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School Relationships: What if We Got a Do-Over?

Schools are built on relationships and when they don't start off well, it can make for challenging and often adversarial times.

Consider the scenario: Teachers in a department are charged with working together and establishing an aligned vertical curriculum.

For years, folks are brought in from the outside to facilitate the connectedness within the learning experience for students, to ensure minimal repetition and maximum college readiness.

During these sessions or years of "false collaboration" resentment starts to fester for many reasons and the department becomes fractured. Cliques happen. Teachers pair off and the level of collegiality diminished beyond repair. The doors are closed now. Kids are complaining about their learning experiences.

Perhaps one or two teachers try to mend fences because it's all about the kids and clearly something isn't right. You haven't talked about the materials you're using or the concepts covered and many topics are becoming redundant over the years.

Fast forward many years and now no one works together. Anytime you are forced into a room together it becomes an hour of unproductive complaining that feels like a waste of time. Maybe you have developed a relationship with one person in the department because their classes feed yours, so it makes sense to align the end if nothing else.

Then one day, many years later when changes in the department have begun to fester, a person with whom you have never worked well with approaches you and says, "what can we do to change this?"

At first, you're skeptical. Can you trust this person? Is it worth your time to hear him/her out? The benefits are definitely there. But how can you get a whole department that has been fragmented forever to come together?

As an aspiring teacher coach, I'd be eager to try and fix it. Although we can try and probably have tried in our own ways before, we need to put the past behind and keep trying.

A situation very close to this happened to me recently and I had to fight my own discomfort with the possibility of working with some of my colleagues. I feel like I have put myself out there many times only to be shot down or to be told that my ideas can't work. I've felt frustrated and alone, but I tried. Working hard to see things from my colleagues' perspectives to try and embrace where they are coming from, but ultimately doors were not opened and communication didn't improve.

What if we had a chance to start over and could create a real collegial environment?

Here is what I hope will happen now:

  • We need to come together as a department, putting all of our apprehension aside.

  • We need to perhaps get all of the negative energy out first, so we can move on to something productive.

  • Although leadership plays a role in our situation, we can't just rally around that, we must make inroads to make the department for aligned; the end goal and mission of our collaboration must be clear. So why not start there.

  • We need to make clear what our goals are for graduation and then work our way backward. It doesn't matter who is teaching what (because we often don't know until the last minute) if we put the bones of the structure together for each grade, then whoever gets assigned those positions, will have a structure in place.

  • We won't dictate how it must be taught or in what order, just what needs to be covered in each grade, and to what extent so duplication is minimal and pre-AP strategies are being employed as early as appropriate.

  • Perhaps we can put together a list of possible materials and resources for each grade so that we don't duplicate the either and then if at some point any of us gets moved around, we know what we're working with.

  • It could be a good idea to let those who have taught the specific classes in the past to share what they have done that has worked and if there is duplication, we can adjust where appropriate

  • Communication and trust need to be rebuilt and established again. Right now we work in isolation and this doesn't help anyone.

Perhaps if we can all wipe the slate clean, we can move forward in a meaningful way. Each of us has to take responsibility for the role we've played and agree to let go of what hasn't worked or what isn't working. We must commit to each other that we will do it differently, working together, leaning on each other to make the overall community better for all of the students and thereby creating a less hostile environment for all of us.

Have you been in situations where collaboration is strained due to personal issues? What strategies have you employed to refocus dissonant departments? Please share

This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in June 2015

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