Several years ago, when serving as an elementary school principal, I listened when my teachers told me, over and over again, what they wanted, no needed…more time to collaborate. And so, being a good listener and understanding the importance of collaboration, I worked with my central office and transportation staff to make this happen. We changed the start time of school so students arrived 30 minutes later which, I might add, was not popular with parents who needed to get to work on time. We reworked schedules so teachers would have common time embedded during their regular school day. Basically, we turned our school upside down to meet the collaborative needs of the teachers.
I vividly remember the teacher’s opening meeting for the new school year. I proudly stood in front of the group and regaled them with the story of how we had moved heaven and earth to make this collaborative time they desired a reality. Then, much like Moses on the Mount, I stood in front of them, put my hands in the air and said, “Go forth and collaborate.” Never was there a prouder school leader than I was at that moment.
School began. I saw teachers meeting during their collaborative time. With no assistant principal and getting the building up and running for the new school year, it was a week or so before I was able to spend any time in these collaborative meetings. To my unhappy surprise, my teachers weren’t really collaborating about student work or planning lessons, but instead were “admiring problems” and talking about meat loaf recipes or what movie they wanted to go see. Here’s what I found out…they really didn’t know how to collaborate. They were not prepared for this “gift” I had given to them.
Looking back then, and again as I write this, I know what I did wrong. As their leader, I should have known that, as a group, we had not completed the prerequisite study of collaborative skills. We had not yet developed a “safe” place where the teachers felt as if they could admit their weaknesses and seek the help of their teammates to improve teaching. Talking about movies or meat loaf was infinitely safer than having to admit that they may have a deficit in a specific instructional strategy. We should have spent the first few months just learning how to collaborate effectively and to develop trust in each other as a part of a professional learning community. Unfortunately, the complaints by parents about our later start time, which allowed us the collaborative time, were loud, clear and heard by district administrators and our collaborative time was short-lived.
A couple of years later, as a school, we read DuFour’s “Professional Learning Communities at Work” as a book study. My teachers embraced the ideas found within and, two years too late, really moved toward where we needed to be in terms of working together in a collaborative fashion. At that time, the teachers had to scramble to find semi-regular opportunities for collaboration. It’s true what they say…sometimes, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
My leadership lessons from this story were many and can be applied with any new initiative:
- Take stock of where teachers are in their understanding of the new initiative through a NEEDS ASSESSMENT.
- Take the time to DESIGN a professional development program that meets their learning needs, keeping in mind that PD for adult learners needs to be differentiated, just as it does with students.
- LAUNCH the new initiative in a thoughtful way to give teachers the opportunity to process the new learnings. Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast.
- Let loose of the reins and let the teachers fully IMPLEMENT the new initiative. Be sure your school environment recognizes risk-taking as acceptable.
- Finally, EVALUATE what works and what doesn’t work with the new initiative. Don’t be afraid to tweak what you are doing, even if it is in the middle of your implementation cycle.
If I had followed these steps, my pronouncement of “Go Forth and Collaborate” would have been much more successful for our teachers and, ultimately, for our students. Lesson learned.