Getting To No

Amid all the controversy about how to improve America’s schools, the importance of strengthening collegial collaboration among teachers has drawn almost unanimous support. Fostering teachers’ collective engagement and cooperation in the planning and delivering of instruction is described with enthusiasm and urgency by advocates across the educational spectrum. The primary reason most often advanced is the need to equip students with 21st century skills. Virtually every school’s mission statement and strategic plan now assume that, to flourish in the global economy of the future, Americans will need to be technologically fluent, to be critical thinkers and problem solvers, to be flexible and innovative, and to be good communicators and collaborators. They will need to be self-motivated to keep learning and changing and will also need to be adept at working with people from diverse backgrounds with diverse perspectives. If educators are to help students develop these skills, the argument goes, they themselves must be able to model them both in their teaching and in the ways they think and talk about their work.

This case may seem innovative, but there have actually been strong arguments for improving teacher collaboration for several decades. Research into cognitive development and the different ways the brain learns has led to new methods of differentiating instruction.1 Advances in curriculum mapping have enabled teachers to compare their curricula so that they can view the entire school’s program longitudinally. And exponents of “authentic instruction” have shown how teachers can jointly design units of study and methods of assessment, starting with the desired student outcomes, planning course content and format to reach these goals, and sharing and critiquing their designs as they plan and teach.2

These approaches all share an emphasis on defining and disseminating best practices in teaching and on promoting growth for educators. They call for teachers, as individuals, to be continuous learners about their craft and to work together to maximize their collective impact on student learning. This view sees teaching as a true profession, analogous to law or medicine, in which practitioners test and share approaches to their work and continue their development throughout their careers. It culminates in the concept of the faculty as a professional learning community (PLC) — a collegial group committed to its own learning and growth. “Professional learning community” appears almost as frequently in schools’ self-descriptions as “21st-century skills.” The phrase has an equally authoritative ring, especially to anyone who has seen the creativity and excitement unleashed when first-rate teachers collaborate in reflective practice. But in most schools, its actual resonance is weak. In fact, as Roland Barth, founder of the Principals’ Center at Harvard University, has pointed out, even though collegiality’s benefits seem “obvious, logical, and compelling,” it is “the least common form of relationship among adults in schools.”3

What schools have instead of collegiality, said Barth, is congeniality.4 Congeniality is about getting along well, being friendly, warm, and supportive. Schools are full of good people who are cordial to and considerate of one another, who care about each other. When necessary, teachers cover each other’s classes and study halls. If asked, they offer advice about a student or a lesson plan. If one of them suffers an illness or has a family crisis, the rest rally to help. A school without this kind of mutual supportiveness is a deeply unhappy place.

Congeniality provides an essential foundation for a faculty’s sense of community and its work with students. What it doesn’t provide is any meaningful attention to that work. By itself, it fosters a culture of niceness and privacy, not a culture of growth. True collegiality requires more than being cordial and caring. It requires a focus on development and performance. It means sharing — deprivatizing — the work of teaching, and it means talking candidly, and being able to disagree constructively, about professional practice.

For most educators, none of this comes easily, which surprises and dismays many advocates of improved collegiality, who assume that an appetite and aptitude for collaboration should be the norm in schools. But the fact is that most teachers are not ideally suited to collaborate — and the reasons make sense. They reflect inherent features of teaching itself and of teachers themselves — tendencies that are not only natural, but in key ways crucial to success with students. The forging and sustaining of a truly collegial, collaborative ethos in a faculty means confronting deeply embedded structural and personal challenges.

Structural Obstacles

To begin with, teaching differs from most professions in being such an idiosyncratic craft. The immediacy of the classroom, its unpredictability and social complexity, makes teaching not just an intensely involving occupation but also an innately individualistic one. In many respects, teachers are, as Michael Huberman, author of The Lives of Teachers, observed, “independent artisan[s]” — tinkerers, intellectual craftspeople who use whatever they can find in their workshop to solve the problems presented by the project they are working on — and who work autonomously. Teachers are not deliverers of highly scripted, linear, instructional sequences; they are skillful, adaptive improvisers who must be able to modify a lesson plan on the fly whenever necessary. Much of what any educator does is highly personal, and over time, every teacher develops a unique instructional repertoire, a set of personal, artful, but often tacit assumptions and responses.5 This is true even for those who team-teach together and those who employ a similar classroom methodology.

What this means is that technical communication among teachers is more difficult, less necessary, and in some ways even less appropriate than it might seem. More difficult because two people can teach the exact same curriculum to similar students, yet operate in vastly different ways on vastly different assumptions that are hard to explain, let alone bridge. Less necessary because, in the most basic practical terms, schools can readily function as a set of independent workshops — quite unlike hospitals, for example, which literally cannot operate without close linkage among staff. And less appropriate because the separateness and professional egalitarianism that incline teachers to keep to themselves is routine among artisans. “Noninterference with the core work of others constitutes a sign of professional respect,” Huberman noted, while asking for assistance can seem a sign of weakness and offering unsolicited help a sign of arrogance.6 Thus, the entrenched norms that prevail among teachers have always been those of autonomy and privacy, not those of “open exchange, cooperation, and growth.”7

Trying to overcome deep-rooted artisanal norms through new collegial structures would be difficult in the best of conditions, but few schools have created these. Beset by ever-rising expectations and an ever-more crowded schedule, schools typically establish collaborative initiatives as add-ons to teachers’ growing lists of activities and responsibilities. For example, many schools that have divided faculty into PLC’s expect the groups to meet before or after school, appending these sessions to the pre-existing roster of meetings. Thus, the PLC’s begin life as “more work,” rather than as “growth opportunity.” I have encountered no schools that have reduced teaching loads to compensate for the added demands caused by new collaborative structures and few that have reduced other meetings for this purpose.

Personal Obstacles

The nature of teaching and the structure of schooling pose significant challenges to collegiality, but the larger obstacles are personal; they lie in the make-up of teachers themselves. They were captured bluntly for me by a veteran history teacher, known to his administrators as “The Grouch,” who objected to his school’s effort to create PLC’s this way: “We don’t see the necessity. Plus, if — if — we had any time available, we’d rather spend it with students.”

In not seeing the necessity, The Grouch has lots of company. In surveys, teachers’ orientation toward professional development has never been nearly as high as it is among, say, doctors and lawyers. Most teachers have always seen teaching as a relatively static occupation that requires little maintenance or renewal, a job that one can readily resume after an extended hiatus without any special retraining. Although independent schools, despite the lip service they pay to growth, devote, on average, comparatively little time to staff development (often no more than the equivalent of two or three days per year), this is rarely a cause of regret for faculty. 

As unflattering as this may appear, it has an underlying logic. Education is, after all, a backward-looking enterprise. Although a school’s mission is to prepare children for the future, it can only do this by teaching them about the past — not just history, but the assembled body of knowledge in each subject. We can only teach what we know. Moreover, much of the curriculum is, if not fixed, slow-changing, and many independent schools pride themselves on their devotion to enduring truths and established traditions. Good teaching is always creative, but not perpetually innovative, and it doesn’t absolutely demand the kind of continuous updating that medicine and law do. Continuity, more than change, is a core value in school life. 

As for The Grouch’s other complaint, additional work of any kind might be unwelcome; additional work with colleagues is, for many teachers, particularly so. It’s not that they dislike one another; it’s that they prefer to be with students. Overwhelmingly. Ask any classroom veterans why they teach. You’ll never hear, “I love to work with other adults and go to meetings.” Teachers have chosen a career that involves spending their days in the company of children or adolescents. They thrive and feel most confident and fulfilled when doing so. (Would we want our youth taught by people who felt otherwise?) They often see dealings with other adults — whether colleagues, administrators, or parents — as intrusions upon their primary source of work satisfaction. 

Conflict Avoidance

These tendencies in teachers help explain why so few schools go beyond congeniality. But there is an additional personal obstacle, one that is powerful and pervasive: educators are profoundly conflict avoidant. Teaching attracts people with a strong security orientation and a strong service ethic, not entrepreneurs with a thirst for risk and competition. It also attracts people who tend to be less worldly than, say, corporate professionals. Teachers try to accentuate the positive. They wish to help, foster, inspire, and encourage the best in students. They generally like people and want to be liked. And they take their work very personally. All of which makes them loathe to risk direct disagreement with or criticism of one another. 

I often tease teacher audiences that they originally planned to enter a convent or monastery, adopting a life of complete sacrificial devotion to others, but that at the last moment, contemplating the full list of vows they would have to take, they found the chastity too much to bear, so they turned away and chose instead the second most sacrificial job they could find; its door said, “School.” So they ended up with most of the vows. Not the chastity, but the poverty, the obedience, the gift for guilt (a chronic vulnerability to feeling they haven’t done enough), and an abiding avoidance of open conflict with other adults. Having worked in 1,500 schools, I can attest that, when you walk into a school where you’ve never been and where you know no one, you may confidently assume that whatever else they’re good at, the teachers you will meet are excellent at avoiding frank discord with other adults.

My signature experience about educators’ conflict avoidance occurred 20 years ago, when I spent a day with the heads of the independent schools in North Carolina. I hadn’t worked much in the South then and I was quite taken by the courtesy and politeness of those I met. For someone who lives in brusque, hurried Boston, it was a very genteel experience. Flying home, I was seated next to two businessmen who were clearly in manufacturing — one a plant manager, the other his boss, a vice-president. They were reviewing the manager’s performance. I tried not to eavesdrop, but their profanity and candor were in dramatic contrast to what I had just left with the school heads. The VP began by pointing to an item on a short list he was holding. “In this area,” he said, “you didn’t do squat.” Only he didn’t say “squat.” He used a shorter word that sounds a bit like squat but that can’t, as they say, be printed in a family newspaper. I was stunned.

The manager wasn’t. He shrugged and pointed to another item. “You told me to bust my tail here and look, we’re up 20 percent.” Only he didn’t say “tail.” He used a shorter word that also can’t be printed in most family newspapers. The two went on like this for an hour. All of us sitting near them could hear every phrase, many of them colorful. I sat transfixed. It was an epiphany. I didn’t learn that they’re better than those of us who inhabit schools; they’re not. But they do have a tolerance for conflict that, if we had just a bit more of it in schools, could make a huge difference to the development of true collegiality. I’m sure they had feelings, but they weren’t yelling or shouting or pointing fingers. They were just talking. It wasn’t personal, it was business. Just like in The Godfather films, where, as all fans know, the assassinations and murders are never personal, they’re just business.

Try to transpose the airplane scene to a school. Picture an administrator telling a teacher, “I’ve been by your room three times recently, and you’re not doing _____.” It’s unimaginable. Now picture the teacher shrugging and replying as the plant manager did. Also unimaginable. In schools, everything is personal. Which is exactly how we want it. No parents want their children taught by someone for whom it isn’t personal. The point of this anecdote is not that educators should become like the two businessmen; both would fail utterly in education. Indeed, if I had interrupted them to ask who they’d want teaching their kids, they wouldn’t have asked for “blunt, profane s.o.b.’s like us.” They’d have asked for people with the virtues listed earlier, people who look for the best in every student, and so on. These qualities, which most teachers have in abundance, are precisely the ones needed for raising and teaching the young. And they are, by their very nature, inconsistent with an appetite for adult conflict.

What abounds among adults in schools is not bluntness, but indirectness. For example, in virtually every school that has a dress code or uniform, there are faculty who enforce the code and others who don’t. Those who do enforce often resent being made to look harsh by those who don’t. Everyone knows who’s who, but it’s never discussed directly. Teacher A doesn’t say to Teacher B, “When those girls come to my second period class they’re nearly naked, and when I ask them if you’ve spoken to them about being out of dress code they say no. Why don’t you enforce the policy?” Instead, Teacher A complains about Teacher B to Teacher C. Similarly, in faculty meetings, some teachers always talk and some never do, but no one presses the vocal to listen or the silent to speak. The issues about adult relationships in school are what Barth calls “nondiscussables — important matters that, as a profession, we seldom openly discuss,” that are instead broached only in the parking lot, or in a meeting-after-the-meeting.9

Avoiding conflict is not a terrible flaw. Schools have never resembled corporations. They’ve always been more like villages — venues where feelings are often powerful, but their expression must be measured. The price of civilization is restraint — and gossip. No village — no relationship — can survive total candor. Villagers, including the elders, often can’t speak their minds fully, but they also can’t contain all the feelings that are stirred in the course of living and working together. Hence, when they disagree or feel inclined to criticize, they often talk about one another instead of to one another. So it is in schools. 

No wonder, then, that efforts at collaboration and collegiality are ever fragile — hard to start, hard to sustain. But although the obstacles are significant, there is much that can be done. And most of the key steps are simple. They’re not necessarily easy, but they are plain rather than fancy, straightforward rather than complex, and they draw in part on skills that teachers routinely apply in their work with students. Coping begins with commitment.

Laying the Foundation

To flourish, collegiality requires a foundation of shared commitment to appropriate candor in the service of collective growth. This commitment must ultimately be broad and deep — a consensus that, once established, is both regularly renewed and built into the structures of faculty life. It emphasizes learning from one another and ongoing professional development through reflection on the work of the school, by which I mean “improving student outcomes and the way we work together.” Collegiality depends on agreeing that the work of the school is about performance and development. This demands a sufficient level of open and honest communication, and so the commitment is also to apt and relevant candor with one another. Not total candor. Collegiality does not require complete transparency; it requires avoiding excessive avoidance. Friction — misunderstandings, personality conflicts, competition, and so on — will always be a part of life, and hence the tendency to keep certain thoughts to oneself and to share other thoughts only with certain individuals. 

Within broad limits, this is not harmful. What is harmful is when people routinely refrain from sharing views, concerns, and ideas that bear importantly on the work of the school. An explicit commitment to avoid avoidance changes the context and hence the meaning of what is done and said. It makes it possible for me to hear you to tell me, “I think you’re wrong about that,” without getting defensive.

Leadership

Fostering candor and collegiality, like any other major school change initiative, depends crucially on leadership. Decades of research have shown that no change effort can survive the indifference of a school’s leader. The head’s active advocacy and engagement do not, by themselves, ensure success, but they are essential to it. I have written at length elsewhere about the essentials of implementing change in schools.8 Here, I will just note that school heads need to make the “why/what/how” case (why we need to change, what we need to change to, how we’ll accomplish this). In doing so, they need to link improved collegiality to important institutional goals and challenges and be clear about the cost of simply maintaining the status quo. 

In this regard, the conventional wisdom in education is that to get faculty “buy-in” for innovation means not imposing change in a top-down way. But buy-in is an ultimate state, not a starting one. It almost always requires a combination of support and pressure. Teachers deserve a chance to consider and grapple with any proposal for change, and this can help build their readiness to try something new. But to become convinced that a change has value, people often have to try it first, especially when the change is counter-cultural, as improving collegiality is, and hence unlikely to inspire early broad enthusiasm. For those leading the effort, then, the key is to balance a willingness to listen with a readiness to insist — to be clear about what is negotiable and what isn’t. Given such a balance, there are four key steps to improving candor and collegiality. They begin, as all relationships do, with getting to know one another better.

Getting to Know You

An immediate way to start improving collegiality is to start shrinking the knowledge gap — that is, the knowledge-of-others gap — that prevails in schools. The artisanal structure and norms described above deny most teachers, even in small schools, real familiarity with one another’s actual practice. Even if you and I teach the same course or grade level, and especially if we don’t, we are unlikely to know much about how the other teaches. I form impressions of you from hearing you speak at meetings, from chatting with you at lunch, from things students or parents or other colleagues say about you, but none of this gives me firsthand knowledge of your work. The less well we know each other’s work, the less likely we are to engage in candid conversation about that work. 

A simple way to address this knowledge gap is through pair visiting. Teachers team up and visit each other for a class period and spend half an hour each time debriefing the visit. (The visitor is not there to critique, but to learn.) This often works best when teachers visit out of their grade level or subject area. Although watching a colleague who teaches the same subject or grade can be fascinating and valuable, it invites a focus on curriculum content. Watching a colleague who teaches something different forces a greater focus on the teaching itself. Either way, pair visiting takes only about three hours total and its logistics are simple.

One immediate advantage of pair visiting is to increase the mutual recognition of competence: when colleagues watch one another teach, they gain and express new appreciation for one another’s skill. But the larger benefit is to help colleagues know one another more fully and, thus, increase trust, making it easier to have frank discussions about important matters of all kinds. Even in demoralized schools, I have seen a single round of visits make a material improvement in recognition and in the tone of faculty communication. Arranging just two such rounds a year for two years can result in each teacher being better connected to four colleagues and significantly broaden the perspective and willingness to share among the faculty as a whole. 

There are other ways to increase teachers’ knowledge of one another. One is to manage meetings the way good teachers manage classrooms — by not letting some voices dominate and others be silent. Committees and small groups can adopt a rule that everyone speaks once before anyone speaks twice. In full faculty discussions, the leader can invite additional observations from those who haven’t spoken, or even call on those whom she knows disagree with an opinion that seems to be prevailing. It’s not that everyone needs to weigh in every time; there will always be those who speak more and those who speak less. The effort is to make better decisions by ensuring that they emerge from a broad range of voices and views.

Disabling Avoidance: The Third-Time Rule

It is easy to get educators to agree that conflict avoidance interferes with their work and that they should take up significant issues directly with those involved. It is something else again to translate this into action. To many teachers, the very norms of avoidance they acknowledge as problematic also feel insurmountable, especially in one-to-one interactions. One way to cope with this dilemma is to formally adopt a simple agreement: Don’t be the third party the third time about any issue that bears importantly on the work of the school. This means that if Teacher A complains about Teacher B to Teacher C, C can listen, make suggestions, and so on, and can do so again if A returns to complain. But the third time, C must invoke the Third-Time Rule and insist that A take the issue to B. Otherwise C has become part of the problem, even if she didn’t create it, and is reinforcing a culture of avoidance, of talking about one another instead of to one another. 

As noted above, there will always be static and irritations in relationships, and we all need occasions when we can just vent or complain. The Third-Time Rule is for concerns that involve the work of the school. It does not mean that C must simply turn A away. C can offer to meet with A and B together, or can suggest that A engage an administrator to help, and so on. The key is to keep the focus on improving the faculty’s working relationships.

Resolving Conflict

The prospect of actually abiding by the Third-Time Rule makes many teachers fearful. They can’t imagine what they would say to A if they were in C’s shoes. If they are to be more appropriately candid with one another, they usually benefit from learning concrete ways to improve communication, especially ways to resolve differences constructively. The relevant approaches are those taught in conflict-resolution seminars and are neither complex nor outside the range of teachers’ existing competence. They include: 

1. Confront the issue, not one another. The goal is to resolve the difference and preserve the relationship. This means, among other things, assuming good will — not leaping to negative assumptions about a colleague’s views or motivation, not reading the effectof a remark or an action as its intent.

2. Listen carefully. Seek clarification and make sure to understand a colleague’s point of view (Can I ask you about that? Can you say more about what makes you think that?)

3. Share views honestly but respectfully — by, for example, making “I statements” (I find our meetings frustrating when we wander off topic, instead of, These meetings are a waste of time)

4. Speak as directly as possible, preceding it with something that makes it “hearable” (I don’t know quite how to say this, but I’m reluctant to speak because every time I suggest a solution you dismiss it, or, Can I disagree for a minute? I’m not sure you’re right. I think I see it differently)

5. In serious disagreements that persist, look for options, rather than full solutions (Is there part of the problem we agree on, even if we don’t see it all the same way?)

These recommendations are not complex. In fact, they closely resemble steps that teachers often recommend to students to help them resolve conflicts with classmates. Most educators, in other words, already have the necessary skill set, they’re just not used to applying it to their dealings with one another. Of course, listed like this, these sorts of suggestions may seem the stuff of what The Grouch might call psycho-babble. And delivered in a rote, formulaic way, they would justify his scorn. But delivered sincerely, in one’s own way, in a context of shared commitment to collective growth and appropriate candor, they can be quite effective.

Even so, healthy collaboration is not always blissful and conflict is not always bad. In a faculty of any size, it would be surprising — and dismaying — if everyone agreed about every important issue. Challenge and friction often stimulate growth. By themselves, they do not guarantee that a faculty is growing; their absence virtually guarantees that it is not. The key is to make sure that the conflict leads to a constructive outcome. But some gaps may prove unbridgeable, in which case, a leader may need to decide the matter and the faculty members themselves must agree to disagree. They can still respect each other and acknowledge that each has the best interests of students at heart.

Making Friends

As noted at the outset, many schools claim to be professional learning communities. The term now seems to be applied to virtually any group that gathers regularly, whether this is just a department or grade-level team, or a whole faculty. But for schools truly interested in creating robust professional learning communities, the most effective model, in my experience, is the Critical Friends Group (CFG). “Critical” here means “essential,” or “important.” A CFG typically includes eight to twelve teachers from different departments or grade levels who meet monthly — on school time — not to do the usual business of department or faculty meetings but to improve their practice so as to improve student achievement. What distinguishes the CFG from many other models is that it provides ongoing help about collaboration and communication. One member becomes its coach and is trained to facilitate its work and to help its members develop their own skills as collegial participants. CFG’s often engage in pair visiting and they use a set of protocols with explicit steps to foster their discussion and learning as a group. They specifically make room for not only “warm” (supportive) feedback but also for “cool” feedback, as well — an important feature and a key one, given the conflict avoidance endemic in schools. Although CFG’s are not for every school, they are, in my view, the gold standard among professional learning community models and an ideal way to promote a climate of shared growth.

Starting the Journey

There are many paths to improving collegiality, and the steps above can be modified to fit each school’s particular context. If morale and trust are low, for example, it may make sense to start with just pair visiting. The goal would be to improve the professional climate and thus prepare the school for a greater eventual investment in collaboration. Whatever measures a school adopts, it is a good idea to schedule a follow-up meeting three or four months later to check on the results so far, to see what’s worked well, what hasn’t, what next steps make sense, and so on. Even if the initial feedback is generally negative and there is a need to modify the plan, the conversation itself engages the professional community in reflection about its own behavior and the work of the school. It permits a reaffirmation of the importance of improved collegiality in its own right and as a means to strengthening student outcomes.

As with so much else in education, the building of true collegiality is a journey, an ongoing exploration of teaching and learning. Its destination, in Henry Miller’s phrase, “is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.”9 It’s not about reaching a fixed status and staying put, it’s about growth and development, about enriching relationships and enhancing competence. Teachers who embark on this journey have a real chance to learn new ways of looking at themselves and their work and to broaden their view and deepen their craft — and, thus, enrich not only the quality of their teaching and of their students’ learning, but of their lives together. 

Notes

1. See, for example, Sousa, David A. and Carol A. Tomlinson. Differentiation and Brain: How Neuroscience Supports the Learner-Friendly Classroom. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree, 2010.

2. See Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. Upper Addle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2010.

3. Barth, Roland. “The Principal and the Profession of Teaching,” in Thomas J. Sergiovanni and J. H. Moore (eds.) Schooling for Tomorrow: Directing Reforms to Issues that Count. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1989, pp. 229–30, emphasis added.

4. Barth, Roland. Improving Schools from Within: Teachers, Parents, and Principals Can Make the Difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991, p. 30.

5. Huberman, Michael. “The Model of the Independent Artisan in Teachers’ Professional Relations,” in Judith Warren Little and Milbrey Wallin McLaughlin (eds.) Teachers’ Work: Individuals, Colleagues, Contexts. New York: Teachers College Press, 1993, p. 16.

6. Huberman, p. 29.

7. Johnson, Susan M. Teachers at Work. New York: Basic Books, 1990, p. 179.

8. Evans, Rob. The Human Side of School Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.

9. Miller, Henry. Big Sur and The Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. New York: New Directions, 1957, p. 25.

Author
Robert Evans

Robert Evans is a contributor to Independent School Magazine.