Advocating for collaboration in schools

As a preservice teacher, scanning the horizon for first-time teaching positions, I always seem to be refining my interviewing talking points. I began noticing certain buzzwords flitting into my speech. As I say words like, “multi-modal,” “engagement,” “technology,” and “collaboration,” I imagine administrators checking off boxes in the handbook of education catch phrases. Of course, all of these words have value–that’s how they became buzzwords in the first place. However, I find myself wondering how many education professionals define these terms.

I’d like to focus particularly on the term “collaboration.” What does this mean to teachers, administrators, students, parents, and others involved in education? We hear principals say, “Administrators and teachers collaborate together at annual meetings.” Or we hear teachers say, “I collaborate with my special educator co-teacher every time we chat in the hallway.” Indeed, it seems as though people throw around the term “collaborate” to describe any interaction between multiple people. This phenomenon is documented in education. As Johnston-Parsons writes, “Collaboration is more often advocated than practiced” (Johnston-Parsons, 2010, p. 287).

Throughout my experiences this year, I have seen this happen over and over again. For example, at my first field observation placement, my CT and the special education co-teacher talked about collaboration everyday. They would say, “We need to get together and collaborate on ways to help this student,” or “Let’s collaborate. I’ll send you the lesson plans for this week, so you can help during this lesson.” Although both my CT and the special education co-teacher were competent, well-meaning professionals, they spent more time talking about collaboration, than actually doing it.

So what does this mean? Are education professionals irresponsible people who talk-the-collaboration-talk, but fail to walk-the-walk? Why do we say we want to collaborate, but rarely do? Why do we say we’re collaborating, when we’re really just having conversations that won’t result in change?

If you ask me, the word “collaboration” has lost its meaning. The term has become something we say because it is the right thing to say, but does not really describe most of our interactions. Collaboration–true collaboration–means that all people participate, share responsibilities fairly, and share a vision and purpose when they meet. Collaboration is an action, not simply a conversation in the hallway. It involves working together and equal investment.

This type of true collaboration is time-consuming, and requires practice and commitment from everyone involved. This is no small challenge for educators.  Consider one overwhelmed teacher cited in Johnston-Parsons:

Clearly, teachers like Chris are overwhelmed with the responsibilities placed on educators’ shoulders. His words, though disappointing are not uncommon among disillusioned educators.

If we expect teachers to collaborate according to this true definition of the word, then the way we treat teachers needs to change. Teachers, administrators, and specialists need to agree on a central vision and set goals. Additionally, teachers must be given the time to collaborate together. This goes beyond “common planning time” or “meetings with specialists.” Time dedicated specifically for collaborating with other professionals needs to be explicitly built into teachers’ schedules. This is one step we can take toward a vision of a more collaborative education system.

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