We feel so privileged to be a part of the outstanding work happening in schools and districts related to ensuring collaborative responses for students. It leads to reflections regarding how collaborative cultures approach their complex work of supporting students and what becomes observable to an outsider immersed into their work (even if for just a short period of time).
Here is a list of ten “observables” of a high-functioning collaborative culture, drawn from interactions with numerous educational organizations. It is not meant to serve as a comprehensive checklist but rather as considerations for leadership teams as they reflect on their collaborative structures.
- Leadership is distributed – within a collaborative culture, a school’s collaborative team may include administration, learning support teachers and grade-level leaders from all grade levels as well as specialist roles. As many roles as possible are involved in the conversation to support students, with varying educational backgrounds, experience and strengths. Staff members are committed to school improvement and working together for the betterment of students, with change being generated from the classroom level. Everyone takes a leadership role in creating change.
- Administration support the work of teachers – administrative response indicates high levels of support and trust in the professional judgment of teachers. The collective response from administration is “what can we do to support your work with students in classrooms?” Whether it means timetable adjustments, resource allocations or shuffling of staff to support their work, the general feel is that teachers are and, more importantly, feel supported by their administrators.
- Administration know what is happening in classrooms – even when meeting with just the administration and learning support teachers prior to the larger leadership team meeting, it is apparent that administration knows what is happening in classrooms. They not only know the work happening in the various grade-level teams, but also know directions that the teams are hoping to embark on. Working as part of the intervention support structure, administrators know very clearly what is happening in classrooms, what is working well and areas that their teachers are struggling with (and would want further support).
- Teachers empowerment – in discussing how best to structure a school’s support framework, teachers see themselves as central in determining what’s best to support their students. Teachers are empowered as discussions revolve around “what can we do to support students?”, seeing their role as the primary factor when addressing student success. Teachers are driving the change they want to see for students!
- Teachers speak a common vocabulary – staff speak a common language of instruction and response. Whether it is discussing word attack skills of students, fluency interventions, or assessments being used across classrooms, teachers speak in a professional language that is commonly shared and understood, regardless of the classroom or role of the staff member.
- Professional development is aimed at teams – when looking at opportunities for professional development, it is approached from a team perspective, rather than PD aimed at the whole staff or each individual staff member looking at different PD opportunities. Teams are focusing on their own areas to work on together and the school culture (observable through discussion and administrative support) aimed at teams learning together.
- Staff eager to share celebrations and struggles – Team leaders are not only quick to share what is working for them and their students (their celebrations) but also to share what they are struggling with or potential next steps for learning. These discussions are framed in an inquiry perspective, wishing to collectively pose questions and seek out directions to pursue next. In a school culture characterized by isolation and independence, the high levels of trust needed to share areas of current challenges are not present. In these situations, we’ve observed limited teacher “openness” to sharing their struggles (although typically quick to share successes and what is working well). In a high functioning collaborative school, staff are comfortable to share successes as well as struggles and count on their colleagues to be outstanding sources of support through collaborative problem-solving.
- Looking for potential next steps, not silver bullets – it is not unusual to join a staff team as the “outside consultant” and be expected to bring with you “the answers” – the silver bullet that will solve all instructional woes. However, in a collaborative culture it is immediately observable that staff view themselves as the ones with the solutions, seeking potential next steps or perspectives that have not yet been considered. Questions can help to re-frame approaches and side-conversations within grade-level teams are the norm, as teams process and share thoughts of how to apply other ideas to their current practices.
- Risk-taking is evident – accompanying the previous two points is an observable capacity for risk-taking, with staff eager to pose ideas and jump in to try them, knowing that successes could be joined by failures. Although it is informed risk-taking, it is clear that the learning they wish to see in their students is being modelled by the professionals in the building (as well as supported by the administration). When conversations start with “Well, we could try…”, it is evident that risk-taking is the professional norm.
- Focus on students and learning – perhaps most importantly, it is clear (through the language used and directions proposed) that the focus is on students and learning. These buildings do not exist for the comfort of the adults. Although never explicitly stated, it is clear that the overriding mantra for the adults is “we’ll do whatever it takes for kids”.
When engaging in work of response models, a collaborative culture is key. In our experience, it is developed through changing behaviours when beginning to work as a professional learning community (as supported by Michael Fullan in his investigation of change theory), leading to essential cultural shifts. Are these 10 “observables” something someone else would see if they spent time in your building? Some reflections to think about as you continue to develop the culture in your school! All the best putting the pieces together!