“It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” This observation from Charles Darwin is just as applicable to the world of education as it is to the natural world. Collaboration has at its core the word ‘labor’- a labor of shared mission and common values, of mutual commitment and interdependence. An essential component of collaboration is relational trust. Generally, humans are more likely to engage in risk-taking endeavors when they feel that safety measures are in place. Development of trust is to a learning community as a safety net is to an acrobat. In order to reflect, engage, and examine teaching and student learning, teachers need to first believe that the people in the room – whether it is colleagues, coaches, or administrators – are there to support them, that they believe in them, and that they are looking to bring out the best in them. This means that when teachers feel threatened, judged, evaluated, or doubted, they are unable to reflect, analyze, and grow deeply (and it would be safe to say the same is true of students).
The primary role of a facilitating teacher is to lead a group of teachers in tackling a problem of practice through collaborative inquiry. Generally, this problem is complex and systemic. Teachers are forced to examine their own methods of (and beliefs about) instructional practices and their effects on student outcomes. The complexity of the problem coupled with the deeply personal nature of teaching demands a high degree of relational trust and collective capacity in order to successfully navigate the minefield of conflict while maintaining a shared commitment to possible solutions. The use of structures and protocols provides a means for the members of a community of practice to develop trust between themselves. Implementing norms of collaboration, like pausing, paraphrasing, positing mediative questions, and presuming positive intent (to name a few), helps set a climate of mutual respect, inquiry, and support.
It has been gratifying to see facilitating teachers grow as leaders, and even more exciting to see the development of their communities of practice. Teachers are even using the strategies and tools they are learning through the FT trainings in other parts of the school such as grade level and PLC meetings and even in their own classrooms. Effective teachers have long recognized the value of collaboration (the “why”), and now these teachers are equipped and empowered to provide the structural framework (the “how”) so collaboration can happen.
Michael Fullan noted that “the power of collective capacity is that it enables ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things—for two reasons. One is that knowledge about effective practice becomes more widely available and accessible on a daily basis. The second reason is more powerful still—working together generates commitment.” The goal is that as these communities of practice evolve they will share their successful practices to the larger community of school and district and we can adapt together to become even more successful. Just like the giraffe has a long neck to reach food at the top of the tree, so we must stretch beyond our current capability to address problems of practice. Those pesky leaves at the top of the tree may feel just beyond our reach, but as we grow we will develop the ability and commitment to “stick out our necks” to reach them.