How and Why You Should Seek Collaboration

Teaching can be a very solitary profession. You spend all day with children and teenagers and have limited adult interaction. Lunch time goes by in a flash and sometimes it doubles as a planning period. During your real planning period you are alone in your room or running the halls trying to get 10 million things done as quickly and efficiently as possible before you have to teach again next period. It's (alarmingly) easy to get to school in the morning before school starts, do the best you can teaching all day, go home after school is over, and not get to know many of your coworkers beyond their first names.

If you don't know what I'm talking about because your school encourages collaboration among its teachers and provides time regularly during the school day for teachers to get together and talk about lessons, behavior management, and whatever else crosses their teacher minds, then by all means stop reading right now and go back to your lesson planning.  Also, never leave that school.  Ever.  It's a unicorn.

WHAT is collaboration

When I talk about collaborating with other teachers, I'm including many activities.  I'm including observing other teachers because it will lead to a conversation with that teacher about why he or she did X and said Y and how effective that was in making student A do B and say C. I'm including conversations at lunch time or after school (or before school if you are a morning person - I am not) about how to teach definite articles because they are so boring. I'm including conversations about how Johnny never ever stops talking and how to get him to be quiet for 2 consecutive minutes so I can get a word in edgewise and get through my lesson for once. But not Bitch Fest conversations.  We all know what those are and sometimes they can be great to get our feelings out, but those are excluded in this definition of collaboration.

WHY you should find time for collaboration

Collaborating with other teachers will make you a better teacher.  Going and observing other teachers during my planning period was one of the best things I ever did. It made me a better teacher to see how student X acted up in another teacher's class and see how that teacher responded and how he or she redirected the student's behavior. I had a class clown student a few years ago and I went and observed his math class and he walked into math class the same as he did into my class - like he owned the room and it was his comedy hour. The teacher immediately put on a serious face and calmly told him to walk out and walk back in properly. The student frowned, but knew he had been caught being far too foolish and did as he was told. He walked back in completely calmly, sat down, and his whole demeanor had changed from being ready to tell jokes for 40 minutes, to ready to get his math work done. It was amazing to see. If this teacher had simply said to me "I make him walk back out and walk back in when he walks into my classroom foolishly" I wouldn't have imagined it would be successful. It was helpful to see how the teacher gave him those directions (how serious but calm he was), and how the student reacted to fully grasp its effectiveness. It's much more impactful to see it in person.

Observing other teachers also gave me ideas for other ways to collect papers, to grade homework, to start class... all sorts of routines that I had in place in my classroom, but could be made more efficient.

I took notes, sometimes on paper and sometimes just in my head, of things the teacher did or said that I wanted to ask him or her about. I made a point to meet with him or her for a couple minutes after school or the next day some time to ask all my many questions so I could become a better teacher When you took out your seating chart, why did everyone suddenly become silent? What were you doing or what did they think you were doing? Why did you make those two students switch seats? How do you grade homework? Did you pass out a study guide for their quiz tomorrow? Does anyone ever come to the extra help you offer after school? Do you actually grade their exit tickets? I could go on. And on.

After observing a few teachers a couple times, I found myself saying phrases they frequently said to redirect student behavior, and incorporating more of their routines into my classroom. Observing great teachers started to make me great in the areas that I was lacking!

HOW you should find time for collaboration

I know I just went on and on about how teachers don't have time in their schedules for collaboration. Take 10 minutes out of your planning period once a week and go observe another teacher. Think about which 10 minutes are the hardest in your classroom - is it the first 10 minutes? Transitions in the middle of class? How students get ready to leave class?

Talk to anyone you would like to observe beforehand and ask if they are okay with you coming and observing them. Explain that you are looking to get some fresh ideas and/or improve your classroom management if they look hesitant. They will probably welcome you into their classroom with open arms.

Students will ask you why you are there. I like to tell them I'm brushing up on my (insert subject area here). This is believable enough and they won't ask any more questions after that.

Find time for collaboration after school. If I knew I was going to be after school for an hour grading, then I would invite one of my (teacher) friends down the hall to come grade papers in my room with me or I would go to her room. We could chat a little, have some adult conversation time, and also be productive. And occasionally say "you won't believe what this kid wrote for number 4".

WHO you should collaborate with

Find teachers with similar personalities and similar teaching styles to yours. If you are loud and high energy (that would be me), then it may not be helpful to observe the teacher who barely talks above a whisper and silences students by blinking his eyes at them just once because they fear certain death. It's amazing to watch how obedient these teachers have trained their students to be, but not helpful. Whispering and blinking will not silence your students.

Find teachers of all subject areas. I learned a lot from observing math teachers, science teachers, history teachers, and Spanish teachers. Everyone has to handle behavior issues and classroom management techniques will be helpful to see from a teacher of any subject area.

Find someone (or hopefully several someones) who you can bounce ideas off of for how to teach upcoming topics. These teachers have to be in your subject area. You have to teach definite articles at some point and maybe one of the other Spanish teachers has a cool trick to make it engaging and help students understand it quickly. And you can share your cool trick for how you make del memorable (maybe some day I'll share my trick for teaching del). If you are the only Spanish teacher in your building, then reach out to teachers at other schools in your district with similar students. I used to meet face to face once a month with another teacher at a school down the street from mine when I was the only Spanish teacher in my building and it was SO helpful! I also used to email back and forth with her about 8 times a day. I'm not sure how we had so much time for that many emails but I'm not exaggerating.  Eight times a day.

What experiences do you have collaborating with other teachers or observing them? How has that helped make you a better teacher? Share your experiences!

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