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February 2, 2015

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 in the past.  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 however, is that collaborating in this way is the real work of excellent teaching.   

While leading the work of collaborative teams in several districts I’ve observed that some teams are ecstatic to be given some time to focus on clarifying what we want all students to know while some teams end up quite frustrated by the processes.  The reasons for the mixed reactions are many but at the end of the day it is always 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 some 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 excruciatingly slow!!  Yes it can…  Richard DuFour and Robert Marzano share the following in their 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 describe 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 our new normal, and adult learning focused tightly to producing higher student achievement results needs to basic 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 or her school.  That’s what I insist upon for my two kids and it’s what I’m committing to each and every day at work.

One last thing…  I’ve also observed that teams that get through some of the initial challenges of collaboration find that the work of teaching gets easier when supported by a high functioning collaborative team.  Effective teams are fun to be a part of, and they make what can be a tough daily grind much more enjoyable.

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


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