The Importance of Collaboration

Today, a group of teachers from a neighboring school district visited my college classroom to speak to my students.  We were introducing a semester long partnership we’d be working on and my students sat attentively as the teachers introduced themselves and discussed how the project would work.  Near the end of the discussion, students started asking their own questions, some of which related directly to the project while others explored more general aspects of the teaching career.  One student asked a question that literally brought tears to a few of the teachers’ eyes.

“How important is it to have a collaborative partner in teaching?”

The first teacher who answered the question discussed how he had spent the last twenty years teaching with his best friend.  His voice got a little strained as he outlined how he had grown as a teacher and as an individual because he had worked so closely with his teaching partner.  Another individual started to cry as she explained that since now she had moved on to being an administrator she missed seeing her teaching partner every day.  “It’s like I’ve lost a best friend,” she explained.  A few discussed how critical it was to trust your colleagues and how collaboration helped to turn good teachers into great ones.  “We bounce ideas off of each other all the time.  He’s not afraid to tell me when my ideas are bad.” one teacher explained.

The discussion was a timely one for my class.  The students are currently reading 21st Century Skills by Trilling and Fadel (2009) which examines the changing nature of society from an industrial-based economy into an information-based one.  The authors outline a series of skills that are needed to be successful in the new economy and provide some curricular ideas for developing these skills in our students.  In the book, collaboration is listed as one of the critical “Learning and Innovation Skills.”  The authors detail how information age economies leverage collaborative efforts to solve multidimensional problems and foster creativity across the group.  By discussing their collaborative partners, the teachers helped to make the content real for my students and show its importance.  It was an unplanned discussion but certainly timely.

But the collaboration discussion wasn’t just a timely issue for my students.  As I examined my Twitter feed prior to starting to write this post, I came across a Faculty Focus article published today on “Strategies for Dealing with a Certified Jerk.”  Rather than a tearful overview of a career of positive collaboration, this article examines incivility and toxicity among collegiate departments.  The article shows the impact of negativism on a department, citing work by Felps, Mitchel and Byington (2006) who found that a single slacker or “jerk” could bring down a group’s productivity by 30 to 40 percent. The article also outlined research by Cipriano and Riccardi (2013) who examined the number of department chairs who dealt with difficult faculty members.  In their study, 83% responded that they had a non-collegial or uncivil department member in their tenure.  The article portrayed a very different view of collaboration and collegiality, one that I hope that my students never have to experience during their careers.

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