Getting to No: Building True Collegiality in Schools

An article by Robert Evans

Summary

Evans begins by setting us in the context that collaborative skills are recognised as necessary in most schools in North America, and a necessary part of 21st century skills, citing David Sousa and Carol Tomlinson’s work “Differentiation and Brain: How Neuroscience Supports the Learner Friendly Classroom“,  and a necessary step in being able to teach those skills is for teachers to be able to exhibit them.  This is attempted through the establishment of Professional Learning Communities (though later considers how most any gathering of professionals now inappropriately use this title), and refers to Roland Barth in saying that these, professionally-critical or ‘collegial’ relationships are the “least common form of relationship among adults in schools“.

He talks about how congenial relationships; kind, caring, nurturing and supportive relationships, are far more common and a natural and necessary part of schools, saying “A school without this kind of mutual supportiveness is a deeply unhappy place“. He considers the Structural and subsequently Personal obstacles encountered in trying to incultivate such relationships in schools.  In structural, he looks at the nature of schooling and how “technical communication among teachers is more difficult, less necessary and in some ways even less appropriate than it might seem“. The personal obstacles he identifies refer to the human inertia of teachers, and how “Continuity, more than change, is a core value of school life“.

He explores the ‘conflict avoidance’ nature of teachers, in considering that a school is much more akin to a village community, rather than a corporation, and this obstacle is the result of good relationships needing to be maintained, and discusses how ‘in schools, everything is personal’.  Again, he considers that while this is a necessary part of being a good teacher, it is an impediment to collegiality.  He refers to Barth’s concepts of “non-discussables” which are important issues that are only discussed outside of professional contexts.

He moves on to talk about how a collegial culture can be established and by using skills teachers are already familiar with, stating first a “commitment to appropriate candor in the service of collective growth” must be agreed upon, the crucial role school leaders play in supporting such changes, and how establishing familiar and personal relationships between staff in learning pairs, can all be supportive techniques.  He introduces the “Third-Time Rule” to move gossiping as a stress relief into addressing the problem if it is recurrent, and identifies conflict resolution issues that teachers often use with students.

Reflection

This sort of thinking is much more interesting to me.  At it’s essence, this is looking at the very human nature of change, and has a healthy balance of recognising teacher’s skill sets, and applauding them, while simultaneously recognising that those two skill sets are not inherently congruent.  I feel strongly that this is something that could be very powerful in opening conversations about collaboration that would be particularly relevant to schools that have attempted and struggled with initiating collaborative projects amongst their staff.

One of the most useful aspects was Evans’ consideration of how collaborative efforts are not often seen as necessary, and in that, also referring to how teacher’s first reaction is invariably to think of the students, and how this is helping them directly.  He makes an interesting soft jibe about the teacher mindset, and how committed to self-sacrifice it is, but having encountered this myself, both in my own practice and in the views exhibited by peers, I can see that there is an uncomfortable grain of truth in this; teachers are very uncomfortable talking or thinking about themselves, and are mostly only comfortable talking directly about the student’s, their needs and wants, their successes and so on.  This is something that is a little more prying than I think most would be comfortable with, and any consideration that the teacher’s values, beliefs and indeed person-hood could be up for discussion I think provokes an immediate recoil in teachers.

What is valuable though, is in recognising these traits as indicative of good teachers, and that the task ahead which is difficult, is to find a way where teachers can be both collegial and congenial.

 

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Why Collaborate?

I taught Physics and Maths to teenagers for about a decade.  Teaching was all I ever really wanted to do, and I’ve stopped.  There are some very serious issues facing education at the moment, and there’s going to be some very serious costs if we keep keeping our heads down, and plodding along like we have always done.

To name a few;

  • Teachers.  Teachers are, without question, some of the most hard-working (over-worked) people I’ve ever met.  They are creative, empathic, intelligent professionals with an unshakeable bent on contributing to the public good.  Presently, teachers have very little say or engagement in the syllabi and curriculum they  are obliged to teach.  To call this a mismanagement of key resources is an understatement.
  • Breakdown. They are also subject to impossible (and mounting) demands on their time and energy, generally with reduced resources and increased class sizes.  They are subject to policy changes while being denied any functional venue to have their voice.  This is the trend and it’s global.  Where it leads us, should it go unchecked, is a very bleak place.
  • The Information Age.  With the advent of the internet, we are in a new age.  Different rules apply.  What this means for our young people, and how we can best help them to learn, develop and adapt to the present time is a big questions.  Yet, for many schools, the solution is to ban modern technology.
  • The Great Lie.  Also called “The Great Neo-Liberal Lie“, across the world we promise students that if only they do as their told, if only they work hard and put in the hours, they will get a good qualification, a good job and have a good life.  Leaving aside what values and behaviors this instills in the next generation, it simply isn’t true for the majority of students.

There are many more.  They are issues that for many years caused me to give a knee-jerk reaction. Before I began to think about them I would unholster some reason, some excuse or some justification, more often than not targetted at whoever raised them.  For a long time, I was able to keep knocking them away.

Then I wasn’t.

I have faith that school’s have the potential to be great.  I think they have the potential to be the bastions of public support, centres of development, thinking, learning and knowledge and culture-building hubs of society.

The culture of the present system is immense, and is stubborn.

Before you ask, I don’t know what the solution is.  I don’t know, but I am doubtful there there can be any one solution.  The problem is diverse, complex, multi-faceted and interprative.  It’s going to take a lot from a lot of people, over a long period of time.

What I do know, though, is we can only solve it together.  And working together, it turns out, is not nearly as easy as it looks.