Collaboration: Building Bridges of Understanding
“You can always go to your room and shut your door.”
The idea that my classroom is my domain, cut off from the rest of the school, has appeal. When I feel my power to change the school environment is limited, focusing on a place where I can make a difference feels right. Early in my career, a fellow teacher and I talked lovingly about “our islands.” Our islands provided a shelter from swirling messages, directives, and school politics. On my island, I could teach my students my way. I felt in control and safe.
But islands are self-contained and isolated. While I helped my students learn how to succeed in my classroom, did I prepare them for the next classroom? Or did I leave my elementary school students with the task of building a bridge of understanding from my island classroom to another where the culture, expectations, and methods could be like visiting another country?
When we collaborate with our peers in different grade levels and departments to develop a common understanding of student learning, we build the bridges between our classrooms, helping our students become successful. As we work together to build these bridges, we learn about tools we could use in our classrooms. Why not ask each other for help? There are tough problems we need to solve. Working together, we realize that we are not alone in our challenges. The work we are doing becomes possible only when we open the doors to our classrooms.
Last year, a small group of teachers in my school and I chose to use video to “open the doors” of our classrooms. We found that our viewpoints and ideas differed, but our desire to improve united us. We loved using our insights to improve learning for our students rather than relying upon some outside “expert.”
Energized, a group of us wrote and received a Teacher Impact Grant from ASCD and National Board. This grant seeks to increase teacher leadership in our school by creating opportunities for teacher leaders to facilitate the process of video analysis with a new group of colleagues. Cross-departmental teams work together to capitalize upon our knowledge of our students and our community. Certainly, it is intimidating to share some of our videos with colleagues, but there is a freedom as well. This freedom was best expressed by one of my colleagues, “We don’t have to be perfect. We can all help each other.” When we open ourselves up and take risks, we can improve.
As I reflect upon the process of starting this grant, I am most impressed with my colleagues. They have refined and improved the original proposal. Rather than rushing straight into sharing video, my colleagues suggested we take a little time to learn more about the content and set group norms. In that way, we have more solid foundation to build upon. What a great idea! Why didn’t I think of that? Teacher leaders have also gone out into the community to locate resources, found articles pertaining to their areas of study, and generated enthusiasm for the grant. Truly without their insights and commitment, the project would grind to a halt.
I am grateful I ventured off my island, rolled up my sleeves, and began to talk with my colleagues about how to build bridges. The learning I experienced and the connections I built enriched my life and my teaching. This growth never would have been possible had I remained in my classroom with the door closed doing things my way. I encourage you to venture out and take some risks. Your students will thank you.