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Policies & Practices: Collaboration - What Does it Mean for Your Program?

Working together means much more than cooperation

Leadership: A Special Section for Administrators

Last spring, a graduate student of mine was preparing for her final master's project on the subject of teacher collaboration. She wrote:

"My host teacher made me realize how important teacher collaboration can be. It takes time to build trust and respect, but putting children at the center allows everything to come together naturally. Teachers become sounding boards for each other-sharing teaching experiences and discussing education goals, ideas, and possibilities. Teacher collaboration is then a model for children's collaboration."

Vanessa's words led me to think about the idea of collaboration as being much larger than cooperation between teacher and teacher, or child and child.

What is Collaboration?

Researchers understand collaboration to include cooperation but also to mean building knowledge through conversation. Most directors (including me) have had collaborative experiences in staff meetings with their school's teachers and at parent/teacher events. The idea of building knowledge through conversation allows for an expanded vision of what it means to work together. When we converse, we communicate and inevitably will include a dose of what Reggio Emilia educators term "confrontation." Don't be scared of this word! Positive confrontation means that it's OK for us to disagree, so long as we respect each other. Some of the most creative solutions to problems emerge when we feel free and safe enough to share our ideas-even when others don't agree with us. Over time, this ability to converse will lead to real cooperation and collaboration.

Collaboration in Action

During a recent visit to Cornerstone Learning Community in Tallahassee, Florida, I was able to catch a glimpse of one school's collaboration between teachers, the director, parents, and children. Although still a relatively new school, Cornerstone has had time to develop a school model in which everyone has a stake and a voice. The following descriptions give a flavor of how this system works:

The Director

Director Tony is a warm and knowledgeable educator. Parents and teachers trust his leadership, and children love him. He communicates regularly with parents through weekly newsletters, and originally met with individual teachers once a week, and with the entire staff once a month. After a few years of using this model, he began to feel uncomfortable with what was beginning to feel like a "top-down" structure. He wondered if teacher-led meetings would allow teachers to converse more openly. After a number of brainstorming sessions with the staff, a new system of rotating teacher-coordinators was put in place.

The Teachers

Bev, a teacher-coordinator, meets individually with her colleagues to discuss curriculum, teaching, and student issues. Once a month, all of the teachers meet to discuss a specific issue, project, or recommended reading. (A discussion of Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children's Learning by Peter H. Johnson was a recent focus.) Bev reports weekly to the director, and once a month Bev, the director, and the teachers sit down together to discuss any issues. Informal conversations and formal conferences with families are just part of the teacher/parent communication at Cornerstone.

The Parents

Parents are an active presence at Cornerstone. Their bi-monthly newsletter, "The Community Chest," includes a message from the parents group president, articles on all-school projects such as the children's community gardens, a Teacher Feature, a request for recipes for a Community Cookbook, and a section on school events and volunteer opportunities. The parents group organizes activities such as potluck suppers, garage sales, and fall and spring celebrations. Parents and other family members are welcome in the school, and frequently touch base in the office with the director and members of the support staff.

The Children

Children are remarkably relaxed and focused at Cornerstone. Classrooms are calm and rich with materials. Teachers' respect for each other is reflected in their respect for and attention to children's activities, their support of interaction between children, and their interest in what children have to say. In turn, children treat teachers and each other with respect-but the tone is far from somber! Laughter and enthusiastic squeals abound as children help to maintain the butterfly garden or the herb and vegetable patches. On Fridays, each child takes home a folder containing newsletters from her teacher and director, school announcements, and a book to share with family members. The folders are returned on Monday along with messages and responses from children's parents.

Jump Start Collaboration

Building a collaborative school community means reflection, persistence, and flexibility. No two models will be-nor should be-exactly the same. The mood of a group gathering is always improved with refreshments, even more so if all community members make a contribution. For some interesting ideas for get-togethers that you might want to try in your program, review the following ideas with your staff:

  • Host informational meetings for school staff and parents that are led by skilled speakers. Offer joint learning experiences on topics such as diversity, emergent literacy, the arts in early education, math and the young child, and the value of play.
  • Hold hands-on workshops where teachers encourage parents to make and play with play dough or explore classroom materials and art media, such as blocks, math manipulatives, puzzles, pastels, tempera, clay, and fingerpaints. This will help illustrate the value of experiential activity. Remember to invite children to these hands-on workshops and encourage their participation and creative contributions.
  • Plan an all-school reading and storytelling event to which everyone brings a favorite predictable picture book or family story. This will emphasize the connections between these familiar stories and emergent literacy. Invite all to chime in on the repeated refrains of the picture books and stories!

Remember to expect the pleasure of the unexpected. Last Halloween, a center director told me:

"We had this great family picnic and pumpkin-painting event planned for the playground, when the skies opened and it poured! Guess what? All the scrambling to bring the stuff inside created this great mood between all of us-and we had the best time!"

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