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October 23, 2011


Collaboration Is Difficult…

by Chris Lindholm

While it seems there is a common call for more time to collaborate in all school districts, those who dig into the meaningful work of true collaboration discover it is far easier to continue working in isolation.  The majority of us learned our trade figuring it out as we went through the enduring pains of trial and error.  Being isolated in our classrooms was simply the norm, and the true collaborative work described in PLC literature was unheard of.  Today we have clear evidence showing the need for real collaboration, yet the work of doing collaboration is much different from the work we have been good at.  Digging into showing our results, aligning our instruction with clearly articulated outcomes and common assessments, and engaging in robust action research can feel like an invasion of one’s craft.  The truth we all know deep inside us however, is that truly collaborating in this way is the real work of excellent teaching; it is just very difficult work on many days.   

Last Monday we engaged ISd191 faculty in the work of a district-wide collaborative teams for a half-day work session.  As expected, some collaborative teams were ecstatic to be given some time to focus on clarifying what we want all students to know and some teams were quite frustrated by the processes.  The reasons for the mixed reactions are many but at the end of the day it was very clear; real collaboration is difficult work.  It requires us to deal with those who aren’t as up to speed as others, to forge through disagreements to compromise, to give up lessons dear to our hearts, and to wrestle with colleagues who don’t view our work in the same way.  We have to tease apart purpose and objectives and outcomes and benchmarks and all kinds of minutia vocabulary that… well… when working in isolation are EASY TO ANSWER!!!  Collaboration can be excrutiatingly slow!!  Yes it can…  Richard DuFour and Robert Marzano share the following in their new book Leaders of Learning (2011).

Furthermore, most of the professional organizations that represent teachers and principals have endorsed the premise that educators should work collaboratively.  According to a national survey, two-thirds of teachers and 78 percent of principals agree that greater collaboration among educators “would have a major impact on improving student achievement” (Markow & Pieters, 2010, p. 9).  Yet despite the widespread evidence of its benefits and the proclaimed support for collaboration, the transformation from a culture in which individual educators work in isolation to one in which they work as members of interdependent collaborative teams remains a formidable challenge.

Consider this analogy: obesity problem plaguing a growing number of Americans.  The best strategy an individual can use for solving that problem is widely understood – eat less and exercise more.  This solution is grounded in research, is universally endorsed by the healthcare industry, and has been proven successful by people throughout the country.  Although this most promising strategy is clearly understood and readily acknowledged, it remains challenging to implement.  It requires an individual to change longstanding assumptions, expectations, and habits regarding food.  It requires the person to relate to food in different ways.  And, most importantly, it requires embracing and sustaining an entirely new lifestyle – forever.  Pursuing short-term fad diets in spurts won’t accomplish the goal of losing weight, keeping it off, and becoming fit.  We know all of this to be true: nonetheless, it is difficult to put what we know into practice. 

The same can be said of the PLC process with its emphasis on a collaborative culture.  There is growing recognition that the process represents a powerful strategy for improving student achievement, but bringing it to life in the real world of schools remains difficult.  Educators are asked to change long-standing assumptions, expectations, and habits regarding schooling.  They are asked to relate to colleagues and students in new ways.  They are called upon to abandon the tradition of pursuing the latest educational fad and instead are asked to sustain a commitment to a very different way of operating schools – forever.

Difficult, but Doable

We offer this caution so that school and district leaders approach the task of implementing the PLC process with a realistic appreciation of the predictable turmoil that lies ahead.  The caution is not, however, intended to discourage leaders from assuming the challenge.  The task is difficult, but it is doable. 

In 1997, Michael Fullan wrote, “It is easy to be pessimistic about educational reform.  There are many reasons to be discouraged.  From a rational-technical point of view, the conclusion that large-scale school reform is a hopeless proposition seems justified” (p. 216).   Nonetheless, he urged educators to cling “to our last virtue: hope” (p. 221).  More recently, a decidedly more upbeat Fullan (2010b) asserted that the increasing clarity regarding the precise strategies to improve student learning makes it possible for educators to experience dramatic gains in student achievement in a single year – even in large schools.

We agree that the increasing knowledge base regarding school improvement is cause for optimism.  How quickly and successfully that knowledge can be translated in to specific and effective actions that impact adult and student learning will depend to a great extent on the skill and persistence of educators themselves.  Let’s examine some of what we have learned about the precise strategies for building the collaborative culture of a PLC and the common mistakes to avoid (p. 68 -70).

Reciprocal Accountability: The Key to Building Collective Capacity

Bob and Richard go on to descrive the following 7 key components of reciprocal accountability:

    • Organize Staff Into Meaningful Teams
    • Provide Teams With Time to Collaborate
    • Provide Supportive Structures That Help Groups Become Teams
    • Clarify the Work Teams Must Accomplish
    • Monitor the Work of Teams and Provide Direction and Support as Needed
    • Avoid Shortcuts in the Collaborative Team Process
    • Celebrate Short-Term Wins, and Confront Those Who Do Not Contribute to Their Teams


The difficult task we all face is aligning our work to what we now know as a result of mountains of research.  We must engage in meaningful collaboration focused on results and learning.  Ongoing, robust action research needs to become part of our new normal, and adult learning focused tightly to producing higher student achievement results needs to routine.  This kind of change requires the courage to work through conflict and an intense focus on our goals without being distracted by our own adult issues or excuses.  Make no mistake – it isn’t how I was trained early on and it isn’t easy work.  It is however, what we need to do to accomplish the dreams that we signed up for.  Every student deserves the passionate commitment of every adult in his/her school.  That’s what I insist upon for my two kids and it’s what I’m commiting to each and every day at work.

Thank you teachers – for touching our future in each child you work with!!!

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Oct 23 2011

    The hardest change for any person in any field to make is to augment routines. Your average high school teacher may have two prep periods a day where they update grade books, review papers or score tests to try and keep up on the ever growing pile that is their inbox. Now it just might not be possible to commit that much time during the school day to those activities. Do those things need to get done? Are they worthy ways to spend your time? Of course they are! But, those are things that can be done on your dining room table at home. In person collaboration can’t be done there. It needs to happen during the school day, so we may need to rethink what prep time really is. Is it collaboration time instead of attack the piles time? I think it needs to be if we are to do all the things you write about in the first paragraph.

    Just bought the book on Kindle. Looking froward to reading it. Thanks for a little bit of it on this post!

  2. Nov 11 2011

    Another good bit, Pal!

    One of the things that I think school leaders miss is that when you’re trying to sell PLCs to teachers, you’ve got to help them to see what’s in it for them.

    We (rightly) spend a ton of time talking about the benefits of collaboration for kids, but as Maslow pointed out, humans take care of their own needs first — and until those needs are met, they are simply incapable of looking out for the needs of anyone else.

    I think schools would get a lot further along the PLC trail if they really started to market the benefits of collaboration to their teachers.

    Does this make sense?

  3. Nov 13 2011

    This makes great sense Bill. We educators don’t like to talk about ourselves and our needs as we perceive this to somehow be greedy or contrary to the mission of our work. It is the root of why the “strategic celebrations” concept that DuFour writes about is so tough.

    One of the strategies I used as a principal to address this very real need was to bring the work of Parker Palmer ( into my conversations with faculty. His book, “The Courage to Teach,” was the first book I read that did justice to discussing the soul of a teacher. His newest book, “Healing the Heart of Democracy” is a powerful read on the current status of the American politic. Palmer digs into our need for real community and why creating that community has become so difficult for teachers today. He argues for a more deliberate focus on caring for the soul of teachers, and he lives up to his own preaching through his leadership of the Courage Center for Renewal.

    I would argue that Parker Palmer’s work is a key foundation for the work of true collaborative teams and ultimately, a true professional learning community. I also think you’ve raised a point that requires some further thought and flushing out… I hesitate to think of this as needing to sell PLCs as it is really about addressing the very real needs of teachers – and students. Only healthy and effective teachers can make the real magic with kids… I sense another blog post coming here.

    Thanks Bill!

  4. Nov 19 2011

    Great post Chris! In relation to Bill and your comments, I also have experienced as a principal the change principle that Michael Fullan suggests – change behaviours then beliefs. He argues that beliefs can be difficult and occasionally impossible to change – we spend a lot of time trying to justify and convince. Rather, focus on changing behaviours. A change in behaviour can lead to changes in belief, when people see first-hand the benefits and what it means for their own practice. In my school, we implemented grade level teams (with embedded collaborative time) once a critical mass of key players were on board. I didn’t wait for everyone to buy in before putting it into the schedule and implementing what would happen during that time. Not all staff members were on board to start (frankly, a number of them thought their time could be better spent in other tasks or with their students). I then attended meetings, provided support, celebrated and kept focusing on them. In time (and truthfully some before others), people came to value the time together as they experienced what collaboration could mean to their practice and the professional benefits. Now the school sees that collaborative time as sacred and essential to how they work together to meet the needs of students. Not sure we could have reached the same place had I not pushed a few people into the structure (focusing on behaviours then beliefs).

  5. Nov 20 2011

    Love hearing other stories on leadership and making change to benefit kids. Thanks for sharing this Kurtis – I hope to hear more about your journeys!


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