Teacher Collaboration: Planning for the Unplanned Relationships

by Nicole Bell March 6th, 2014 5:00 PM

In every school there are official lines of collaboration, put in place by administrators, districts, and sometimes teachers themselves. Beneath those official teams, however, lies a complex web of unofficial ties that often hold the greatest potential for professional growth.

The job of a teacher is one that can naturally lend itself to isolation. You spend most of your working hours separated from your colleagues with the doors closed, and when you’re not teaching you’re usually incredibly busy. Even “free” time like lunch is often occupied with clubs, tutoring, and making copies. To combat this, schools create structures to establish collaborative communities. We come together in smaller groups drawn along predictable lines to meet as grade level teams, departments, issue-based committees, and student support teams. As whole communities, we meet for school-based professional development and district-wide development.  All of these networks are valuable, and I can’t begin to list the things I’ve learned from my official teammates in DCPS.

When I think of the moments that have most shaped my teaching career, however, they usually aren’t related to these official meetings. Instead, they’re drawn from random conversations I’ve had while microwaving food, making copies, or running into a colleague on the stairs. I’ve even learned a lot just through the graphic organizers and assignments I’ve stumbled upon when they were forgotten in the copier. Communication and advice often flow along personality and chance-driven lines, and the ties they form can end up being stronger than official ties. These small moments of collaboration sometimes take place between people on the same “teams” at school, but they’re more often driven by other factors – who lives in the same neighborhood and needs a ride, who makes copies at the same time of day, or even who has a dog.

These informal flows of advice and support can be some of the strongest drivers of improvement in a system, and I believe it’s important to foster them. One way to build relationships outside of the current structures is to offer professional development that cuts across teams. Over the past few years, DCPS and my school have broadened professional networks through events that focus on specific topics like close reading or sentence structure and that pull together teachers from multiple grades and subjects. I believe these types of focused professional development events should be expanded, and teachers should be able to opt into the sessions they would like to participate in. All teachers are at different stages when it comes to the improvements or innovations they’re currently incorporating into their teaching, and professional development that is immediately relevant is most likely to have a strong impact. By letting teachers opt into sessions they could best be a resource in, or opt into sessions on areas they’re actively trying to improve, we’d ensure that teachers get the most out of their collaboration. We’d also connect teachers to other colleagues who are actively focusing on similar things at the same time. I might not know that a 9th grade English teacher is currently working on paragraph structures just like I am, and knowing that could support both of us in our practice. My school and DCPS are full of talented individuals, and fostering these connections can expand our ability to draw from this wealth of talent.

At the same time, it’s hard to predict every line of collaboration that teachers can benefit from, making it useful to create shared spaces that naturally facilitate the unexpected. My school consolidated some copiers into one room and spruced up its teachers’ lounge this year, and already I’ve noticed an increase in random, but incredibly valuable, conversations. Continuing to expand these communal areas and social events – both within schools and just as importantly across schools – would help us increase the density of informal connections. While each individual relationship couldn’t have possibly been planned, we need to continue creating plans to facilitate their powerful existence.

Nicole Bell teaches chemistry at Coolidge High School in Washington, DC.