Teachers: The Reluctant Collaborators

Keeping the door open to collaboration is hard.

I have a confession to make.  While I make my students work together on assignments and projects, I myself very much prefer to work alone. Always have and probably always will.  I don’t think “despised” is too strong a word for how I felt when my own teachers forced me to work with others, even my own friends.  From my perspective as a student, I felt like the “good” students always ended up doing the bulk of the work, while the others got to ride our coattails, or I worried that my own grade would suffer due to the efforts of the less-capable students.  Even today, I like to do my own thing both as a teacher and in most other areas of my life.  I always feel like I can do whatever “it” is faster and better if left to myself.  I’m not saying this is true, but it’s often my perception.

I have a feeling this loner-thing is not uncommon among professional educators. For most teachers, it seems their classroom is their kingdom and they are kings and queens.  When the bell rings, we close our doors and do our own thing, particularly when we teach at a small school in which each teacher is responsible for a different class.  I mean, why collaborate?  I’m the only one who teaches AP history and government at my school.  What’s there to collaborate on, right?

Of course, if this is true, should I really force my students to collaborate?  I think the answer is clearly “yes”.  But if that’s true, then the next question is why. There are multiple answers to this question, but one that I think almost everyone would agree on to some degree is this: working together forces students to refine and strengthen their ideas, making them better than they would be otherwise.  If this is true for students, it must be true for teachers as well.  So why the reluctance to collaborate?  And here I mean genuine collaboration, not just talking in the hallways about a project or commiserating over a problem with a student or sharing a file.  I mean sitting down more than once throughout the school year and taking a good look at the curriculum, our objectives, our strengths, and our weaknesses as individuals, as departments, as a school. Teaching in a school that’s moving to a 1:1 environment brings this issue of collaboration to the forefront whether we like it or not.  When a school makes such a major shift in its design, it forces teachers, even those reluctant like me, to collaborate more.

I think one reason that teachers prefer to work alone so much of the time has to do with fear.  I know for myself I don’t like to admit when I don’t know something or that I’m confused or unsure.  I’d rather go look something up in a “safe” place like a book than ask a colleague who may wonder why I don’t know the answer already.  But teaching in a 1:1 environment will be new to nearly everyone when a school makes the shift.  Even those teachers who are more technologically savvy than others haven’t actually taught in a 1:1 environment (unless in a previous job).  When everyone is in the same boat, it makes it easier to put yourself out there and ask a question.

Another reason I think teachers are reluctant collaborators is more simple and straightforward but not necessarily easier to combat: time, or lack of it.  It’s hard to find the time to work together in a meaningful way when you don’t have a shared planning period or when teachers can’t stay after school because they have other commitments like coaching or picking up their own kids from school.  Until schools make it a priority to build time into the work week for teachers to collaborate, lack of time will always be an issue.  Luckily, sharing is made all the easier with technology.  This has less to do with teaching in a 1:1 school, of course, than with technology in general.  I love the fact that with a service like Google Documents, teachers can share files and write notes to each other, edit each others’ work, ask questions and answer questions.  As much as anyone else, I hate waiting around for meetings to start or going to a meeting for which a memo would do.  Such face-to-face interactions do not foster goodwill amongst teachers; they merely serve to aggravate us as we think about all the other things we could be doing.  Technology solves this problem, however, because collaboration can take place at the convenience of each individual teacher.  The English teacher wants to work on that cross-curricular project at midnight on a Friday?  He can.  The history teacher can look at what he did and add her own thoughts at 6:00 a.m. Saturday morning.  This kind of technology-assisted collaboration is not limited to an individual school either.  Now, teachers who have never met and who live in different states or in different countries can collaborate using online forums.   Of course, this means there really is no excuse left for someone like me not to collaborate with other AP history teachers.

Finally, I think ego has a lot to do with resistance to collaboration.  I created this lesson, I created this educational game, I created this Keynote presentation.  I worked hard on it, and I don’t want to share it.  I’m sure something like this is at the heart of at least some teachers’ reluctance to share even if they don’t fully realize it or want to admit it.  Let’s face it – at times, it goes further than an unwillingness to share.  Not only do I not want to share, but I certainly don’t want you to take what I’ve done, get credit for it, and possibly even improve upon it.  To a certain extent, I can understand this sentiment, and I’m certainly not suggesting any teacher hand over all her lesson plans to another.  Besides the fact that I think teachers learn best from actually doing the hard work of teaching, this is just plain wrong.  Yet the reality is that few teachers that I know would be comfortable accepting this level of help even if someone was willing to give it. Most understand that collaboration is a two-way street.  We all borrow ideas from other teachers, particularly in our first few years in the classroom; paying it forward from time to time seems only right.  In addition, the teacher that is truly worried about putting their work out there on the web for free could use a service like Teachers Pay Teachers, which might eliminate some of that feeling that her hard work is unappreciated by those benefiting from it.

I write this post knowing that finding the time to share and finding the time to collaborate in truly meaningful ways is something with which I personally struggle. I also write knowing that, as my school rolls out its 1:1 program, I am sharing more and more with other teachers, both at my own school and others.  That sharing – even just putting this blog out there on the web – is forcing me to think more clearly about the things I do or do not do in my classroom, and hopefully, it will make me a better, more intentional teacher in the future.

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2 Comments

    • I think I would try to have an honest discussion about why they may be resistant. Until you can speak openly about that, it would be difficult to get at the root of the problem. Perhaps those teachers have valid reasons and in learning about them, you may decide they aren’t the right fit after all. Or perhaps by having that discussion, you learn that their resistance is a matter of their own lack of self-confidence and you can affirm for them why they are the right fit.

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