By Tom Many, EdD
“There is a common misconception that teachers know how to collaborate (many don’t) and are comfortable collaborating with others (many aren’t).” – Many et al, 2020
How would you respond to a student who does not participate in class? Or one who does not follow classroom rules and exhibits behaviors so disruptive they impact other students’ ability to learn? Clearly, these behaviors would be considered unacceptable and elicit a response that would include consequences.
What would be your reaction to a student who came to class unprepared to learn because they forgot their homework in their locker or left it at home? Or worse, simply refused to do their assignment? Teachers would likely respond with tight, timely systems for monitoring and hold the student accountable for completing the work.
Most schools are clear about their expectations for students but in terms of the underlying behavior, is there really any difference between students who do not participate in class and a teacher who withdraws from conversations about teaching and learning? Is the impact of a student who does not follow classroom rules and behaves in ways that prevent other students from learning really all that different than a teacher who refuses to honor team norms and behaves in ways that interfere with their teammates’ ability to collaborate? These behaviors are not acceptable in the classroom and should not be acceptable on collaborative teams.
“The good news for school leaders—whether serving in formal leadership roles or as teacher leaders embedded in collaborative teams—is that they can take specific actions to support teams developing at different rates.” – Graham and Ferriter, 2010, (p.72)
In every school there are students who, no matter how hard they try, just can’t do the work. There are also students who, no matter how hard we try, simply won’t do the work. The latter group, students who won’t do the work, are described as intentional non-learners. Every school also has teachers who, no matter how hard they try, find it difficult to collaborate effectively. Likewise, there are teachers who, no matter how hard school leaders try, simply will not collaborate effectively. Using parallel language, we can describe the second group of teachers as intentional non-collaborators. Students and teachers who are trying but are not yet successful benefit from continued opportunities to learn. Students and teachers who are not trying, for whatever reason, respond best to systematic monitoring and accountability.
An effective response to intentional non-collaborators does not invite teachers to collaborate, it requires them to do so. Thus, the first step school leaders take is to be crystal clear that working together toward a common goal is an expectation. There may be resistance, pushback, and concerted efforts by some to sabotage a leader’s efforts to create a collaborative culture. When opposition does surface, it is imperative that principals and teacher leaders remain resolute and uncompromising in their position that collaboration is non-negotiable. The message must be unambiguous, unequivocable, and repeated over and over again with boorish redundancy. It is virtually impossible to overcommunicate the expectation that teachers will collaborate with their colleagues.
Next, principals introduce structure to the teams of intentional non-collaborators. Structure can be anything that improves the efficiency and effectiveness of a team’s collaboration. It is true that structure alone will not guarantee success. It is also true not all teams require the same amount of structure, but for teams that are struggling to collaborate, structure is very important.
Intentional non-collaborators benefit from tight, timely deadlines that are clearly communicated; therefore, an overview of the upcoming quarter, semester or year is critical. Principals should begin responding to intentional non-collaborators by establishing a designated and protected time and place for teams to meet along with a calendar confirming the dates of all upcoming meetings.
It is also important to create a timeline of upcoming tasks related to the PLC process itself. At a minimum, teams should schedule quarterly reviews of team norms and deadlines for completing the prioritizing and unwrapping of standards, designing and analyzing common assessments, and adjusting intervention groups on a unit-by-unit basis. Overlaying this information onto the calendar of team meetings creates the container for the team’s collaboration.
After the container for collaboration has been established, the next step is to design the framework for team meetings. Again, not all teams require this much structure (many already collaborate at high levels), but teams that cannot or will not collaborate will need specific structures and strategies during their meetings to be successful. There are dozens of sample formats for basic structures like agendas, minutes, and norms, and this is a good place to start.
Tracking the work of collaboration will require some documentation. A variety of tools and templates are readily available for prioritizing and unwrapping standards, creating common assessments and analyzing the results, grouping students into intervention groups, and many of the other tasks associated with the PLC process. (For more examples, see The Big Book of Tools for Collaborative Teams). These kinds of tools and templates all promote more effective and efficient meetings and should be posted and made accessible to the principal and everyone on the team.
Once the calendar of team meetings, schedule of essential tasks, and identification of the tools and templates the team will use to document their work is complete, the system for monitoring the work of intentional non-collaborators is in place. As an aside, teams may be uncomfortable with this level of oversight, but they can eliminate the need for such scrutiny by doing the work!
Overcoming the challenges of working as a team depends on discussions that are explicitly structured to improve classroom practice and focused on the generation of products. – Ferriter, 2020, p. 2
In many ways, the challenges intentional non-collaborators create for principals are like those that intentional non-learners present to classroom teachers. Teachers have learned the best way to respond to intentional non-learners is to create tight, timely systems to monitor and hold them accountable for doing the work. Principals should take note of this and respond to intentional non-collaborators in similar ways.
Dr. Tom Many is an author and consultant. His career in education spans more than 30 years.
Ferriter, W. (2020). The Big Book of Tools for Collaborative Teams. Solution Tree Press, Bloomington, IN.
Graham, P. & Ferriter, W. (2010). Building a Professional Learning Community at Work: A Guide to the First Year. Solution Tree Press, Bloomington, IN.
Many, T., Maffoni, M., Sparks, S., Thomas, T., & Greeney, B. (2020). Energize Your Teams: Powerful Tools for Coaching Collaborative Teams in a PLC at Work. Solution Tree Press, Bloomington, IN.
TEPSA News, March/April 2022, Vol 79, No 2
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