Some Thoughts on Collaborative Teaching

Work has been something else lately, which accounts for the radio silence around these parts.

Insert crow caw-caw sounds here

Not to return on a slightly negative note, but something has happened repeatedly this semester, that I wanted to consider.

The issue is, to put it in Kindergarten terms, playing nicely with others.

Little kids playing in a pile of leaves

Play as nicely as these children, who are totally not chucking leaves in each other’s faces. As seen on the hilarious blog It’s Like They Know Us –

So here’s the deal. I’m a teacher (though we’ll get back to that term in a second). If you’re reading this, you might be a teacher (*waves hello*).

And being a teacher is, in many ways, a solitary pursuit. We are in positions of control in our own defined space – we’re the top of the food chain in the classroom. Our vocabulary can hint at this – that is your classroom, these are my students. We are vested in this classroom situation, we take ownership of it, and much of our focus is how we, ourselves as individuals, can best reach learners. And this can hold true for non traditional educators as well; I might not have had a classroom at my museum job, but I still had students and a learning environment that I worked to create (me, me, me, right?).

And yet. A huge part of teaching involves being beholden to and answerable to and subject to outside forces – school boards and principals, parents, fellow teachers, departments, budgets, professional organizations, and so on. And an equally large part of teaching involves sharing our classroom, with observers, with campus partners who are engaging with our students, with guest speakers, with co-teachers, with testing days, with fire alarms, with so many things. There is this incredible tension in being a teacher, between control and subjugation, between solitary activity and cooperative activity, between individuality and the group.

Hosting a Visitor 

I know how difficult it can be to open up your teaching space to someone else. When I taught at a museum I would often make way for other teachers, people who were training, guest speakers. There were times when I cursed the arrival of a visitor since my lesson plans were in flux for the day and I couldn’t introduce a visitor into chaos; I had to plan ahead. And, when the visitor or trainee got started, there were times when I would bite my tongue thinking, I wouldn’t have done that, or, I would have explained that differently. And almost always, the visitor or trainee or whoever was great. It’s just that it wasn’t necessarily what I would have done, and I wasn’t the one doing it.

It isn’t easy to open your space up and to open yourself up to collaboration when you don’t know the person or group all that well. I’ve been in situations where I’ve known my collaborators or visitors very well, and then it was fun, and at times a relief, to hand things over, knowing that I could completely trust my learning environment and my students to this collaborative partner/partners.

Being a Visitor

But I’ve also been on the flip-side of this. As a librarian I’m generally the guest, the visitor, the interloper. So while I understand the issues that can arise with having someone come to your class, I also see how teachers can often have a hard time playing nicely with others.  Over the years I’ve been teaching, in museums and in libraries, I’ve had teachers and professors take up time I was supposed to have in class with other activities, change assignments on me at the last possible second, interrupt class, demand that I cover certain items rather than consult with me as a partner, refer to a class as a “presentation” or a “demonstration” rather than what it actually is: teaching.

Some Thoughts on Cause and Effect

Part of the problem, which I’ve experienced on both sides of the spectrum as both the regular teacher and the guest teacher, is that tension I referred to above between teaching being a fairly solitary pursuit and teaching being a group effort. I love collaborating and working with people when I have the chance to know them. Having a visitor imposed upon you from the powers that be can be a cause for anxiety, aggravation, and concern, even if the guest is in fact completely amazing. It’s still someone coming into your space.

Building up collaborative partnerships and relationships can help make classrooms a more dynamic and fluid place and can help the control freak in all of us teachers (I might be projecting here, but bear with) simmer down.

I firmly believe that learning can and should be a community process. Forging institutional partnerships, personal relationships, and professional ties with other educators can be both inspiring and useful. It was one of the reasons I loved working in museums so much, because the museums I worked at did well with building partnerships.

But the other part of problem I noted with both welcoming someone in and visiting someone else’s classroom is two-fold. It’s a problem of experience and a problem of recognition. And it seems to be acute in a university library setting.

First, experience. The fact of the matter is that many people doing some form of teaching at a university (professors, staff, librarians) have very little teaching experience prior to teaching at the college level. And this lack of experience, can, I think cause issues with playing nicely with others. It takes some degree of experience to comfortable cede control, or at least give the impression of comfortably ceding control, just as it  can take experience to talk with other educators as collaborators, to plan lessons out in advance but to still leave wiggle room for flexibility and contingency plans should things go awry (they will, don’t worry). At colleges, the first year students are often taught by the least experienced teachers and those teachers are typically the ones who have to share class time with other campus partners.

Second, recognition. There are many people who do some form of teaching on college campuses (and in non-school environments like museums and libraries and camps and non-profits for that matter). And many of these people aren’t always seen as teachers by other teachers and by outsiders. At least when I was at a museum I had the word “educator” in my title. It might not have been a conventional teaching position but most of the K-5 teachers I worked with recognized me as a fellow educator. Not so much in library-land. And this is a problem with instruction librarians in terms of how we explain who we are and what we do. And it’s also a problem with the environments we might be working in (such as colleges) where people don’t bother to ask what it is we do exactly.

Ideas and Actions 

So, what to do? First, librarians and other educators, traditional and non-traditional, need to keep advocating for themselves (as I noted in an earlier post). Second, librarians and other traditional/non-traditional educators should seek out and encourage partnerships. Because those personal relationships are key, in my mind, to making collaboration, shared class time and the guest speaker day and easier pill to swallow. In fact, it should be something fun not something to be dreaded.

Feel like this

And not like this.

And third, we (librarians and others) should really embrace our identity as teachers and seek out opportunities for professional development, learning, collaboration. To me, things like constructivist learning principles, and other educational views that advocate collaboration, shouldn’t just be about students, but about educators as well – how can we work together, learn from each other, and strengthen our own individual teaching?  How can we develop professionally even as we provide connected and meaningful opportunities for our students to learn from a whole range of people and places? (As a sidebar, I think that MacArthur and Mozilla’s City of Learning initiatives are on to something in terms of community collaboration).

In an ideal world all educators, traditional or not, would work to respect one another, recognize one another, reach out to one another. After all, it’s not easy to play nicely when someone else isn’t playing nicely with you.