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Educators and researchers agree:  Collaboration among teachers is critical to improving teaching and learning. Unfortunately, collaboration is a learned skill, and one that many teachers are working to master. If collaboration is so important, how do teachers develop the requisite skills?

Successful peer coaches offer us five keys to collaboration.

1.  Build a trusting relationship with peers based on personal and professional friendship.

2.  Teachers who have worked with coaches tell me that they want to learn with and from a peer, not an expert. Friendly peers still need expertise to collaborate effectively.

Educators should adopt and use norms for any collaborative meeting.  Meeting norms, like starting and ending on time, and remaining focused, are important.   Collaborative norms, like discussing ideas not people; respecting others’ ideas, and; taking responsibility for your learning are critical to successful collaboration.

Learn and routinely use a few key communication skills, like active listening, paraphrasing, clarifying questions and probing questions which are essential to building educators’ capacity to improve teaching and learning. Using these skills assists teachers to formulate strategies and develop answers to the issues they are facing.

3.  Don’t expect to change teaching practice overnight.  Start small, and build on initial classroom successes. Successful small steps produce more steps toward innovation.

4.  Take some risks, innovation depends on it.  But not alone.  Collaboration with trusted peers encourages risk taking and increases your likelihood of successful innovation.

5.  Observing peers is a powerful tool for changing practice.  Done poorly, the reflection that follows observation can destroy collaboration. Focusing on student learning, not the teacher, is one strategy to keep reflection positive and meaningful.  Learn and use protocols- like the Success Analysis Protocol- which anchor reflective conversations on what the students are doing and learning.

Your next step toward effective collaboration is to find resources, like a successful coach, and start to develop these key skills.

References

Barber, M., & Mourshed, M. (2007). How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top. Retrieved from http://mckinseyonsociety.com/how-the-worlds-best-performing-schools-come-out-on-top/.

Darling-Hammond, L.,  Wei, R., Andree, A., Richardson, N., & Orphanos, S. (2009). Professional learning in the learning profession: A status report on teacher development in the United States and abroad.  Retrieved from http://www.learningforward.org/docs/pdf/nsdcstudy2009.pdf.

Foltos, L. (2013). Peer Coaching: Unlocking the power of collaboration. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Fullan, M. (2011a). Whole system reform for innovative teaching and learning. Retrieved from http://www.itlresearch.com/images/stories/reports/ITL%20Research%202011%20Findings%20and%20Implications%20-%20Final.pdf.

Garmston, R. & Wellman, B. (1999). The adaptive school: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups.  Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers.

Markow, D., & Pieters, A. (2010). The Met Life survey of the American teacher: Collaborating for student success. Retrieved from http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED509650.pdf.

Educators who are striving to help their students meet the Common Core Standards and develop 21st century skills recognize the need to adopt pedagogies like Project Based Learning and New Pedagogies for Deep Learning to better prepare their students. This recognition hasn’t always translated into successful adoption. Working alone many educators are struggling.

What is required to help teachers successfully adopt innovative pedagogies?  Experts tell us collaboration among educators is one key (Fullan, 2011, & Darling-Hammond, et al., 2009).   Collaboration be a powerful tool, but schools can’t expect that encouraging teachers to collaborate is a simple panacea that will improve teaching and learning.  As Garmston and Wellman (2009) concluded, collaboration is a learned skill.  Educators need a teacher leader to serve as a catalyst and help peers develop collaboration skills.

For twelve years I have worked with Peer Coaches who have been successfully at assisting teachers to improve by providing just-in-time assistance, co-planning learning activities, modeling effective learning strategies, and observing peers teach and reflecting afterwards.  Their success rests on developing communication, collaboration and lesson design skills.

Coaches’ success also rests on building a relationship that encourages teachers to share what they do know and to share what they don’t know.  This requires coaches to:

  • Create a friendly personal and professional relationship as an equal with their peers.
  • Personalize the relationship so the peer’s needs drive the work.
  • Assure the work is manageable not overwhelming.  Coaches meet peers where they are, and encourage them to take steps, sometimes small steps, toward improving teaching and learning.  Successful small steps encourage teachers to take more steps toward their ultimate goal.
  • Support peers without taking ownership for their learning.  Coaches don’t answer every question raised by peers.  Instead, they ask probing questions designed to get their peers to think more deeply about their issues and to develop their own answers. This strategy helps peers to develop their capacity to adopt innovative pedagogies (Foltos, 2013).

Using coaches to unlock the power of collaboration is the key to successful systemic adoption of innovative pedagogies and creating the culture of collaboration that will help schools continue to improve teaching and learning.

References

Darling-Hammond, L.,  Wei, R., Andree, A., Richardson, N., & Orphanos, S. (2009). Professional learning in the learning profession: A status report on teacher development in the United States and abroad.  Retrieved from http://www.learningforward.org/docs/pdf/nsdcstudy2009.pdf.

Foltos, L. (2013). Peer Coaching: Unlocking the power of collaboration. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Fullan, M. (2011a). Whole system reform for innovative teaching and learning. Retrieved from http://www.itlresearch.com/images/stories/reports/ITL%20Research%202011%20Findings%20and%20Implications%20-%20Final.pdf.

Garmston, R. & Wellman, B. (1999). The adaptive school: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups.  Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers.

In October Mary Lou Ley, the facilitator who leads Wisconsin’s Peer Coaching Collaborative, shared how coaches use probing questions to move beyond the friendly, supportive relationship between teacher and coach.  This approach certainly would feel comfortable to many educators who focus only on what is “nice” when collaborating with other educators.  (To learn more about getting beyond nice see MacDonald, E.  June, 2011.  When Nice Won’t Suffice.  Journal of Staff Development)

This type of relationship may fit nicely in the coaches comfort zone, but it may not work to improve instruction.  Ley says coaches should use the kind of probing questions that push teachers to improve instruction.  These probing questions may make educators uncomfortable, or even feel like they are being asked to take risks.  But these same questions also encourage the teachers coaches collaborate with to improve teaching and learning.

To demonstrate the impact of Peer Coaching that uses communications skills as a key to improving learning, Ley shared the results of a recent evaluation of Peer Coaching. It found that 71% of participants felt coaching made a significant impact on their ability to use technology to promote critical thinking and problem solving, engage students in learning, and improve academic curricula.

Ley and her team collected examples of learning activities from participants at the start of their coaching experience and at the end of the assessment year, when educators had some considerable experience with coaching.  The evaluation team looked at indicators of quality like cognitive challenge, inquiry and collaboration, real world connections, and the level of technology use to assess these learning activities. Their assessment showed that using these quality indications more than 70% of the learning activities collected prior to significant coaching experience scored at a low level.   After participating in coaching throughout the assessment year these same educators submitted examples of learning activities that reflected their coaching experiences.   The results were amazing.  When judged by the same set of quality indicators, evaluators found that nearly 60% of the educators’ learning activities were “High Quality.”

Learn more at http://bit.ly/qxQiPR.

Communications Skills
Resources

Recently some Australian facilitators asked for additional resources that would help them develop stronger communications skills.   Here are some proven resources.

National School Reform Faculty Resources

Several of the protocols we use in Peer Coaching, like Chalk Talk, and the Communications Skills protocol, are used with permission of the National
School Reform Faculty.  This group has many other valuable communications skills resources and protocols.    A couple of the communications skills
resources that might be valuable are:

  • The Constructivist Listening Dyad, which helps develop an understanding of active listening and offers an exercise to develop these skills.
  • Feedback Nightmares; a brief exploration of negative feedback.
  • Feedback Principles, tips on offering strong feedback.
  • Pocket Guide to Probing Questions; a great resource to sharpen your skills in asking probing questions.
  • If you are observing another teacher and reflecting afterwards the Student Observation Protocol: Court Reporter will be a valuable resource to make the reflection more successful.

You can find an index that brings you too these and other resources at:    http://www.nsrfharmony.org/protocol/a_z.html.

Communications and Norms of Collaboration Resources

The Communications Skills Cue Card and the Seven Norms of Collaboration we use in Peer Coaching are used with the permission of the publishers of Robert Garmston and Bruce Wellmans’ book, “The Adaptive School:  A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups.”

Chapter 3, Developing Collaborative Norms, and Chapter 4, Two Ways of Talking that Make a Difference for Student Learning, help educators explore and use a variety of communications skills.

The workbook for “The Adaptive School” also has several tools that help educators use Norms for Collaboration more effectively.  You can find these on pages 45-54.

Microsoft Education Competencies

Microsoft’s Education Competencies are also useful for developing more effective communications strategies.
You will find them at  http://www.microsoft.com/education/en-us/training/competencies/pages/default.aspx#Competencies

The links for “Integrity and Trust,” “Listening,” and “Interpersonal Skills” bring you to resources educators can use to improve communications
skills.

In an effort to build on what they were learning, and to avoid stressing the teachers, Melanie asked the teachers to observe a learning activity in literacy or math and then teach that same lesson in their classroom within a week.

The model has been a real success at Lakelands.  They have just started their third term of coaching and all but one teacher, who is new to the school, is involved.  Melanie regularly updates the principal every two weeks; sharing who is working with whom and what topics they are working on.  These briefings insure the principal understands how Peer Coaching supports the school’s goals.  Teachers are focused on improving student learning and making the kids more competent 21st Century learners.   He has faith and trust in the program and has continued to use two thirds of the school’s professional development budget, which Melanie is quick to note, “…is really a lot of money for any school,” to support coaching.

Coaching has had a profound effect on school culture. Teachers are routinely collaborating, sharing programs and lesson content.   No one is surprised to see a grade four teacher in the kindergarten classroom.  Teachers are talking about their student’s improved learning and how they are achieving these goals in the classroom.  While the  coaching model at Lakelands may be different, it is working.

But she still faced a second dilemma.  How do you involve every teacher in the school?  Her answer was to encourage her colleagues to brainstorm what they were interested in learning, who they might want to buddy up with, and how they might work together.  Based on this brainstorming teachers began to pair up.  Brainstorming made it clear that the staff wanted to collaborate by co-planning learning activities, by observing each other teach and discussing what they saw and learned after these observations.

Time obviously was an issue for this school.  A bit of creative scheduling helped address this challenge.  Every Monday students at Lakelands have a 30 minute long whole school assembly, and the teachers involved in peer coaching that week are released from the assembly and they use that time to talk about what lesson coming up that week and to do a bit of planning.   Once every three weeks students at the school have an hour long SRC assembly and the teachers involved in peer coaching that week are released from the assembly and they use this time for lesson planning and to arrange visits to observe each other in the following week.   The principal’s financial commitment made it possible for a casual / relief teacher to cover three teachers classroom each week.  Each of
these teachers had 60 minutes to observe a peer, and 30 minutes to reflect afterwards.

As they teachers started co-planning, Melanie worked to make sure the teachers built trust as they collaborated.  She spent time helping them understand and practice positive, constructive feedback, and the educators reviewed and work to apply their group norms.  Each of these skills got more important as they began observing each other and started to reflect on what they saw and ask peers why they did some things.

Tune in next week for the last installment of When Opportunity Knocks.

She was more than a little surprised to the response when every one of the fifteen teachers, and three part time teachers, said they wanted to be involved in Peer Coaching. They wanted professional development that was relevant for them, and they didn’t want to leave school to get it.  Melanie wasn’t initially sure how she could involve every teacher in Peer Coaching, but she was positive she couldn’t turn her back on teachers desire to collaborate to improve student learning. Her principal agreed and asked that Melanie adapt the peer coaching model to suit the needs of the school.  After the initial day-long coaching meeting he devoted more than 60% of school’s annual  professional development budget to support coaching and worked in creative ways to provide time for teachers to collaborate.

How do you make it possible for every one of the 18 teachers to participate in a coaching program?  Melanie faced two dilemmas.  How do you help every teacher to develop coaching skills that are critical to a coaches’ success?  Melanie increased the degree of difficulty when she realized she wouldn’t be successful if she added too much to the teachers’ busy workday, or made it too difficult for teachers.  She started small.  When she introduced coaching Melanie had teachers develop a few coaching skills, like group norms and collaboration skills.  Over the next year she taught other coaching skills to the whole staff just as they were needed as coaching relationships grew.   Just enough, just in time could have been her mantra.

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