Creating a Culture of Collegiality
by Roland Barth
The good schools in which I've worked and observed have replaced parallel play and adversarial relationships among adults with congenial and collegial relationships. Let me offer a few examples of what I have seen teachers and other school leaders do to create a culture of collegiality in their schools.
Talking About Practice
I once had an appointment with a teacher in the faculty lounge. On the way in, I noted a sign on the door that read, “No students allowed in the faculty room.” It seemed a bit unfriendly, but I remembered during my days as a teacher needing a few moments of fire-free time. When I asked the teacher about the sign, she said, “That's the written rule in this teachers' room.”
“What's the unwritten rule?” I asked.
She replied, “No talking about teaching in the faculty lounge.”
Regretfully, I find that unwritten rule firmly in place in many teacher and administrator gatherings. A conversation about the Red Sox or the Yankees can be noteworthy and lively—an example of congenial behavior. But a professional learning community is built on continual discourse about our important work—conversations about student evaluation, parent involvement, curriculum development, and team teaching.
I know one principal who boldly suggested to the faculty that for one week, they try permitting in the faculty lounge only education-related conversation. To everyone's amazement, this simple trial worked, giving permission to teachers and administrators alike to talk about their work. They decided to continue the practice. They banished the Yankees and the Red Sox to the hallways and the parking lot—at least until the playoffs!
Sharing Craft Knowledge
In some schools, a typical meeting begins with a participant or two sharing a front-burner issue about which they have recently learned something important or useful. A teacher new to the school might explain how students were evaluated in a previous workplace. A parent might share in a PTA meeting an idea about helping children with homework. A principal might share with other principals a new policy about assigning students to classes.
Once the exchange of craft knowledge becomes institutionally sanctioned, educators no longer feel pretentious or in violation of a taboo by sharing their insights. A new taboo—against withholding what we know—replaces the old. Repeated practice soon embeds generous disclosure of craft knowledge into the culture of a school or a school system.
Observing One Another
Perhaps no practice evokes more apprehension among educators than the prospect of one of our peers camping out in the back of our classroom for a few hours and watching us engage in the difficult art of teaching. Another unwritten rule in most schools seems to be, “If you want to see me, come in before school, during recess, at lunchtime, or after school. If you come in and plunk yourself down while I am teaching, you die!” I used to think this was a message only parents received. But I now see that we educators telegraph it to one another as well.
Making our practice mutually visible will never be easy, because we will never be fully confident that we know what we're supposed to be doing and that we're doing it well. And we're never quite sure just how students will behave. None of us wants to risk being exposed as incompetent. Yet there is no more powerful way of learning and improving on the job than by observing others and having others observe us.
In one school I know, the principal and a few teachers wanted to do away with the taboo against observing in one another's workspaces. They decided to hold each faculty meeting in the classroom of a different teacher. The host teacher devoted the first 10 minutes to a show-and-tell: “Here is my reading area. Here is my science corner, and these are student projects on the weather.”
In two years' time, everyone had observed the sacred space of everyone else and had in turn been observed in their own space. Follow-up conversations often ensued: “When I was in your classroom last week, you mentioned your work with cooperative learning. Can you tell me more?” Such mild observations reduce the anxiety surrounding visits that probe a teacher's practices.
But general, unfocused “bathing” in one another's classrooms usually yields only modest results. Deeper and more instructive peer observations emerge when both parties forge an agreement beforehand. Elements of an effective contract might include some of the following:
- Our visits will be reciprocal. You visit me this week; I visit you next week.
- What we see and say will be confidential, between us.
- We will decide together, beforehand, just what I will attend to during the visit—for instance, how you are handling two students with attention deficit disorder.
- We will agree on the day, time, and length of the visit.
- We will have a conversation afterward to discuss our observations and share our learning.
These contracts increase the ownership of mutual observation, reduce the fear surrounding it, and increase the likelihood of worthwhile learning. Nonetheless, as a principal, I found that creating a school culture in which mutual visits were commonplace was enormously difficult. So I created an array of carrots and sticks, each intended to address the litany of reasons why “we can't possibly do this”:
- Time: “I'll cover for you or get a sub.”
- Administrative fiat: “Before March 31, I expect each of you to observe for one half-day in the classroom of each teacher to whom you might be sending students next year.” It does make a difference with which teacher we place Johnny in September.
- Social pressure: A chart on the wall of the faculty room noted who had and hadn't yet observed.
But still nothing happened. Parallel play continued to rule. Finally, one teacher observed in a faculty meeting—with a bit of hostility, I thought!—“Well, Roland, when was the last time we saw another principal observing you running a faculty meeting?”
Well, duh! As the bumper sticker states so well, “You can't lead where you won't go!”
So at the next faculty meeting, a neighboring principal sat at the back of the room. At the conclusion of the meeting, she shared her observations and compared the meeting with faculty meetings at her own school. Then two teachers and I visited her school, observed its faculty meeting, and offered our observations.
The logjam was broken. Mutual classroom observations began. You can lead where you will go.
Rooting for One Another
All too common in our profession is widespread awareness of a fellow educator in trouble: the principal under siege from a group of parents, or a beginning teacher being worked over by a tough classroom of kids. We monitor the situation from afar as another person is hung out to dry—and we do nothing.
Imagine, on the other hand, a school in which all 32 teachers not only are aware of the punishment that you are experiencing at the hands of those difficult students but also offer to help. To take a youngster or two into their own classes. To invite you into their classrooms so you can observe them handling these same students. To meet with you after school to reflect on the day and help plan the next. To share manipulative curriculum materials capable of engaging students with a short attention span.
Imagine each of these 32 teachers being vitally interested in the current front-burner issue of every other teacher. One teacher might be working on integrating language and social studies instruction. Another might be working on multi-age grouping. Colleagues put relevant articles into your mailbox. Others share effective practices from other schools in which they have worked. Everyone on the faculty periodically asks how things are going and what they can do to help. I suspect that every one of us would give a lot to work in this school.
What School Leaders Can Do
Leadership has been delightfully defined as “the ability to foster consequential relationships.” Easier said than done. To promote collegial relationships in the school, someone has to make relationships among adults a discussable. Someone must serve as a minesweeper, disarming those landmines. I can think of no more crucial role for any school leader.
What else can a school leader do to promote a culture of collegiality within the schoolhouse? Researcher Judith Warren Little found that school leaders foster collegiality when they
- State expectations explicitly. For instance, “I expect all of us to work together this year, share our craft knowledge, and help one another in whatever ways we can.”
- Model collegiality. For instance, visibly join in cheering on others or have another principal observe a faculty meeting.
- Reward those who behave as colleagues. For instance, grant release time, recognition, space, materials, and funds to those who collaborate.
- Protect those who engage in these collegial behaviors. A principal should not say, for instance, “Janet has a great idea that she wants to share with us today.” This sets Janet up for a possible harsh response. Rather, the principal might say, “I observed something in Janet's classroom last week that blew my socks off, and I've asked her to share it with us.” In this way, leaders can run interference for other educators.
A precondition for doing anything to strengthen our practice and improve a school is the existence of a collegial culture in which professionals talk about practice, share their craft knowledge, and observe and root for the success of one another. Without these in place, no meaningful improvement—no staff or curriculum development, no teacher leadership, no student appraisal, no team teaching, no parent involvement, and no sustained change—is possible.
Empowerment, recognition, satisfaction, and success in our work—all in scarce supply within our schools—will never stem from going it alone as a masterful teacher, principal, or student, no matter how accomplished one is. Empowerment, recognition, satisfaction, and success come only from being an active participant within a masterful group—a group of colleagues.
1 For my thinking about collegiality, I am deeply indebted to the work of Judith Warren Little: School Success and Staff Development in Urban Desegregated Schools (Center for Action Research, 1981) and “Norms of Collegiality and Experimentation” (Education Research Journal, 1982).
Editor's note: This paper is based on the 11th Annual William Charles McMillan III Lecture, delivered by the author at Grosse Pointe Academy, Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, March 2, 2005.
Roland S. Barth (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former public school teacher and principal and Founding Director of the Principals' Center at Harvard University. He is author of Lessons Learned: Shaping Relationships and the Culture of the Workplace (Corwin Press, 2003).