboration, so much so that it can stifle the school improvement process. It is, perhaps, apt that more time is given by school leaders to understanding collaboration and addressing some of the tensions that exist, if we are serious about having a strong collaborative teacher culture in our schools. So where do we start?

Define what collaboration is and what it is not. It is easy to think that collaboration is a relatively common term and is, therefore, understood by all. This, however, is a bad assumption to make. Collaborative relationships are often mistaken for congenial ones and perhaps we are not aware of the different types of relationship that exist between teachers. This article from Roland Barth is great in getting us to think more about what collaboration really is. It may be worthwhile discussing with teaching teams what they believe collaboration to be and how they practice it. Richard Du Four, a strong advocate for Professional Learning Communities, discusses collaborative teams where teachers are interdependent in working together towards a common goal. How much genuinely interdependent collaboration goes on between teachers versus parallel play, or one-way traffic? If we do not have a common understanding of what collaboration is, then a strong culture cannot develop across a school.

Establish a sense of purpose for collaboration. This is often forgotten when trying to build a collaborative teacher culture. It is easy for some school leaders to say “well, the need for collaboration is obvious, isn’t it?” We can incorrectly assume that everyone sees the sense in collaborating. If that is the case, then why isn’t collaboration something that we all do naturally? The fact of the matter is, that some teachers understand that need to collaborate but others are content to work on their own and for the classroom door to remain shut. It must be recognized also that schools leaders must wrestle with the demands of teacher autonomy and requiring teachers to work together to achieve school goals. So, why should teachers collaborate? Is the purpose clear for all?

Discuss the collaborative agenda. Teachers have markedly different experiences when it comes to collaboration, largely dependent upon who they are, who they work(ed) with and the school that they work or have worked in.Time for teachers to meet may well be established in some schools but teaching teams can be very much hit and miss in how well they collaborate. The following are important questions to consider when it comes to this:

  • Are teachers and leaders collaborating on the ‘right’ things that have a big impact on student learning? Effective collaboration
  • Are teachers and leaders making the most of the collaborative time available when collaborating? Efficient collaboration
  • How much is successful collaboration dependent upon school leaders and team dynamics?

The responses to the above questions will provide significant input to the level of support required to create a strong collaborative teacher culture in our schools.

Collaboration needs to be coached. As mentioned earlier, collaboration is not natural for all, some teachers find collaboration easy while others do not. Professional sports teams have coaches and they have leaders. Leaders in sports teams do not have to be the coach. All sports teams, however, have a person that must be the coach and a leader. Professional teachers and teaching teams require the same. Schools have a responsibility to provide leaders who are not just instructional coaches but they coach collaboration. A professional development workshop that focuses on building effective collaborative teams is not enough. A large amount of coaching is required beyond the workshop. Coaching must occur regularly over time and it must be differentiated based on need and ability. Collaborative team meetings should be observed with teachers and team leaders given feedback and coaching about how they collaborate with one another. We also need to be coached in how to manage our own defensiveness.

If collaboration is important, then a school will give appropriate time for it and model the way. This goes without saying. Strong cultures develop through repeated acts that become habits. Regular time must be given over to collaboration and, to support the previous point, time must be set aside for coaching collaboration. Furthermore, the senior leadership team that guides the school must display the model of collaboration that they wish to see others in the school embrace. Talking the talk and not walking the walk results in double-standards that erode away any chance of establishing healthy school cultures. The collaborative behaviours that we wish to see must be modeled explicitly and with a strong sense of purpose for others to follow.

The above points can be viewed as starting points for collaboration, in a sense they can also be viewed as required understandings or conditions that lay a foundation for the creation of a strong collaborative culture. This needs to be understood before school leaders can turn their attention to addressing the behavioural frustrations that are so often associated with teachers trying to, or not to, work together.