Collaboration: Wrestling a Kind of Victory from the Jaws of Bureaucratic Defeat

As a young teacher, I was fortunate to be hired right out of graduate school into a middle school with fantastically high academic and social standards. I was also coming into a district with apparently solid and stable systems and revenue plans. Of course, teachers who had been working in the district for many years spoke of waning programs and community support. But relative to the other districts in the state, and compared with the school districts I’d seen in Idaho, the south neighborhood middle school into which I’d been hired seemed like an oasis of solid, well-funded educational programs.

During the nine years I’ve worked for the School District there have been some discouraging changes in funding priorities and some fairly inscrutable maneuverings around money and support for educational programs. I really don’t know how large-scale educational funding and allocation decisions are made and do not plan to move into that professional realm. Space camp2I tend to look at it from the viewpoint of the stubborn, eager teenagers I work with. “Look,” that part of my brain says, “It is clear that the money and skills to create a vintage NASA-level school system exists out there. It would clearly be worthwhile. Now you ladies and gentlemen who make a living managing money, figure it out.” This is an absurd and immaculate fantasy.

One of the numerous administrators who have worked in my school during the last nine years explained the phenomena very eloquently. “I’m here, foremost to support good teachers,” she said, “But in reality I’ve also spent the last 15 years managing financial decay.”

Fortunately my school, and specifically my team of Language Arts teachers, retains an undiminished level of performance and dedication. In this section I will do some things that sound like bragging, but please remember that I am bragging for the exploits of the other dedicated members of my teaching team.

Collaborating3A Culture of Collaboration

Among the strong aspects of the school I joined fresh out of graduate school was a culture of collaboration. This has become a ponderous buzzword in academic discourse, but as I was starting my career as a teacher of reading and writing, it was already standard parlance within the English department at my school.  Part of this was because the school (and region) had historically allowed schools to generate curriculum around the standards, the culture of their clientele, and a generally shared love of the act of teaching about communication.  In exchange for this freedom and creativity as teachers, we were asked to be competent professionals.

Many non-standardized Language Arts and Reading programs are criticized for lacking the rigor and consistency of a cookie-cutter curriculum that has been vetted and systematized by experts in the realm of education. I would counter that teacher-created programs that do not meet or exceed the quality of standardized curricula fail because they do not demand that teachers become experts in the realm of education within their area of focus.

collaboratingAs soon as I started working with this collaborative team, we were regularly scheduling informal meetings to vet each other’s curricular ideas, bounce ideas off one another, and seek out critical assistance. We met at lunch, on weekends, spoke on the phone, traded materials through email, and spoke over after-school time while jogging or riding bicycles. Teaching kids well demands the willingness to collaborate and work as an intimate, functional team.

During the ensuing years I’ve seen many of the programs that initially made my school unique and exceptional change and vanish due to funding cuts and alterations in priorities, but the collaborative energy within my department has continued to grow.

Our classes have gone from being a two-hour block to one forty-five minute period. Standards continue to escalate (which I support), but at the same time support and clarity about the standards diminish.  Last year I gave my 8th grade students a record five required standardized tests using nearly two weeks of instructional time, while our number of student contact days continued to fall.

At the same time the seventh Language Arts team spearheaded a structured, cross-curricular collaboration program during which teachers met monthly to discuss problems of practice using the critical partners method. The grade-level English teams worked together to continue drafting a standard style handbook that will dovetail with the expectations at our district’s high school. These are only a few of the ongoing collaborative programs that continue to thrive and grow among my colleagues despite cuts in most other programs.

collaborating2We sometimes work beyond our contract hours. That is what you do when you are a grown-up working for something you care about. I support teachers unions and all other unions, and I also believe that teaching is an art and art sometimes takes more time to get it right. In my experience, working within an honest culture of collaboration is the way to release the sublime from the merely functional or competent.

Middle schoolsAs the next wave of funding changes and new standards approach, I feel very lucky to have entered into a teaching culture with a history of collaborative, creative teaching. I guess it also goes without saying that a culture of teachers who are willing to go beyond the scope of their required hours to collaborate on practices will also share that other key component, caring about helping to guide each student toward becoming the best version of themselves as a human. This is also the case with the members of my content area team at my South Region 4J Middle School, and I feel very comfortable bragging about that.