I wrote this in November but it still holds true and posting it here now. Forgive me for the delay. I recently met with Foreign Language teachers in our high school who are such hard working professionals and who go above and beyond for their students everyday. I could see and hear the exhaustion, the “June tired” in the teachers’ voices and it’s only November. So, in response, I expressed my hesitation in having department meetings every week when precious time is so valuable and people feel overwhelmed. However, interestingly, one teacher shared that despite this being the hardest time for all of us, we need the time for the inspiration and collaboration, perhaps now more than ever. As we are dragged through the managerial tasks that COVID has brought to teaching, we can get bogged down in taking attendance for hybrid students, remote students, in person students and providing tech help to everyone including parents, students, other staff members. Planning and collaboration winds up fitting into the time left over (which is usually not much).
No one entered teaching to do those tasks. Certainly, they are necessary but the part that brings the enthusiasm is the creativity, the collaboration, and the learning to best support the STUDENTS. This type of collaboration empowers; it recreates our purpose and our “why” in the profession. If we purposefully create the time and stress the importance of collaboration, the feelings of support and learning grow. Although certainly not an exhaustive list, these are some collaborative ideas that we have done to support empowerment through a collaborative learning environment.
- Celebrate the wins!
I purposefully put this first. There are so many positives that teachers are doing without anyone knowing. Technology allows us to share in spaces even if we can’t be in them physically. However, we, as leaders, must have the courage to create these spaces and keep them going. We celebrate wins by focusing on successful lessons and also encouraging teachers to give other staff members shout outs for something in particular. Personal thank you’s in response to the shout outs show the value that we place in the work that teachers do everyday with the students. We also highlight teachers via social media so parents and the community can see inside our classrooms.
Just as we want to quickly check-in with students to see how they’re doing academically and emotionally, we have to do the same for staff. Checking in to determine needs, successes, and/or challenges on a Google Form (or other means) is a great way to touch base. I know I cannot reach every building to see every staff member all the time so this allows me to try to do it en masse. Also, people might bring up needs in a check-in that they wouldn’t necessarily verbalize in a meeting. Here is an example of a check-in we have used to help connect with other staff members. It is short and sweet so that it doesn’t take much time but does provide a way for communication and connection.
- Coffee Hours/Teacher run PD sessions
Last year in the Spring, we had coffee hours or PD sessions during specified times multiple days a week. Created and run by teachers, the PD sessions focused on different topics so people could choose if they wanted to come beforehand. Some days those PD sessions were merely coffee hours in which everyone could come, share any challenges they were facing, and support each other. It was nice to see each other’s faces in the morning. During some of the coffee hours, we also held mindfulness sessions run by staff members and held conversations about self-care. In recent PD sessions, we have discussed successful lessons, ways to incorporate Problem/Project Based Learning ideas, and authentic assessments. Sometimes, we just discuss an issue or challenge we are facing or specific students and how to best reach them.
- Voxer or other communication groups
For the district, we set up a Voxer group for anyone who wanted to join. Voxer is a communication app. It became a forum for anyone to voice a question or a concern for others to answer. It allowed communication to flow between schools in the district and opened up dialogue about a variety of subjects. Sometimes putting a question out to the group helped to stimulate conversation as well. We started to see that even though other staff members don’t teach the same grade or the same subject, they can still offer us really valuable ideas. It was a great way for me to share with others and hear what was happening in the district. It was also a way for me to put out ideas to the staff in response to their needs and/or pilot an idea.
- Book Groups
We also held a book group via Voxer for anyone who wanted to join. This started such an in depth conversation because we focused on the points of the book and how they were applicable to our own students and classrooms. We worked with Tom Murray with the book Personal and Authentic and engaged in an amazing conversation about how we focus on “who” we teach, not “what” we teach. I I feel as though I grew to know people in the district more in this book club than any other collaboration effort. People started to share personal and professional stories when answering questions that pertained to the book. It was sad for me to see this end but I’m excited to begin another, perhaps with Zoom meetings as well.
- Visiting Classrooms
One of the most powerful tools to create a collaborative environment is when I visit classrooms so I can highlight and share. But it is also so powerful when teachers visit each other’s classrooms. Recently, I know teachers watched others start to create breakout rooms in their classes with students at home and in school. One classroom used breakout rooms depending on learning style, another depending on the student’s metacognition of their own learning (if they wanted review of the material or to move on with application ideas), and another for groups to collaborate for review. As I visited rooms, I recently saw one elementary class and one middle school class collaborate with other classes across the country. Students compared and contrasted the areas they lived in at both levels. In the middle school, the two classes discussed a book that they both read. Seeing these lessons in action shows teachers how they might implement these ideas or others in their own classrooms.
A Collaborative Learning Environment
However, all of these points are not part of a check off list. In other words, putting all of these in place does not automatically create a collaborative environment. They are ideas that can help aid the process. But, so much of leadership and empowerment involves being genuine, showing vulnerability and a willingness to acknowledge imperfection. Failing forward is inherent in all of our work and so important to communicate on all levels. The creation of a collaborative environment in which people share their risks, their successes, and their failures is based on the relationships that are made with the people you work with and must come in conjunction with any of these ideas.
I hear this quote so often, “The smartest person in the room is the room.” I’ve reflected on how true this is but the time and energy needs to go into making this a reality in schools. I learn every time I’m with a group of people by listening to them and the thoughts they have, the research they’ve done, or the experiences they’ve had. We improve through sharing, learning, trying, enhancing, and reflecting. Building a collaborative environment and then implementing specific collaborative ideas provide the foundation of learning and support. During this time and always, the sharing and support is so very needed.