The spirit of collaboration

03/21/2011  |  DR. JODIE M. WINSHIP

Collaboration! It is a word we use quite frequently, but what does it mean? Why is collaboration necessary? As stakeholders in local school districts, are we truly, actively involved in a collaborative process? How can your team function more collaboratively?

Collaboration in education is the act of all stakeholders purposefully working together to achieve one goal. The goal is for each child to be given the opportunity to benefit from the educational services available through their school placement. The need for collaboration among school personnel has never been as great as it is today. There is an expectation that principals, teachers, support staff, parents and students must work together to ensure a meaningful education for all students. Students of all ability levels are expected to perform at grade level. Teachers must equip themselves with the tools to facilitate growth in each of their students, often within the general education setting. This movement is known as the inclusion movement. While the inclusion movement is not new, its effects are still changing the way schools operate.

“We know that equality of individual ability has never existed and never will, but we do insist that equality of opportunity still must be sought.” ­ — Franklin D. Roosevelt

Gone are the days when teachers were autonomous in their planning and instruction. Today’s educational arena calls for teamwork. The inclusion movement has been a challenge to both special and general education teachers. For many years, special education and regular education have existed in a seemly dichotomous world, each entity barely aware of what the other was doing. Fortunately through advocacy and legislative changes, this dichotomous world is no longer the typical environment children are educated in today. The two worlds have been merged together with a common goal of educating all children fairly and equally. The mechanism for educating students with and without disabilities together was the initiation of a public law known as The Individual’s with Disabilities Act. Compliance of this standard has been met with both acceptance and opposition. School districts having difficulty complying with the current law were given additional incentives with the signing of the well-known law, “No Child Left Behind.” The intersection of these two laws requires that students with disabilities are educated in their least restrictive environments and exemplify adequate academic progress each year. This movement was met with great resistance from both general and special education stakeholders. While laws may dictate physical arrangement of students and scientifically proven methods of effective instruction, it cannot mandate positive or favorable attitudes and the spirit of collaboration. These attributes must be developed.

Universities are constantly adapting the curriculum to meet the growing demands of not only the laws, but also the stakeholders. New teachers are entering the classroom fully aware that they must be able to design a classroom environment that meets the needs of a very diverse student population. Universities are providing future students with the opportunity to experience and support, to become collaborative team members through innovative curriculum designed to foster this essential skill. These changes have paved the way for new faculty to instantly contribute to the collaborative process. Universities have the easier path in training new teachers.

 School administrators have a more challenging task. School administrations are often responsible for preparing veteran teachers to engage in the collaborative process and to equip them with the expertise to take on the challenges that inclusion presents. Both general and special educators have been stretched out of their comfort zones. Administrators are charged with providing meaningful professional development, arranging for time for teachers to plan together, oversee decision making mechanisms, and ensure that resources are shared and allocated efficiently. Principals who are resourceful often collaborate with universities to assist in providing professional development for their faculty and staff. This facilitates the integration of knowledge between new and seasoned faculty. Successful collaborative teams have many common components; however, one stands out as particularly intriguing.

Schools that consistently reach Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) are often lead by a principal that favors inclusive practices which includes effectual collaborative teams. Principals that favor inclusive practices are supportive in the integration of students with multiple and varying abilities. It is also shown that the principal’s attitude towards inclusion and collaboration is passed down to the entire school population. Teachers will reflect the principal’s attitude towards collaboration. Students will reflect the teacher’s attitude toward collaboration. This occurrence exemplifies the importance of modeling positive attitudes and effective collaborative skills.

Three factors support and sustain the trickle-down effect of the principal’s attitudes towards inclusion and collaboration to other stakeholders in the collaborative process. The first factor is that a behavior is more likely to occur if it is viewed as favorable by the person displaying the behavior. Principals that are well versed in the collaborative process will often use faculty meetings to present concerns to the faculty. Under the guidance of the principal, the faculty can explore different strategies to discover solutions to the problems presented by the principal. The teachers can then use those strategies to solve other problems that arise.

When a student observes a teacher interacting in a cooperative manner with another teacher and/or paraprofessional, they are likely to perceive those as favorable relationships. They are able to see adults working together to prepare and execute a lesson. Students are able to benefit from the collaboration because the lesson will meet the needs of more students. In return, the students are more likely to imitate the collaborative process in a small group project or when working as a peer instructor because they view that interaction as positive.

The second factor is that people can learn vicariously by observing others. This idea is applied every day in schools across America. Individuals without disabilities have the opportunities to interact, observe and question individuals with disabilities about the challenges they have encountered in mainstream environments. This interaction provides the opportunity to observe conflicts, challenges, and conquest that the individuals with disabilities experience daily. Through this observation, the student has the potential to learn, to an extent, about what it is like to be disabled in today’s society. Teachers have the opportunity to model how to interact appropriately, provide natural supports, and show respect for the individual’s with different types of abilities.

The final factor is that people tend to model behaviors displayed by others, especially if a degree of attachment is established. This reflects that the relationship established between the observers and observed greatly affects the outcome of the learning experience. The relationship established between the principal to teacher, teacher to student, and student to student, can greatly influence the spirit of collaboration. Individuals who have a position of authority have a great responsibility to model desirable traits. Never is that responsibility more obvious than in the collaborative process.

Collaboration is an approach to creating innovative solutions to barriers of student success. Any group of individuals can readily identify barriers or point out problems, but effective collaborative teams do not stop there. Effective collaborative teams go beyond identify barriers. They work together to find solutions to the challenges that barriers present. These teams are never static. They continually grow and adapt to meet the needs of all students.

Franklin D. Roosevelt once stated, “We know that equality of individual ability has never existed and never will, but we do insist that equality of opportunity still must be sought.” As a people, we are all unique. We each person possess strengths and limitations. There will never be a perfect teacher that walks into a perfect classroom full of perfect students and delivers a perfect lesson that each student comprehends perfectly. From the prospective of an educator, what there should be is the opportunity for all children to experience success. In order for students of varying abilities to be provided with the opportunity to experience success, a whole host of professionals must effectively execute their role in setting the stage for each student’s success. From the classroom teacher, to the building principals, to school board administrators, to curriculum developers, to college instructors, to program developers, to higher education institutions, we all have a vital role to play in the collaborative process. Collaboration must be approached with vigor and purpose.

Dr. Winship is Assistant Professor at The University of West Alabama- Julia Tutwiler College of Education. For more information visit
Comments & Ratings

  4/29/2011 1:28:50 AM

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i agree with this article but have some doubts at the same time.