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Teacher Collaboration: Keys to Success

Teachers working together as a team

Collaboration on a team project

Effective teacher collaboration is an absolute necessity. Whether educators are co-teaching classes or assigned to committees, focus groups, projects, or curriculum development groups, teamwork is the key to success.

What are some of the elements that can ensure teachers collaborate successfully and productively when working on teams?

Further Reading: 5 Collaborative Online Methods to Try When Studying for Finals

Establishing a Team

  • Appropriate size. Technology has made it easy for large groups of people to come together. But Katherine Klein, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, notes the ideal size of a collaborative group should be about five people. Other researchers suggest five to nine people work together most effectively. Larger groups can be unwieldy, making it much more difficult to get work done.

  • Team makeup. There are two schools of thought regarding how similar or diverse team members should be. Some researchers think team members who already have established relationships and a shared vision and understanding work best. Others think teams made up of people with diverse backgrounds can lessen stale thinking and challenge the brain. Diverse groups tend to focus more on facts, they suggest, and tend to process those facts more carefully. In addition, culturally diverse leadership teams can be more innovative because they force people out of their comfort zones.

  • Training. When it comes to collaborating on a team, teachers often don't get the training employees in the business world do. Especially in a co-teaching classroom situation, training is absolutely essential. Common planning time is critical, as is deciding on shared goals and then dividing up the workload. A great deal of research has been done on how teams can operate effectively, and adequate training makes it easier for everyone. It's worth it for schools to invest in collaborative training programs for their educators.

Beginning to Work

  • Team leaders. Each collaborative group should have leaders who are both task- and relationship-oriented. Making objectives clear, monitoring feedback, and creating an atmosphere of trust and goodwill is important if a team is to move forward with a task. In forming teams, schools should look for teacher-leaders—people who have previously demonstrated the skills to lead the teacher collaboration. Interviewing educators ahead of time about how they've built strong relationships in the past that enabled work to get done can also help identify strong team leaders.

  • Clear goals and time frames. Team members must know the group's purpose and its goals if they are to accomplish anything. Team members should write down what they need to accomplish and review it with the group to make sure everyone knows what needs to be done. The University of California, Berkeley suggests identifying the group's standards for success and establishing a time frame for reaching those milestones. In addition, each member should understand their responsibilities, so the group as a whole makes progress.

As Work Progresses

  • Administrator support. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson note teams work best when people "invest in supporting social relationships and demonstrate collaborative behavior themselves." In addition, too often collaborative groups are made and tasks are given without regard to the necessity of time and resources. Administrators absolutely must provide the time and resources needed for teachers to be able to work together effectively to accomplish a goal. Meeting in person, for example, is much more productive than communicating by email.

  • Handling negativity. Nothing can halt a group's progress quicker than a negative team member. Harvard Business Review recommends setting up group norms and being proactive. Focusing on the impact of the team member's behavior and trying to find the source of that behavior can help. Next, work with the member so they can be aware of how their behavior affects the group. When a person makes a negative statement, ask for clarification or alternate solutions. Harvard Business Review advises appealing to the collective wisdom of the group—instead of simply having the team leader single the member out—can also be beneficial. When the negative member realizes the group seeks a more productive way of contributing, they may change. Modeling positive behavior as a group will help, too. In some cases, however, no amount of redirection and modeling will make a difference, and that member may have to be removed from the team.

  • Working through an impasse. It's almost inevitable that at some point, a team might reach an impasse in its work. In this case, it's often helpful to step away and take some time to refocus. Writing down where the group is and what it needs can enable the team to see exactly what the issue is, as well as provide an opportunity for brainstorming solutions. Make a list of options. Return to the school's mission statement or team goals and highlight common ground. Keep in mind when you do come up with a solution to move forward, all members of the group may not be happy with it. Discussing that possibility before getting back to work may help ease member discomfort.

Further Reading: 9 Ways to Build Strong Teacher Relationships with Colleagues

Teacher collaboration is an essential part of our profession. Knowing how to perform as part of a team and how to navigate obstacles along the way will help ensure your group always works effectively and efficiently toward the best outcomes.