Cultivated Collaboration

Cultivation: the act of preparing soil for raising crops.

Soil, to be cultivated, must be tilled, fertilized, the weeds must be dug and buried – it is difficult back-breaking work for the gardener/farmer – this is the same for the cultivation of teachers’ professional lives. Teachers must be tilled and fertilized to grow  to help students achieve their fullest potential. Sometimes weeds, those teachers who are negative and provide barriers for others’ growth,  must be pulled.

Today I was with a group of teachers from six different states and six different teaching situations from across the country.  The theme that kept arising from our conversation were the notions of tensions and possibilities. In looking forward to the teacher leadership work we are doing at my school this year, there are a great many tensions and possibilities that are present in my building’s cultivation of teachers as we grow our students towards stronger success to fulfill their goals.

 We are in year three of the work to build a collaborative school culture through the Professional Learning Community work. So far the work has challenged teachers in our building to move from independent “silos” into more holistic collaborative work where teachers come to understandings about our students together – where we work to cultivate understanding in shared dialogue around actual student work. This challenge for teachers to ground their teaching practice in student work has created tensions and also magnified toxic spaces in our building over the three years.

While toxic spaces have been magnified, they have also been managed through dialogue and collective expectation setting among teachers and sometimes administrators. The expectation setting among teachers builds possibility into a system that was not previously present. It is difficult for teachers to create expectations for one another when they are teaching independently, when they are siloed. The creation of a collaborative culture means that we must live up to the expectations we have of one another, and teach in a way that not only is supportive of one another, but is supportive to ALL of our students. The soil built through this kind of deep collaboration becomes rich with potential for students AND for teachers.

BUT this also means that those teachers who are not comfortable being challenged in this way are…well…challenged. While the teachers  in our building are growing together – thinking about student-centered learning, and engaging in job embedded professional learning TOGETHER- there is a group of teachers who are not engaging, who refuse to challenge themselves, and  who proverbially hold up their hands in a stop symbol. The tension in these situations is how much to push these teachers, how to lead them to collaborative dialogue and then towards tending to the examination of student work to uncover how students are actually learning in their classes.

Looking forward, my team has created an intention around growing the teachers who are on board and committed to their craft – tending rich soil – those people who are committed to their craft. In the past we have attempted with a great amount of success to cultivate relationships with people who do not want to engage in this work, but at what point do we let them be? At what point does their unwillingness to foster professional collaborative spaces become an evaluative issue?

These are the questions my school is currently struggling with. We are committed to fully cultivating the soil  of teachers’ professional growth, and we are engaged in really tough work to excavate how our students are ACTUALLY learning in our classes, not how we HOPE they are learning. This work is back breaking. Without the trust of one another as professionals the work we are doing is impossible – we need everyone tilling. I am in a place where I personally feel like we don’t have time to continue to bring certain people on board with the work – we have to do something different and innovative with them. I am not sure what this thing is…and that is the tension.