School & District Management Opinion

Building a Collaborative Learning Organization

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 11, 2018 4 min read
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A challenge for new leaders is becoming adept at and understanding the value of collaboration. There are good reasons why this is difficult for some. The school system that they grew up in professionally was one in which they saw leaders as decision makers, directors of the daily school drama, and power brokers. Sometimes feeling resentful or believing they could do at least as well as those in the leadership roles, many choose leadership for themselves.

In classrooms, teachers retain at least the illusion of authority. Students are expected to find the correct answers and submit them to the teacher for evaluation. Overall students’ efforts were individual and grades were the response from the teacher. Teacher preparation programs over time have included technology as part of the curriculum and some include collaborative learning experiences. Historically, these programs focused on curriculum, prepared teachers for teaching and learning in familiar ways: a subject, a body of knowledge, a set of expectations (standards), tests, and grades. Once graduated, prepared and certified, these teachers enter schools where teachers and principals, practice and tradition, welcome them into a system that is eerily similar to their own experience in K-12 and in college. And so, the circle continues.

Schools have been fundamentally the same for over a century. Buildings are recognizable, outside and inside. Meanwhile, the world in which schools exist is alive in a life process, as all living things are. (Myers & Berkowicz. p. 58)

Who Is Prepared To Break This Cycle of Sameness?

It can be the novice teacher or a new teacher leader alone...but not alone. It is the sitting leader who must understand the extraordinary shift that has to take place and begin to sow the seeds of that change. The organization has to shift so the classrooms can shift. Here are some ways for that to begin.

Make certain that:

  • any decisions that are not urgent or immediate are made in concert with key people involved in the process
  • communication among and between administration and teachers and the community is clear and understood
  • create leadership groups who can focus on important issues like teaching, assessment, and safety concerns
  • include members of the outside community like business and higher education leaders, parents and clergy and service clubs
  • keep everyone informed of the progress toward the answer to the problem/question
  • listen carefully and respectfully to any and all ideas without judgment

This may sound easier than it is. For traditionalists, it may feel like the leader is unwilling to make decisions on her or his own. In those cases, however, the sidebar result often is a resentment of being told what to do. How conflicting! Including those from outside of the building runs contrary to comfort and current practice often because of the lack of relationships that exist. So instead of ignoring these folks, the initial task becomes building relationships with them.

Teaching and Learning Must Change

In order to prepare students for a world of life and work that is far different from the one we were prepared for, we must include different experiences. The logic of that seems strong. The only way for that to begin is within the manner in which teaching and learning takes place. Engaged and vibrant new classrooms must live in an organization that understands the value of collaboration and knows how to maximize its place.

We both have noticed in our work with school leaders and those candidates for school leadership that the shift to collaboration isn’t a natural one. The training embedded in our field and the expectations held override the openness and interest in collaboration. It also takes more time, a precious commodity in a leaders’ world.

Leaders and Teachers Hold the Key

But, think for a moment about the bell curve. How can it be accepted in the same school where the mission statement includes “Excellence for all students”? Why are grades given before drafts, feedback, and retrying is the norm? How can we maximize the learning of all students? The teacher as the choreographer rather than the director is the key. The same goes for the leader. When the leader sees her- him-self as the overseer of a complex ecosystem things can begin to change. The manner in which this happens depends on the system in which one is working. We cannot rely on colleges and universities to graduate a different type of teacher. Even if they did, they will be consumed in a system run by old ways of doing things. It is the leader and her and his teacher leaders who hold the key. Change the way things are done in the school while changing the way things are done in the classroom. Build momentum and let results and relationships flourish.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by johnhain courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.