– Peter Santoro –
There is a myth in K12 education that collaboration between teachers is either all good or all bad. In a perfect education world, teachers would collaborate with the goal of providing the best educational experience possible for our students. To achieve this, every group member would need to work toward this common goal by sharing resources, information, expertise and ideas. Participants would share a common philosophy regarding their approach to educating students. If everyone would check their egos at the door, and the participants trusted one another to be candid, great things could be achieved by collaborating.
We’re all familiar with the expression “work smarter, not harder.” In education, this may be viewed in different ways. Here are some examples:
- If I can get “stuff” from a colleague instead of doing it myself, I can get away with doing less.
- If some colleagues and I share our resources, we can all do less work and our students benefit.
- If I have some colleagues to share resources with, we can all learn from each other and collectively become better teachers for our students.
We all know colleagues who fall into each of the three categories above. There is a fourth category as well (I’ve been in this category): the loner. How many of you identify as being a loner? For several reasons, I have been a loner for quite some time, teaching Honors Geometry. One main reason for this is that I am the only one who has embraced Flipped Learning and, as a result, many colleagues have stayed away from me. Another reason (related to Flipped Learning) is that I am willing to put in the work to provide the best educational experience possible for my students. I see the material my colleagues use and, in many cases, it includes the same tired worksheets or worksheets found on the internet. As I walk down the hall to my classroom, I see very little active learning going on in the classes I pass along the way. When I have spoken to colleagues regarding collaborating, the most common responses are:
- I don’t want to share my “stuff” with anyone.
- If that means more work, I’m not interested.
- What I have been using is “good enough.”
These three reasons for not sharing give life to an expression I like to use: “20 years of tradition, unmarred by progress.” In a collaborative relationship, everyone gives, everyone gets, and everyone benefits. I couldn’t convince several of my colleagues of these potential benefits, hence my being a loaner.
Pushed to Connect
This past school year, I was asked to teach non-honors Geometry for the first time in over 10 years. I have two colleagues, Heather and Lavleen, who have been teaching this level of Geometry for some time. Even though they do not flip their classes, we have nearly identical expectations for our students and similar philosophies regarding how we approach the varied topics in Geometry. In addition, the three of us are good friends and always look out for each other. Our Department Chair asked me to teach non-honors Geometry, and I later found out he did this because he knew the three of us would collaborate, and he was right! We shared resources all school year.
This was not the first time I have collaborated with colleagues, but it was the best experience I have ever had. I learned a lot about the student population in non-honors Geometry. We moved at a slower pace than Honors, but we kept the same high level of rigor as in the Honors course. We also did not cover the “extension topics” as outlined in the NYS Common Core Curriculum. By sticking to the “required” topics, and covering those concepts in great depth, our students performed well.
All year long, we shared lessons and classwork materials, reviewed materials, and test and quiz questions. I shared with them my process of scanning and posting all my answer keys for classwork, homework, and quiz/test reviews in our Learning Management System and the process I use that saves a great deal of class time. I learned from them how to construct better tests and quizzes. All year long we talked and shared, all without egos, all towards the common goal of providing the best versions of ourselves for our students.
We all shared our best “hacks” for showing students how to do some of the more tricky problems and operations. We discussed different approaches to certain topics, and everyone made some changes during the school year. This entire experience reminded me that if every teacher remembers that the reason for showing up to work every day is our students, and not ourselves, we will always do the right thing and do our very best. Teachers who show up to work because “it is their job” will rarely do anything above the least required. Students and parents know who these teachers are and try to avoid them at all costs.
Four Essential Questions
So the myth that teacher collaboration is either good or bad is just that: a myth. To collaborate or not to collaborate, that is the question. The answer, however, is complicated. From my past experiences, I have come up with this list of questions to guide me:
- Do all participants have a common vision?
- Are all participants open to learning new methods and techniques?
- Are my colleagues able to take and give criticism in a kind, professional, respectful manner?
- Can I expect a similar level of effort from everyone in the group?
After learning the hard way, I no longer fall into the abyss of collaborative disappointment. I approach each opportunity through the lens described by the questions above. If I can answer all questions with a resounding “yes,” I proceed full-steam ahead. If not, I decline. And so, for me, collaboration is always good, and that’s no myth, but it’s good at my discretion and mine alone.