By Abdul Wali Khan
Collaboration is essential in today’s world. It’s hard to find many job descriptions, education related or not, that don’t mention teamwork as one of the key elements of the job. Yet, within the world of education, collaboration between administrators and teachers isn’t always as natural or effective as it could be.
Like a hero in a movie, the school leader goes into the fire alone to save the day. The heroine reaches into her quiver for that magic arrow to fight the beast all by herself. Saving the day alone works beautifully on the big screen, but in education it works a bit differently.
The reality is that school leaders need to connect with their staffs to establish a shared vision, common purpose, and mutual plan to enact positive change.
Before understanding how teacher leaders and administrators can create a collaborative culture for change, first we need to understand the three problem mentalities that can inhibit the kind of collaboration needed between administrators and teachers to support the changes happening in education today.
Problem #1: The “Us versus Them” Mentality
In many ways, this mentality is the elephant in the room. Even though teachers may not want to admit they see their building or district administrators as “them,” at least some of the time they do. Sometimes this is because it is easier to dismiss misunderstandings by saying, “My principal has been out of the classroom too long” or “My administrator just doesn’t understand what my day-to-day challenges are like.” This builds walls and makes collaboration much harder. Another way this kind of mentality develops can be through perceived distance or absence. In a number of schools, it’s possible that administrators and teachers may not see each other throughout the day. A third way this mentality might evolve is through the implementation of unpopular mandates, even though these mandates are often made by state or federal education agencies, not building or district administrators.
Principals also need to be careful with this mentality. Many times, generalizations are made about the whole staff based on one teacher. Administrators can also get wrapped too deeply in setting policies or edicts that are created in isolation.
Problem #2: The “There’s Not Enough Time” Mentality
We all say it or think it: “I need more time.” While this may be cliché, the demands placed on educators in the past 20 years have increased dramatically. Everyone’s workload is increasing, often causing us to retreat to our own corners to attend to our demanding work quietly, keeping our heads down and trying not to complain. We believe that working alone moves us further faster. So, we create our to-do lists, start checking the boxes, and rifle through e-mails, effectively putting ourselves on a kind of “autopilot.”
As educators, we have always been responsible for educating children. The way we go about doing this has changed, and the increase in complexity has significantly affected the time requirements to get the job done. Twenty years ago, teachers often stayed after school to talk with colleagues professionally or socially, and administrators were frequently part of those conversations. Today, with the changing demands of the job, teachers still stay after school, but they are rarely involved in social conversations. The busy schedules of both teachers and administrators make collaboration more difficult because they don’t have time to build the kind of trusting relationships they need to effectively work together.
Problem #3: The “Let’s Talk in the Parking Lot” Mentality
Let’s be blunt and honest: we all know there are problems and challenges within our schools. The utopian school building simply doesn’t exist. Too often, though, we don’t address these problems as a team. Rather, we talk them over with others who aren’t involved or don’t have any direct power or responsibility. The chat in the parking lot, mailroom, staff lunch room, or hallway after hours might make us feel better (as confirmation that we’re not alone in our concerns about the issues we’re facing), but such conversations rarely do anything to directly address the problems.
Identifying how these three problem mentalities exist between administrators and teachers is a critical first step. Once everyone is aware of the challenges, identifying and implementing solutions and building a sustainable plan are the next steps in ensuring a collaborative culture. But remember, these three problem mentalities don’t just develop overnight and won’t necessarily be changed overnight. Ignoring them or attempting to apply “Band-Aid” approaches can foil any efforts at building collaboration.
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