[Investigating the truth of opinions] consists not in trying to discover the weakness of what is said, but in bringing out its real strength. It is not the art of arguing but the art of thinking… the art of strengthening.
Although there is substantial research supporting collaborative practices in school environments, definitions of the term vary widely. Most often, collaboration in schools remains limited to sharing resources or co-planning. A significantly prohibitive factor in allowing teachers to achieve mutually valuable, collaborative relationships are the perceived or established imbalances of power. Traditionally, collaborative arrangements implicitly assign authority to one member of a team or partnership over another (Awaya et al., 2003; Hellsten, Prytula, Ebanks, & Lai, 2009). Our journey this year has painted a picture of how re-thinking this historic relationship has the potential to allow for a more powerful collaborative relationship to develop, transforming teaching and learning in the classroom.
Returning to the Calgary Science School for my ninth year of teaching, felt like coming home. During my two years away from CSS, I had a desire to prove to myself that what I had learned here could be replicated elsewhere – even if some supports were taken out from underneath me. I had approached my position at my new school armed with a strong conviction in my pedagogy as well as an understanding of how students learn. Those two years confirmed for me the pivotal roles that inquiry, technology integration, assessment for learning, and building positive relationships have in terms of student learning. And yet there was one piece missing that was made abundantly clear within my first week back at CSS; I had been missing collaboration.
Although my two years away were successful both professionally and personally, back at CSS I have been surrounded by like-minded individuals and encouraged to take risks. It continues to be a place where my passion for teaching is constantly re-lit. At my former school, I had worked with teachers in a variety of ways, yet a true collaborative relationship did not exist and generally speaking, I had lived and worked in isolation. I had been prepared that returning to CSS would entail forging collaborative relationships, as it is part of the school’s charter. When I was told that I would be partnered with Deirdre, I was nervously excited. Although I was initially unsure of what to expect or how our philosophies would meld, if at all, it quickly became apparent that our pairing was going to exceed expectations.
I came into my second year of teaching with a lot of excitement about a new assignment, a new group of students and my first position in a homeroom class. I was excited about the freedom I knew I would have at a school like CSS to explore new ideas in teaching and learning. It wasn’t until a few days in that my nerves took over. I was instantly overwhelmed by start of the year paperwork and the sheer volume of information I suddenly realized I would be expected to keep a handle on. It was also the first time I considered that the way I had learned or understood something would not necessarily be simply explained to a group of nine year-olds. I felt that I was constantly misreading facial expressions, rushing through explanations and overlooking important items on my checklist. It was also becoming glaringly apparent that our students had arrived from drastically diverse educational backgrounds leaving them with vast differences in their individual depth and breadth of knowledge.
It was a sincere relief to have time built into my schedule for check-in and planning with a curriculum partner. At first, meeting with Amy provided an opportunity to debrief some of my struggles, re-evaluate my lesson structure and make sure that I was ticking the right pieces off of my list. It was immensely reassuring to have her support in those first weeks and I was excited to have her guidance as I continued to develop my understanding of how to create optimal learning opportunities. Very aware of my own inexperience, I was fully prepared to emulate her teaching, take notes on her ideas and in the process, become the kind of quality teacher she undoubtedly was already. But Amy didn’t give me her lesson plans or prescribe teaching strategies. Our planning sessions revolved around questions that went back and forth. She genuinely asked for my opinion on teaching and learning and I developed a true understanding of inquiry for the first time as together we explored the curriculum, technology, team teaching, and building powerful communities of practice.
Mentorship: A New Perspective
As the school year began, I was excited to wear the moniker ‘mentor.’ With a teaching partner who was a relative newcomer to the profession, I assumed I would share my experiences and that in return, she would learn. But my belief about ‘mentoring’ was completely outdated. The ‘old school’ mentorship model places all knowledge and expertise in the hands of the mentor, while discounting any expertise the protege might have to offer. This relationship is based solely on the passing of knowledge, which means new strategies and approaches are not being developed, discovered or explored. After our first couple of days of planning, I began to recognize the many faults in my assumptions about mentorship. Deirdre had a wealth of knowledge, a plethora of ideas and an enthusiasm for teaching that was nothing short of contagious. Overlooking this would have been detrimental to our relationship and to what we have been able to achieve together.
I am of the firm opinion that building relationships on a foundation of trust and openness with a focus on inquiry is a critical component to sustaining a collaborative culture at any school. I have been in the classroom for nine years, yet this is one of the first times where I have felt confident of having a positive and significant impact on another teacher’s practice, while simultaneously improving my own. Through mutual trust, team-teaching, collaborative planning, inquiry, and ongoing, reflective conversations with Deirdre, we are both learning and growing as educators.
From my first conversation with Amy, which incredibly revolved around a question rather than a direction, I couldn’t stop thinking. My ideas were empowered and my understanding was constantly revolving. I would go home and research and then burst into the classroom in the morning desperate to have Amy’s perspective so that together we could expand and dig deeper than we might have alone. Amy empowered my thinking by recognizing that I had something to share and encouraging me to share it. We both grew because of it. As a pair, we became more important because we were able to combine the best of two different thoughts, ideas and perspectives.
What I desperately want to impart to all potential leaders out there is how incredible it has been to learn with a colleague who never ‘instructed’, ‘told’, or ‘delivered’. I recognize that titles and experience are historically accompanied by a perceived promotion of importance, ability and ‘wisdom’ and that often this is deserved. Yet the mentors that have made the most difference to me are those that have recognized that though I have not yet earned a spot among them, I might still have something of value to share. My inquiry into teaching and my collaborative relationship with Amy has been of such value because I was not robbed of my own ‘a-ha!’ moments by a mentor who insisted I replicate theirs.
From the beginning, it was clear that I was working with a teacher who had developed a deep understanding of inquiry based practice in teaching and learning (as defined by Galileo Educational Network, 2011). I believe that this was a huge reason for the success we have experienced as a collaborative team. Her understanding of teaching was not limited to perfecting lessons or refining her practice. As we entered the mathematics curriculum, it quickly became evident that many of our students had never been encouraged to make their own mathematical connections and were consistently waiting for instructions to be able to start problem solving. Although it was tempting to guide them through a traditional step-by-step fragmentation of the material in order to help them develop a ‘necessary procedural skill set’, instead we sat down as a team with the program of studies and discussed “What do we want our students to know and to become?” “How do we get them to think?” From the beginning, we were actively re-inventing our teaching and our thinking. Ultimately, we decided to begin with an open conversation about the number one, asking students to consider the ways in which this number is connected to so many other numbers in the world. The resulting conversations with students were enlightening. and I came to understand inquiry as a journey with the destination visible but with the path dependent on connections and discovery. Here is a look at that exploration into the discipline of mathematics.
Despite countless “a-ha” moments throughout my teaching career, by October, this had become by far one of the most professionally transformational years for me. Though there had been many days where I felt as though I was nearing the destination, there had also been many others where I felt as though I was falling uncontrollably backward. Finally being able to share this journey of continuing reinvention and growth with another passionate educator was some of the best professional development that I had ever experienced. On my own I would have still taught through an inquiry lens and continued to actively document the process. However, having a collaborative partner meant that someone was constantly present, observing and actively questioning my practice and the decisions I made. Gadamer (1975) states “…to question means to lay open, to place in the open. As against the fixity of opinions, questioning makes the object and all its possibilities fluid” (p. 361). Through questioning, I was able to reflect on my pedagogical beliefs and further strengthen my understanding of what it means to learn and teach. Our collaborative partnership has meant growing into a stronger, more connected version of who I already was and it has meant that I no longer work in isolation. I have someone who understands me, who helps me understand and who makes the journey of teaching more meaningful.
In the Classroom
Approaching teaching and learning through an inquiry lens has meant that from the get-go, we were jointly involved in nurturing a disposition of critical thinking (as defined by Galileo Educational Network, 2011), reflection and idea improvement at every opportunity while capitalizing on each other’s resources and skills. The amazing thing about inquiry is that there are limitless paths that can take both teachers and students on incredible journeys of discovery, where the lines between teacher and student are completely blurred. Through inquiry, we found that the traditional hierarchy separating veteran from novice teacher became less relevant. In the past year, there have been so many days where each of us was sure that we had learned more from the other. “What emerges… is neither mine nor yours and hence so far transcends the interlocutors’ subjective opinions…” (Gadamer, 1975, p. 361). One example of the powerful learning that resulted from merging our minds, was a month long exploration into decomposition in which Deirdre’s background in scientific research blended with Amy’s experience in structuring inquiry to promote student engagement through authentic exploration of subject matter. The video below serves as evidence not only of student learning, but also of the impact a collaborative teaching environment has had on both students and teachers. Everything, from the beginning stages of planning this research, to the exploration, documentation and final reflection, was accomplished through collaboration.
What we have witnessed is supported in the findings of a 2003 study by Awaya, et al., which states that “the relationship of mentor and protégé [should be] a collaborative inquiry into teaching practices, with the idea of generating knowledge locally, among the participants, rather than having it transmitted” (p. 46). Through the inquiry process, teaching partners can be open to new possibilities and discoveries without being restricted or forced to comply with one way of doing things. Inquiry allows for individual creativity, innovation, and an approach to learning and teaching that promotes curiosity and excitement. By inquiring together, we have been able to continue to expand and improve our practices. We have been inspired to examine current literature on collaboration and communities of practice. These have provided further opportunities for us to discuss and reflect upon our work.
Christianakis (2010) states, “collaborative research can help build both pedagogical and mentoring relationships” (p. 116). We have found that it has also allowed us to create opportunities for professional development that are specific to our current needs. Through social media, we have turned to resources shared by like-minded educators worldwide. One such search lead us to nrich.maths.org, a website constructed by a team of current and former educators as a database of inquiry-based problems that weave together multiple mathematical competencies. A solution we posted to one of these problems led to a Skype conversation with Bernard Bagnall, one of the authors of nRich and an instructor at Cambridge University. Through Skype, Professor Bagnall discussed with us the importance and value of having students work through problems with “low floors and high ceilings”, thereby allowing multiple entry points into a problem. Participating in this conversation as a team and debriefing afterwards increased our takeaways significantly. Since our conversation, we have continued to present math challenges that allow for all students to find success and extend their understanding. Combining our perspectives, we have also found ways to weave problems together so that concepts are continually resurfacing and extended, which has helped the students to deepen their mathematical understanding.
As we have noted, collaboration seems to be a catch phrase for any and all types of teacher interaction. We have discovered that for it to be truly valuable, it must be intentional, focused and go beyond the mere transfer of teacher resources. True collaboration entails a de-privatization of teaching; as a profession we should no longer work in isolation. This process of de-privatization “changes culture and practice so that teachers observe other teachers, are observed by others, and participate in informed and telling debate on the quality of and effectiveness of their instruction” (Fullan, 2007, p. 36).
As our collaborative relationship evolved this year to include team teaching on a permanent basis, we have found that the benefits of working together in this capacity have been profound. We have been able to extend the collaborative process to include design, delivery and reflection. Teaching together has provided a consistent collegial presence in our classrooms; someone who understands our goals and is readily available to provide instant feedback. This experience has been formative, insightful, and professionally rewarding. We have reflected more on our practice and philosophy in the past ten months than we have in our entire careers combined. The learning that is taking place is completely job-embedded and we are able to make changes and improvements that immediately impact how we teach and how our students learn.
Being vulnerable to another teacher at all times has meant that we have learned to be open to critique, feedback, and questioning – all things that push us to be better than we were the day before. Conversations that have ensued have forced us to articulate our ideas, think critically about our practice and look at student learning from completely different perspectives. As a collaborative team we demand the very best from each other and we are constantly striving to improve, looking for new ways of doing things, reflecting on our successes as well as our failures, and taking risks. Teaching in partnership allows us to creatively author something new and then have someone else read it back. With a collaborative partner in the class, there is always someone who has your back and supports you, but also who challenges you. Fullan (2007) asserts, “student learning depends on every teacher learning all the time” (p. 35). Without a doubt, we have learned a great deal this year through self-reflections, from debriefing with each other, and most importantly from observing and interacting with our students. We have also found that as we were able to model the benefits of collaborative practice in front of our students, they too were better able to engage in collaboration themselves. This short clip of an end of year outdoor class demonstrates how our collaboration effectively created a culture of community, of conversation, and of mutual support.
The value of collaboration and team-teaching has been reported in literature but it seems there is a shortage of documented first hand experiences like ours in which teachers themselves share how collaborative practice has impacted their teaching. Quinn and Kanter (1984) define team teaching as “simply teamwork between two qualified instructors who, together, make presentations to an audience” and yet we have found it to be so much more than that. Robinson and Schaible (1995) assert that the benefits of collaborative learning include higher achievement, greater retention, improved interpersonal skills and an increase in regard for group work for both students and teachers – but the stories are missing. The journey we are on is one that is hard to describe. However, it is the very reason we both became teachers and why we wake up every morning excited and happy to be going to work and this is so important to consider.
We firmly believe that if more novice teachers had the opportunity to engage in this form of quality professional development, the results could be far reaching. For instance, fewer teachers would feel isolated, the attrition rate would be significantly reduced, and teachers (both experienced and beginning) would have increased job satisfaction. Furthermore, the path to continued creativity and innovation in education lies in finding a way to lend power to the ideas of those with less experience, but with bright ideas and new perspectives on the future. Crafton and Kaiser (2011) state that, “When teachers participate as knowledgeable professionals, capable of engaging in reflective practice and collaborative inquiry, that is who they become” (p. 212). We have found this to be the very essence of our collaborative professional relationship. Through our own relationship building process, we have become interdependent. Together, we generate new ideas, we improve initial thoughts through discussion, and we identify and solve problems. Christianakis (2010) states that “never before has this been so important for teachers…to collaborate with one another” (p. 110); we could not agree more.
Incorporating our personal pedagogies and melding them together has been transformational for both of us. We feel invigorated and are eager to document and share our discoveries with other teachers in our school and beyond. As a team, we have had opportunities to share our experiences with others via social media and blogging. Through these channels, the process of documenting student work has been accelerated and we have been able to connect with others across North America – from a grade four classroom in Stony Plain Alberta (via Charlene Daub) to a group of graduate students in Connecticut (via Sean Musselman and Marialice Curran). Most recently, an opportunity to share our experiences with teachers and administrators at ConnectEd Canada was met with overwhelming support. Chuck Lawson, a Vice Principal from Chilliwack, BC commented: “I created a beginning plan for team teaching in PBL next year – teachers are excited. Shared your session with 2 admin teams – generated ideas for change – best professional development of my career – Thanks!” Aaron Kune, a Vice Principal from Delta, BC tweeted: “Teacher collaboration session with Amy and Deirdre confirmed the urgency to create more time for teachers to co-plan next year.” Katherine Webber, Instructional Leader from Hamilton Ontario shared: “Your presentation was inspiring; our team is at the airport chatting about how to foster more collaboration.” We have been so thrilled to be able to communicate how collaborative practice has helped us connect and strengthen opportunities for student learning and are so excited to continue to connect with others who are looking to do the same.
The benefits of this experience have extended well beyond our partnership, to our students, their parents and other teaching colleagues. We are certain that the community we have created will be long lasting. Our belief in inquiry, developing deep understanding, listening to student voice, infusing technology, modeling and fostering a collaborative culture have all contributed to our success. Is it perfect? Not quite, but we have wholeheartedly bought into the collaborative process. Working together has given us the opportunity to extend valuable inquiry-based learning practices beyond the classroom, deepening our own understanding. This partnership has also reinforced for each of us that reciprocal relationships are the cornerstone of building a collaborative and innovative culture in teaching and learning, for us, and for other teachers who see merit in collaboration as more than simply a sharing or exchanging of resources.
“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”
Awaya, A., McEwan, H., Heyley, D., Linsky, S., Lum., D., & Wakukawa, P. (2003). Mentoring as a journey. Teaching and Teacher Education, 19(1), 45-56. DOI: 10.1016/S0742-051X(02)00093-8
Christianakis, M. (2010). Collaborative research and teacher education. Issues in Teacher Education, 19(2), 109- 125. Retrieved from http://www.eric.ed.gov/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=EJ902678
Crafton, L. & Kaiser, E. (2010). The language of collaboration : Dialogue and identity in teacher professional development. Improving Schools, 14(2), p. 104-116. DOI: 10.1177/1365480211410437
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