Enabling Better Collaboration – an ISTE conversation

Part of the ISTE conference that I usually enjoy the most is the Unconference,( which after various name changes is  currently known as HackED Con), typically held on the Saturday prior to ISTE at the conference center.  If you aren’t familiar with the unconference concept, it is an all day, all voluntary conference organized by the conference attendees, who upon arriving, suggest and vote on sessions for the day.

A series of conversations were selected for the Saturday, including personalized learning, makerspaces, global collaborations, etc.

ISTE2013However, one of the wonderful things about the unblogger concept is that it’s okay to find your own conversations–and as the day wore on, I felt a need to talk with some of the other wise educators there about something many of us struggle with–how to improve our collaborations with other teachers.

We gathered a little informal group under the stairwell to brainstorm some ways to make our collaborations more meaningful.  Our conversation revolved around both leadership and marketing as tools for improving collaboration.

Scott McLeod pointed out Daniel Pink’s delineation of leaders and informal leaders.  It’s both important to own our power as either one, and also reach out to the leaders, both formal and informal, on our campuses.  That is something many of us are adept at–identifying the informal leaders–but McLeod pointed out that part of leadership is making sure the “change” people “win.”

We talked about barriers to collaboration, including the ubiquitous complaint that teachers don’t have enough time to collaborate.  But someone rightfully pointed out that people will make time for what they think is important.  So is there some way we are not meeting the needs of teachers as either technologists or librarians that will cause them to create time for the important work we do in supporting student literacy?

It became clear during the conversation that perhaps we need to do a better job of figuring out what teachers’ needs are.  We can presume as former teachers that we know their needs, and perhaps we are aware of some of them, but we need to take the conversation straight to teachers.  Whether we hold formal conversations with each department or grade level team, or with individual teachers informally, we need to talk to them about what ISN’T working, but also get their feedback on what WILL work.  Just being willing to have those conversations can spark more connections, too;  it demonstrates our openness to change and to really being a good resource for teachers.  This might be difficult–and it may require setting our egos aside while we build some consensus.   I do think our own egos get in the way of good collaborations and when we try to make it more about the students rather than our own sacred cows, that can shift the tone of the conversation and shift our own thinking about it.

In a session at ALA13 entitled “Storytelling Mojo” GetStoried CEO Michael Margolis pointed out some obstacles to people embracing change, which I find pertinent to thinking about collaboration.  (In a future blog post, I’ll elaborate on Margolis’ excellent session on story). First off, audiences may think that if we are encouraging change, we are repudiating their past way of doing things, which is a turn off.   Another issue is that they cannot find themselves in our story — does it really connect with who they are?  (That is why it is important to understand the real needs of our teachers and students).

flickr photo by giulia.forsythe; from Wendy Burston of Univ. of Fraser Valley
flickr photo by giulia.forsythe;                                                      from Wendy Burton of Univ. of Fraser Valley

We also need to look at our collaborative efforts as a story we need to tell.   Whether in larger or smaller schools, we need to not be shy about publishing our successful collaborations.  I realized that while I publicize our collaborations in a very general way (listing what units I worked with in our end-of-year report, for example), we need to do it in a more specific and story-telling way that is engaging to both our other teachers and administrators and that would invite them into collaborations themselves.

Maybe they simply don’t know what a collaboration with a librarian or technologist looks like in action.  Maybe one story can can spark ideas for another collaboration. It’s another way to create an open door atmosphere.  IT’s important to tell our own stories–I think when we pull in outside examples, while they can be powerful sources of inspiration, they may also not be a story teachers can “see themselves in.”  Stories from our own schools are more relatable as starting points.

Which brought our discussion to administrators–do our principals know our goals for students and need for teacher partnerships?  Have we had  some good conversation with them about the collaborations we are trying to create?  Principals can help create the environment where collaboration is encouraged and expected (in a good way), but are they aware this is an issue we are even struggling with?

At a less traditional school like Science Leadership Academy, a principal like Chris Lehmann is a natural part of those instructional conversations.   But that’s not true at every school, particularly larger ones, so talking with our principals about our instructional hopes (keeping it focused on why this benefits STUDENTS, not the library or technology) helps them become powerful partners with us.  Having created actual stories of our successful collaborations can be a helpful piece in this conversation.

To improve collaboration, a summary of the ideas we brainstormed:

  1. Identify the formal/informal leaders – reach out to both.
  2. Listen to teachers (and students) about what their needs are.  Ask them what WILL work, not just what doesn’t work.
  3. Understand that people will make time if they believe the collaboration is important to their work with students.
  4. Set aside our library and technology egos–it isn’t about us or “the library” or “the technology.”
  5. Tell our collaboration stories to our own community.  Be specific.
  6. Ask – “Can my teachers see themselves in this story?”
  7. Communicate your goals for students and teachers to your principal and administrator.  Ask them for help.

To that I would add:

8.  Make sure this is about the students, not about ourselves.

Thanks to all of you in the HackED conversation–good food for thought as we begin thinking about our next school year!

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