Revisiting Educator Collaboration: We Should Think Differently About How We Form Teams
When reading Michelle Obama’s most recent book, The Light We Carry, we were struck by a story she shared about the garden they planted when living at the White House. We are always on the lookout for good gardening stories as we have recently co-authored a book, Differentiated Supervision: Growing Teachers and Getting Results (Mausbach & Morrison, 2022). In this book, we liken the work in schools to that of developing a robust garden. We rely on this metaphor throughout the text because it describes the complexity and connectedness of the work that must happen in schools so teachers and students can thrive.
Mrs. Obama shares the story (which you can read here) of how, using a traditional Native American method, Obama, along with American Indian and Alaskan Native youth planted a “three sisters” vegetable patch. This type of garden plants three crops of corn, beans, and squash in one place.
“.... each type of plant has something vital to offer the others: The corn grows tall and creates a natural pole for the bean plants to climb. The beans provide nitrogen, a nutrient that helps the other plants grow more efficiently, and the squash stays low to the ground, its large, spreading leaves helping to block weeds and keep the soil moist.
“The plants grow at different rates; the vegetables harvest at different times. But the mix provides a system of mutual protection and benefit—the tall and the small continually working together. It’s not just the corn, and not just the beans, but rather the corn and the beans and the squash combined that yield a healthy crop. The balance comes from the combination (Obama, 2022, p.45).”
It’s the combination that yields bountiful outcomes. Individuals develop capacity when they are learning from the powerful interactions around them. Each person brings their own unique set of talents and experience to the work. It’s why teams and PLCs can be powerful. Teachers come together and share their different talents learning from and with each other. However, as many of us have learned firsthand, not all collaboration works; in fact, many times it fails. This is in part because we aren’t planting the right seeds.
Teams can feel like a group of random individuals planted together who acquiesce to the loudest or most senior member. They work alongside, instead of, with each other. The antidote to this type of teaming is to embrace the philosophy behind the three-sisters gardening method. This starts with differentiating the strengths and talents each teacher brings to the table. Differentiation at its essence is the act of recognizing the distinctions in and between things. Without noticing differences, uniqueness can’t be valued and enhanced in a way that is responsive and affirming.
It’s easy to understand why the composition of teams can get overlooked. Teams are often formed out of necessity, teachers working in the same grade level or who have the same planning period. However, the potential impact that collaboration can have on teacher effectiveness and student outcomes is profound. Decades of research have proved when learning is done collaboratively and teachers’ everyday work becomes the source for professional learning, it has a lasting effect on classroom practice (Little, 1990, Darling-Hammond, 1998; Fullan, Hill, & Crevlola, 2006). Considering who will work with each other is essential to ensuring positive impact.
Three principles can help guide the process for creating high-leverage teams that utilize diversified talents.
Strive for joint work - Joint work, according to Little (1990), goes beyond storytelling, aiding/assisting or sharing ideas, methods, and opinions. Joint work is characterized by teachers’ collective action and a level of interdependence in which individual success is contingent upon the efforts of the entire team. According to Little (1990), joint work includes critical inquiry, sustained scrutiny of practice, analysis, and debate in search of improvements. When forming teams take inventory of who holds these specific skill sets. Which teachers are curious and ask good questions? Which teachers love to dig into data and student work looking for patterns or trends? Which teachers see the big picture and both sides of an issue? Commercial inventories can be useful here, but don’t underestimate the power of talking with and observing teachers in action. Having teachers share what excites them in terms of their learning, when they are most engaged and when they are turned off, can provide valuable insights.
Look at the big picture - School leaders have access to a lot of data beyond test scores. Having the privilege of being in classrooms and working on teams on a daily basis provides rich insight into how teachers operate. However, with a large staff, it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. Putting information in one organized spot can help identify individual strengths as well as building needs. Creating a spreadsheet that lists each teacher and includes anecdotal information on achievement, learning environment, and implementation of school improvement-plan strategies can help pinpoint a teacher’s areas of strength. The point of organizing information in this way isn’t to categorize teachers but rather to identify and pinpoint individual talents. This helps a leader reflect upon who would be most successful when working together so balanced teams can be created. (For more on using this tool, see Chapter 5 from the Differentiated Supervision book previously cited.)
Consider content and process knowledge - Teachers have to be able to think metacognitively about what they are teaching and how they are teaching so they can discern when the what (content) and how (process) will have maximum impact. Some teachers may know a lot about their content but are less skilled at knowing how to facilitate the process of learning so it sticks for students. Other teachers may have limited content knowledge but are skilled at organizing learning structures in their classrooms. Consider the teachers that are strong at unpacking unit standards (content) and those that excel at responding when students don’t learn (process). Coupling knowledge and thinking increases the likelihood that adult learning will be applied in the classroom. Identifying the talents of teachers in both content and process knowledge makes for strong teams.
As planning for the upcoming year begins this spring, take some time to analyze team membership. While a complete overhaul might be impossible, use these principles to make some adjustments. Rather than looking outside for the latest and greatest quick fix, turn inward and assess the talents of the individuals in your school. Cultivating the strengths of individuals helps teams thrive, resulting in a balanced harvest of learning for all students.