5 Steps to Improving Collaboration

If you’ve worked in education for longer than a cup of coffee, you know that collaboration is all the rage in school leadership circles these days. And with good reason. For all too long teachers have been connected only by hallways and parking lots, which is a shame given that in many cases the person next door can be a valuable resource.


If two heads are better than one, than a team of teachers collaborating are certainly more equipped to provide an education for students than a single educator working in isolation. The problem is, all too often there is ZERO collaboration taking place. Instead, people are simply “meeting”. And while collaboration can be an awesome, powerful tool for students and teachers a like, “meetings” are frequently capable of sucking the fun out of Christmas.

Fortunately, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a position of leadership or simply a participant, there are steps you can take to ensure that your gatherings are inspiring and productive…or at least a little less painful.


1.Have a pointBoredTeacherMeeting for meetings sake isn't helping anybody. Spend some time brainstorming what needs to be accomplished and get it done so people can get on with their life. They'll feel like you value their time and be less reluctant to collaborate in the future.

There is nothing more professionally painful than simply “meeting for meetings sake”. If there is no purpose to the meeting, then why meet at all? If a piece of work could be adequately handled with an email or other memo, take care of it that way. Meetings should be reserved for decision making, professional development or explaining some new process to the faculty where there may be questions. Distribution of information can usually be better handled using other means.


Collaborative, team meetings often lack administrative leadership.  For this reason, they can sometimes lack direction. Work with your colleagues to develop relevant goals for your team. Then, brainstorm a list of steps to ensuring those goals get achieved. Keep a running list of topics that need to be discussed.


Finally, just because one person sees a need for a meeting (usually an administrator or Facilitator) doesn’t mean everybody does. Make the meeting relevant to all participants by explaining WHY you’re having the meeting. This shouldn’t take long, just explain why you need their input. It helps.


2.Norms aren’t just for Cheers

Establishing group “Norms” or “normal behavior” sometimes feels like a piece of corporate rhetoric, a pointless activity designed to make a meeting feel more official. Truth is, if you don’t follow them that’s exactly what they are.

Norms are an important piece of meeting protocol that can ensure gatherings of humans turn into productive collaboration. It is ESSENTIAL however that you have a low-risk method of enforcing them. If you’re not comfortable “calling people out” on behavior that has been agreed upon as unacceptable, than your group won’t follow them and as a result will only be productive by accident.


Consider giving everybody in your group a picture of George Wendt portraying his character “Norm” from Cheers. Simply hold it up when somebody is in violation of an established norm. Or consider building a “Norm-A-Go-Round” as my collaborative team did. It sits in the middle of our table and when somebody violates a norm, we tap the roof with a pencil. Or maybe you just say “Joe, freaking Norm, put your phone down!” Whatever the protocol, you MUST have a way of enforcing the rules so everybody feels comfortable.


We also highly recommend checking out the "Seven Norms of Collaboration" which are so awesome the U.S. State Department saw fit to post about them HERE.


3.Role Play

No, not like that. Few people want to see their co-workers playing dress up.

In order to ensure your meetings run smoothly, assign everybody in the group tasks to be completed. Every group should have a Facilitator, a Timekeeper, a Recorder, a Data Miner and Engaged Participants. If your group is having problems you feel are unique, perhaps you should consider creating a new role and assigning it to the person most qualified to handle it (or the one causing the conflict). For more on Roles within Collaborative groups in Education, check out Data Teams, a great resource created by The Leadership and Learning Center.


4.Beware the Cricketsfive-dysfunctions-of-a-teamPatrick Lencioni's "Five Dysfunctions of a Team" should be required reading for any leaders looking to improve collaboration.

You know how you feel as a teacher when you ask your class a question and nobody answers you? You feel like you need to tap your imaginary microphone and ask “Is this thing on?” Don’t you hate that? If you’ve ever facilitated a meeting of working professionals afraid to “put themselves out there” you know just how painful this can be to a collaborative meeting.

In his fantastic book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” Patrick Lencioni defines his first two “dysfunctions” as a “Lack of Trust” which leads to a “Fear of Conflict”. These are the two rocks upon which the rest of the dysfunctions are built.  They’re also the two biggest reasons people are too quiet and thus nothing gets accomplished during your team meetings.

Take proactive steps to build trust amongst members of the team, which in short, means you’re going to have to show some vulnerability. You might even half to play some goofy icebreaker type games beforehand, too. Plus, you’ll need to be respectful of your colleagues without being afraid of conflict. There has to be room for reasonable minds to disagree. If everybody just acts like “everything’s fine” all the time, and just nodding along, then yes – nothing will ever get accomplished and everybody will sit and stare at teach other in virtual silence. Whether it’s literal silence where nobody says a word or “virtual” silence, where people talk without ever really saying anything, silence in meetings is annoying. Plus, it leads to…


5.Spinning Wheels

Meetings can become very painful when a group talks about the same thing time and time again. This is usually because a decision was never made on a topic. In Lencioni’s work, the additional dysfunctions are a “Lack of Commitment” followed by a “Lack of Accountability” and finally an “Inattention to Results”. Sound familiar?

Before decisions can be made, you have to give people an opportunity to “weigh-in” before you ask them to “buy-in”. This is precisely the reason why the answer to so many educational conundrums is to “form a committee”. Will the opinion of the committee ultimately change the mind of the decision makers? Maybe, maybe not, but if everybody involved feels like they have the opportunity to have their voice heard in a genuine manner, it helps them feel more vested in whatever decision is made whether they agreed with it or not.

In a regular meeting though, people never share their genuine opinions (due to a “Lack of Trust” or “Fear of Conflict”) therefore they never “buy-in” to a decision. So they moan and groan about it in the later, and the team or committee goes on talking about the same thing every meeting.

Don’t be afraid to propose a solution to the group in order to move the conversation closer to a close. Ask for consensus; require that everybody speak their mind. Abstaining isn’t allowed. Make sure all voices are heard and all opinions are validated.