The True Meaning of Collaboration

After twenty-plus years working in schools, I’ve done it all….almost. I’ve taught various subjects and several grade levels; served as a school principal and college counselor; had my share of hard talks with parents and students; and delivered commencement speeches. The one constant through all of these experiences has been collaboration. Whether I am grappling with a disciplinary decision or planning my next project, I seek out the insights and perspectives of the people I trust the most: my colleagues. But there is a type of collaboration that, until this year, I had never experienced: team teaching. This year, I spent every morning with 44 students and a colleague, team teaching an integrated course that is required for all seniors. Collaboration is no longer something that I opt in and out of; it is now the center of who I am as an educator.

The National Center of Time and Learning developed a “Framework for Assessing Teacher Collaboration” that includes four key principles of effective teacher collaboration: time, collaborative meetings, leadership and support, and clear goals. Most of us that have been in schools for long enough know that with all the time and structured meetings in the world, we don’t always experience true collaboration. We might have leaders committed to collaboration, early release time, and data team protocols, but we often walk away from those meetings feeling just as alone in our professional struggles as we did before the meeting.

So what’s missing? After only two weeks of team teaching with my amazing colleague, I’m learning that true collaboration has more to do with the mindset of the collaborators than it does with any structure or mechanism that a school puts in place. I’d suggest that there are two additional key principles, or habits, required for true collaboration. They include:

Humility: As educators, we are already familiar with the need to adjust our plans to be responsive to students in our classrooms. Collaboration with other colleagues takes that need to a whole new level. The quick decision-making reflex that many teachers develop in the classroom might need to slow down in order to make room for your collaborator’s insights. In true collaboration, you may need to know less and wonder more. Skilled teachers, if they are fortunate, generally have a fair amount of autonomy when it comes to lesson planning and unit design. It’s not always easy to change those plans, especially when you’re certain that your plan is the best one. But true collaboration requires you to regularly do just that and requires a belief that, as collaborators, you are greater than the sum of your parts.

Vulnerability: Even the most seasoned teachers have their hard moments. Oftentimes, teachers can retreat to the privacy of their classrooms to experience those challenges alone. The richest collaborations require that each person come to the table willing to share their most challenging moments knowing that their colleagues will be supportive and empathetic. True collaboration means that you are not always the expert and that you are willing to accept the fact that you may have a few  blindspots. This assumes a social contract of sorts. I will only share my most troubling issues as a teacher if I know you are committed to doing the same, and we will do so in the spirit of trust and what is best for our students.

As mentioned earlier, no amount of time or space will ensure that these habits of humility and vulnerability are practiced, but it is possible to create a school culture in which both are practiced and expected as a regular part of each day. Teachers and school leaders can develop these habits by looking at student work together, sharing challenging dilemmas with each other, and being brave enough to occasionally say to a colleague “I don’t know how to do this. Can you help me?”


Eve Rifkin

Eve Rifkin

Tucson, Arizona

I have been an educator for over 20 years. As a founding co-director of City High School, I have held a variety of leadership and teaching roles, including academic director, humanities teacher, and principal. I am currently the Director of College Access and support students as they envision their lives after high school.

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