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Responding to the challenges of in-school staff collaboration

Corinne Settle, SSAT Education Lead, finds collaboration can be trickier than it sounds…

Collaboration: is it necessarily a good thing in schools? A dictionary would have two contrasting definitions: the action of working with someone to produce something (’he wrote a book in collaboration with his son’); or traitorous cooperation with an enemy (’he faces charges of collaboration’).

So when ‘collaborating’ in schools, is it 1 or 2? Earlier in my career, my initial gut reaction would have been: if it’s with my department or friendly fellow teachers, then 1; if it’s with senior leadership or with a group put together by leadership, then 2.

This reflects the challenge of collaboration in schools: it may require a culture change. It can’t be imposed, it needs to be facilitated, modelled and nurtured by leadership. A professional culture requires teachers who are willing to share, support, and explore together. An environment where collaboration is not just time handed over, but genuinely contributes to the improvement of practice for all teachers.

Why collaborate?

Teachers can often feel isolated in their own classrooms, so the opportunity to talk professionally with colleagues about what matters to them in and outside the classroom is invaluable. These are the golden moments where staff become enthused, passionate and excited, recalling the reason they chose teaching as a vocation. From this come validation of what they are already doing and inspiration of what is the next step and how to take it.

Research from the Teacher Development Trust (TDT) report Developing Great Teaching, which has now formed the basis of the DfE Standards of Professional development, highlight the importance of collaborative and peer learning. The report also shows that collaboration alone is not enough to ensure teacher learning.

What makes effective collaboration?

Time

The most valuable but challenging asset. Collaboration can’t be seen as an add-on but something that has been planned for and built into the staff’s time. It must be seen as a priority by leadership if it is to become, and remain, a priority for staff.

When teachers are given quality time to share and support each other, their passion for teaching and learning is often reignited.

When considering time, we must also consider the timing, duration and rhythm of collaboration activities. A one-off twilight or once per term session will have little impact. Only regular time slots will allow teachers to put thinking into concrete ideas which will be then enacted in the classroom. This approach gives teachers time to reflect on what worked, what didn’t work and why.

The DfE Standards for professional development state that programmes should be sustained over time – over at least two terms, according to the TDT report.

Structure and purpose

As with the teacher learning communities (TLCs) in Dylan Wiliam’s embedding formative assessment, we first need to decide what we are trying to do before we decide how we are doing it. Not all collaborations are equal, and each has a different purpose. Choosing the right structure and process for your particular purpose is essential to achieving impact in the classroom:

1. Decide what are you trying to achieve: does the school have a specific focus? From this, identify what expertise is needed by answering the question, what does evidence suggest will work?

2. Then select the form of collaboration you need to achieve this. Collaboration can come in many forms (listed in order of scale, small to large):

  • 15-min structured conversation or swap shop
  • Collaborative planning
  • Triads/peer observation/lesson study
  • Action research
  • Working/focus groups
  • Teacher/profession learning communities (TLC/PLC)
  • Wholeschool eg TEEP training
  • Teachmeet
  • Marketplace

Just two years into my career as a science teacher I worked with my head of department, who had a vision that if we had a full set of lesson plans for all topics life would become easier. For example, all I would have to write on my practical order sheet was topic 4, lesson 7. But the first time I picked up and attempted to follow someone else’s lesson plan was awful. I just didn’t get it, it made no sense to me. It is more realistic perhaps to work together, but allow for individuals’ plans to be, well, individual.

Indeed, experienced teachers may prefer to plan alone, so again the approach needs to be considered. Collaborative lesson planning can be about planning individually (which may be more time efficient), but then coming together for a professional conversation/peer review of the lesson plans, leading into further experimentation, peer observation, feedback, reflection and evaluation.

Purpose, value and commitment

To gain buy-in from staff, there needs to be a clear purpose to the time spent collaborating, regardless of its scale. This needs to arrive at a shared sense of purpose. What are the aims and expectations of this time?

improved practice = improved pupil outcomes
(if it doesn’t impact on students, don’t do it)

value = relevance

commitment = long term sustained
(not ‘just another initiative, so let’s not invest ourselves in it’)

Teachers need to see the relevance of this purpose to developing their own personal practice. What they can be even better at? This leads to the importance of choice.

Choice

Choice gives teachers ownership, the old phrase ‘done with, rather than done to’. To bring out a second classic often quoted by Dylan Wiliam: ”Everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere.”

There isn’t one way of doing things that works. There is no single silver bullet. So teachers should be encouraged, supported and trusted to decide what it is they need to work on within a focus.

Exploration

Choice requires exploration, discussion and asking questions.

  • We do we know I (or we) need to work on?
  • What can I/we be even better at?
  • What does research suggest could work?
  • If I do/don’t do x will y happen?

Through choice and exploration comes the confidence for staff to take risks, celebrate success and admit failures – so they can learn from them, and also laugh. This must be a place where teachers feel safe to share concerns and work to problem solve together.

Celebration

Through collaboration, each small win can be shared and celebrated with colleagues: that moment where you surveyed your classroom and all students were engaged, focused and learning; the moment when that one student shows the brilliance that is usually hidden under open hostility towards school and everyone in it.

Teachers need validation of what they are doing that is already brilliant. Too often we have leapt from what we have thought is a great idea to another great idea… if only they were all as good as we hoped. Planned celebration of success should also promote ‘old is gold’ and not just the new. Your ‘old’ is another’s inspiration, excitement and success waiting to happen. Share and celebrate.

Planned opportunities to give thanks to teachers (and leaders) are much needed in our current climate. Dominic Peckham said this much better than I at the SSAT National conference.

So what do I think of collaboration now? Well, Hargreaves and Fullan write: “People are motivated by good ideas tied to action; they are energized even more by pursuing action with others; they are spurred on still further by learning from their mistakes; and they are ultimately propelled by actions that make an impact – what we call ‘moral imperative realized’.” Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2012) Professional Capital. Teachers College Press.

I couldn’t agree more. Now much, much later in my career, definition 1 is my default setting. There is no 2. No enemies, just exciting opportunities to learn.


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