Building a Culture of Collaboration Through Coaching, Part 1: Knowledge and Skills

Collaboration Montage

In part 1 of this 2-part series, Cailin Minor, literacy coach at Shanghai American School in China, explains why a culture of collaboration is important for achieving school-wide goals and how it's necessary to first establish the knowledge and skills of collaboration.


ulture is that intangible feeling and attitude that permeates classrooms, hallways, meetings, and our work. It's sometimes hard to define but strongly felt. Even though it's tough to put a finger on it, we can sense its important role in making positive progress and lasting change. These thoughts have led many school leaders to see that if you want to achieve a goal, you not only need to change the knowledge and skills of teachers, but the culture and beliefs as well.

I often hear schools talk about creating a culture of collaboration, and not just that their staff is collaborating but that they take on the beliefs and spirit of collaboration as well. The ultimate goal is that this culture will produce meaningful and lasting results for their students. Because the shifting and creating of a culture is so important, I believe it's a key goal itself for coaches to tackle. I know its abstract nature might make it seem like a poor contender for a goal, but without attending to it, change might not be as institutionalized. As coaches we can support our school in growing a culture of collaboration.

My school's goal: culture of collaboration

At Shanghai American School we've made creating a culture of collaboration a goal for the coaching team. There are three areas of collaboration we are working on to create that culture at our school.

  1. Building knowledge and skills of collaboration: Collaboration is a skill like anything else we learn to do; it's not second nature and isn't a given. If we want collaboration to be strong and impactful, then we need to teach teachers what that means and build the skills to achieve it.
  2. Building beliefs and values around collaboration: Skills and knowledge will only go so far if someone doesn't value collaboration or believe it's beneficial to them and their students. Tapping into these beliefs and values will make major shifts in the culture.
  3. Building positive practices and actions: Learning about collaboration, knowing what to do, and believing it's good doesn't mean much if you aren't doing it! As the people from Solution Tree and PLC say, "The most powerful learning always occurs in a context of taking action." We need to "learn by doing" and put positive practices in place that will lift the level of collaboration.

The three areas above work best to create a culture when they're simultaneously supported. You might think of them as the what (knowledge and skills), why (beliefs and values), and how (practices and actions) of collaboration.

To change or create a culture, you need everyone to support the work. It can't just be administration (top down), just teachers (grass roots is great, but if you don't have structures, professional learning, and institutional support it can fall short), or just coaches. Sometimes we put too much pressure on coaches to change the culture of a school on their own.

Coaching works best when working in a support role: supporting school-wide goals, providing professional learning, and supporting teachers in meeting these goals. Below I'll first zoom in on some things a coach might do to support the what in creating a culture of collaboration. Next week I'll look at the why and how and bring everything together!

Working on the WHAT: building the knowledge and skills of collaboration

As a coach, one part of my job is supporting teams during their meetings and collaborative time, which puts me in a unique position to observe how teams work together. In one instance, during meeting time a team I was working with tended not to sit together and had members spread around the room at different tables. During discussions one person would talk and then a couple people would listen, while others would tune out until it was their turn to talk. Sometimes people were talking to each other or losing themselves in devices. A few people would tend to dominate the conversation, while other voices weren't heard much at all. The meetings didn't seem to have clear purposes or objectives with random topics being thrown around for discussion.

After a few weeks of watching this I was shocked when a few team members expressed how they thought they worked very well together and that they considered themselves a high-performing team!

Watching teams has led me to see that one of the biggest mistakes we make in collaboration is thinking that the work is obvious. We have this false sense of confidence that we all know what strong collaboration looks like, that we know how to do it, and that we are all on the same page. It's a meeting: you show up, you talk, you get stuff done, right? We all know how to talk, we all share ideas, we can make decisions, we can work together. But too often we breeze over the complexity of these interactions and work.

Yes, everyone can show up to a meeting and everyone can sit in a room together, but to make these interactions successful, productive, student-focused, inclusive, and impactful is an entirely different story.

Skills to help build collective knowledge school-wide

Collaboration has skills and concepts that we can learn to help make collaborative time more productive and effective. There is a lot to learn with collaboration and many great resources to support teachers as they build a shared understanding. I'm going to briefly share some skills and concepts that have helped our school build our collective knowledge:

  • Norms: Work to define what your norms of collaboration will be. How will we all agree to act and collaborate when we are together? At our school we use the "7 Norms of Collaboration" from Adaptive Schools to help us have a shared idea of what our interactions should look like.
  • Agendas: Agendas help create clarity around the purpose and process of the work. They might state what the outcomes are, what you will do, how you will do it, and how much time it will take. This serves to keep meetings focused on student learning, and communicate to team members key information about the work.
  • Ways of talking: Talk isn't just talk. Building an understanding about types of conversations can help a team clarifly what they are doing. In its Foundation Seminar Learning Guide, Adaptive Schools defines dialogue as, "A reflective learning process in which group members seek to understand one another's vicerpoints." They define discussion as discourse that, "focuses on the parts and their relationships to one another—the causes, the effects and the ripple effects of proposed actions and solutions." The ultimate outcome of discussion is to reach a decision while the outcome of dialogue is to understand.
  • Decision making: Teams can learn protocols to make decisions. What is consensus and how will we reach it? They can explore ways to make decisions where all voices are heard, to encourage people to know their roles in the decision making processes, and to communicate those decisions.
  • Conflict: Teams can build understanding around what conflict is and how to handle it in ways that move the team forward. Some teams fall into the myth that if you are all getting along or agreeing on everything then your collaboration is strong. Many argue that if you are all in agreement all the time, then you aren't having the right kind of conversations.
  • Facilitation: Usually during collaborative time there is a leader or facilitator. Learning what this role means and some skills for managing group energies and work can be very useful.
  • Protocols: There are many different types of protocols to learn that will help teams find ways to accomplish their outcomes and have a productive and inclusive work times.

How coaches can support teachers on the "what" of collaboration

There are many things coaches can do to support teachers as they work to build their knowledge and skills:

  • Professional development: Whether it's led in-house or through outside sources, spend time systematically teaching your staff the skills and concepts around collaboration.
  • Model by facilitating team meetings: As teachers learn these skills, it can be helpful to have a coach lead meetings to model skills and behaviors of successful collaboration. Coaches can also model and share protocols for teams to use.
  • Train early adopters: Find teacher leaders who are eager to learn about collaboration and spend time training and coaching them to be leaders on their teams.
  • Co-planning collaborative work: Support teachers in utilizing skills and knowledge by co-planning collaborative work and meetings. Coaches can do this by co-planning agendas, protocols, and discussion strategies.

Looking forward

In part 2 next week, we'll visit the "why" and "how" of collaboration and explore how to build values and beliefs around it in your school. We'll also look at what it takes to build positive practice and actions to support it moving forward. Stay tuned!

About our Guest Blogger

Cailin Minor is a literacy coach at Shanghai American School. She has been teaching overseas for the past 11 years in Korea, Thailand, Colombia, and China. She loves international education and the challenging and rewarding work of coaching.

Be sure to check out her blog where explores tips, tools, and thoughts on instructional coaching or follow her on twitter @cailinminor.

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Topics: Tips and Tricks, Guest Blogger, Your Coaching Toolbox, Collaboration, Coaching PD, Co-Planning, School-Wide Goals

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