High-stakes pressures are inundating the educational environment. Schools and teachers are ranked based on student performance, and sanctions are placed on the lowest performing of these groups. The lowest performing schools live in fear of closure or take-over. The lowest performing principals and teachers fear dismissal. Schools and teachers in the middle of the pack are fearful of what might put them in the lowest performing category. And it seems that even if you are performing well over all, there are now rankings that point out your flaws. You know how trickle-down works…the legislature threatens schools for poor performance, the schools threaten the teachers for poor performance, the teachers threaten the students…and no one wins.
And, yet, the exact opposite can be true. If legislatures, schools, teachers and students all set high expectations for themselves and create positive supportive environments where people are free to take risks, the entire world wins.
Collaboration is the key to accelerating your organization’s pace toward these high expectations. Building a collaborative environment from the inside out is not easy. We find this to be true in all types of schools. From priority schools to high performing schools, the foundation of collaboration must be built, nurtured and valued for schools to navigate change and experience growth. It requires a slow, committed process that pays attention to detail and builds a community based on trust.
Schools often overlook collaboration as a foundation of their work. They go about the business of educating students and completing tasks without paying attention to “how” they are doing this vitally important work.
We often find that schools are in one of three places when it comes to collaboration:
1. The One-Person Show – This person works well with everyone!
There are schools where high levels of cooperation are a happy bi-product of relationship-focused individuals who lead initiatives. In these environments, ignorance is bliss. Team members are happy, they enjoy working together, and they are cooperatively working on projects, big and small.
When problems arise, staff members look to the relationship-focused individuals to navigate tough situations. When those individuals leave, the organization is vulnerable to the personality style of new employees and power struggles with existing personnel. That’s when things begin to fall apart. A new leader emerges that may or may not navigate problems in the same manner as their predecessor. It could be by happy chance that new relationship-driven people move into power or it could be that the new regime has an “or else” method of problem resolution. The school is vulnerable and the long-term outcome is unpredictable.
2. The Boss Said…
School cultures driven by fear also exist. In these organizations, everyone wonders what the next demand will be. People move from mandate to mandate trying to appease the compliance police, hoping they will go away. Employees in these cultures feel like they have a million bosses, all with different expectations and each waiting to “catch” them doing the wrong thing. Even when the demands are reasonable and supported by research, the manner in which they are presented can doom the school to failure.
Worse, when one of the bosses issues a mandate that leads the school in the wrong direction, there is no room for dissention. Staff members are expected to comply even if they know they are marching in the wrong direction. In these environments, staff members lose hope and they lose the belief that they can make a difference to the school and the students they serve. Their days become a check-list of tasks to complete, rather than an endless flow of students to inspire.
Problems quickly become a game in finger-pointing. Who did not comply? Who missed the deadline? This mindset keeps everyone fearful that the finger will be pointed at them. For these schools, the long term outcome is bleak and predictable. Staff turnover is high and student achievement is low.
3. Collaborative Culture
There is a third option. This is the intentional school culture that empowers all team members to build their collaborative capacities. In this environment, the school community recognizes that they are only as strong as the weakest link. They focus on teaching all team members how to interact in trusting ways, building the efficacy of the individual and the organization.
These schools build collaborative practices. They value shared leadership and shared voice. They empower each person to share in the decision-making and support the outcome as one team. And they dedicate time to ensure that each team member is skilled in collaboration. They are trained on how to respond in trusting ways that will lead to positive, meaningful outcomes. New team members are indoctrinated and taught the same skills, and are expected to have a shared value in collaboration. When a problem arises, each team member is clear about the desired outcome and has a role in navigating the process. For these schools, the outcome is predictable. The entire staff is skilled and knowledgeable and ensures that the collaborative nature of the school is maintained.
The first key to moving your school to the Collaborative Culture is identifying your current level of collaboration.
As you reflect on your school environment, look for indicators of The One-Man Show, The Boss Said or Collaborative Culture. Does the entire staff lean on one person to solve all the school’s problems or is everyone empowered to problem solve? Are team members quiet at meetings or do they speak up, have a voice and present solutions? Do the people in the building see the required tasks as processes that will provide valuable information or as check-list items that need to be completed? Answering these questions will begin to help you identify the collaborative strengths and weaknesses of your organization and help you begin to think about creating the type of environment where students thrive.
Living unaware of the drivers of collaboration or attempting to mandate performance will lead to unintended consequences. Too often, people see the focus on collaboration as fluff. Something that would be nice but detracts from the work that needs to be completed. When in fact, it is the very thing that allows schools to experience substantial and sustained change.
The key to predictable positive outcomes for school communities is identifying the approach to collaboration that exists in your school and then intentionally building the Collaborative Culture.