Building a Collaborative School Culture

I am currently reading,  School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It,  by Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker. They define six general types of school cultures ranging from toxic to collaborative.

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Toxic- Significant numbers of teachers focus on the negative aspects of the school’s operations and personnel, using these flaws as justification for poor performance.

Fragmented– Teachers function as individuals with classroom doors staying closed and teachers having their own territory and for the most part liking it that way.

Balkanized– Collaboration occurs only among like-minded staff. Teachers may recruit colleagues forming cliques that compete for position, resources, and territory. Stronger cliques may bully others.

Contrived-Collegial– Leadership may generate contrived collegiality when they enforce collaboration: expecting teachers to meet and discuss student progress and then file a report to prove they did. A contrived element maybe a necessary starting point for change but teacher ownership of collaboration needs to be fostered.

Comfortable- Collaboration– A congenial culture exists, that values cooperation, courtesy, and compliance. Teachers may hesitate to voice disagreement with one another for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. “In the comfortable school culture it’s more important to get along then to teach effectively”

 Collaborative School Culture- Teachers share strong educational values, work together to pursue professional development, and are committed to improve their work.

Teachers are aggressively curious about teaching and learning.”

 Gruenert and Whitaker suggest that collaborative culture is shorthand for all the good things schools should be doing: “Help, support, trust, openness, collective reflection, and collaborative efficiency are at the heart of a collaborative culture.”

 I have long presented the statement that until a school becomes collegial it cannot reach maximum student achievement and therefore increasing teacher collegiality should be part of the job description for instructional coaches. School leadership teams should continually be assessing progress in reaching a collaborative culture with staff and planning strategies for next steps. (In School Culture Rewired,  page 67,  you can find the School Culture Typology which is a great tool for initial assessment.)

Here are some of the strategies I frequently explore with instructional leaders and coaches for building collegiality:

Frequent discussion of the school vision/mission/beliefs.

I suggest 10 minutes at the start of each faculty meeting for exploring a belief or value in small group conversations. This allows teachers to identify common values that unite them or differences that need further exploration for assuring that they are not working at cross purposes.

*   How important do you feel it is for students to develop goal setting skills? How do you create the opportunities for practice?

*  How confident are you that we should be able to close the achievement gap for students who start school missing experiences/skills? Why?

Facilitate these conversations so that teachers are in different groups each time, hearing and connecting with more staff members than their usual circle.

Shared Goal Setting

As a starting point, teachers sharing their individual classroom student goals with each other provide a check on shared beliefs, values, and expectations. Moving to teachers setting these goals within PLC’s or grade level teams and departments extends the shared commitment. Adding vertical sharing and conversation builds increasingly shared school collegiality.

A few schools I have worked with have begun doing the goal setting for student achievement at the end of the school year for the next year. When new staff members join, they are handed goals for their students, making them immediate team members who must be supported by their colleagues who were part of setting the goals.

Peer Coaching

In Quality Teaching in a Culture of Coaching,  I proposed that peer coaching conferences and observations build teachers’ shared commitment to student success. Vulnerability is crucial for increasing collegiality and peer coaching creates an environment for teachers to be vulnerable and build trust with colleagues.

When a teacher shares his/her focus on creating a student success, the colleague serving as a peer coach often makes a connecting commitment to that goal… collegial culture.

Teacher leaders play an important role by going first in these collegiality building activities….making themselves vulnerable. School leaders should look to create continuous opportunities for teacher leaders to model the way.


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