Holly Valentine | July 2021

6 Steps to Create
Natural Collaboration

Collaboration. It’s hard. Especially when we are in the thick of it and we feel the pressures of the school curriculum and calendar weighing down on us. I can remember all the times I have wanted to have that natural connection with teaching peers, but there just wasn’t time to make it happen – or to convince other people the importance of it. But now, here we are in summer and we do have the luxury of time and being able to really think about our common goals, needs, and the ways to make it happen.

No matter your position in school, helping to facilitate and take part in collaborations will not only benefit you and your teaching practices (making you more aware of the areas outside of your focus), but it will open new access points to students. There are so many paths to mastering new knowledge, which is when collaboration and integration become important. Let’s take a look at a few key steps to collaborating and making it successful. 

Start Small

Teachers and administrators tend to think big. We see the whole picture and tend to think in units or themes. But for beginning the journey of collaboration… don’t! Set yourself up for success by starting small. Find one lesson that just isn’t working or a standard that isn’t sinking in. Think of the collaboration as a way to solve a problem – a small problem. It is going to open a different door for students and allow them to experience the topic or idea differently. This is how you need to think no matter how you are approaching the collaboration.

You might be a curriculum leader challenged with helping a grade level, or an administrator challenged with improving a certain piece of data, or a classroom teacher whose students clearly didn’t understand the topic of the last math test.  No matter where you are, start small. Give yourself something you can bite off and chew on, in a way that will leave you wanting more after you see the benefits of the successful collaboration.

Find a Friend

Especially if this is your first venture into true collaboration, find someone with whom you already know you have a great connection. Even if your two areas do not rise to the top when you think about ways to collaborate, working with a person you already can communicate well with will help immensely. Chances are this person thinks like you, has similar educational goals and philosophies to you, and is simply someone you enjoy being around. Administrators, allow teachers that are buddies to work together for this. Taking away unnecessary struggles will only help to create a successful experience. 

Talk!

Simply sit and have a conversation with your collaborative partner about what it is you see students struggling with. Have each person share. Find the commonalities, and trust me, they will arise. Very often, listening to the struggles someone else might be having allows you to bring a fresh perspective to the table. You will have ideas for each other simply because it’s often easier to see solutions for other people. It’s summer, so grab this potential collaborator and go grab a cup of coffee or an ice cream. Encourage the conversational atmosphere, while you are also continuing to build your collaborative relationship and finding a common goal. Natural collaborations will arise out of these conversations! 

Plan Separately, Plan Together

After you have talked and identified the area in which to collaborate (or even if you have been “assigned” a collaborator and subject area), it’s very important that you take some time to plan your thoughts in respect to your focus area. If you are an arts teacher, (or a content teacher) what are the areas your students are struggling with in regards to your chosen topic? What are their areas of success? On a piece of paper, make a list of the answers to these questions. Answer the questions only for your area.

Allow your collaborative partner to do the same for their area. Ideally, this collaboration is happening between an arts teacher and a content teacher, but that doesn’t always necessarily need to be the case. Perhaps you are two different grade level teachers, or you are a curriculum specialist planning to co-teach with a classroom teacher. No matter your roles, you have a special area of focus. This step is important. Plan and think separately. This gives validation to your area of focus, keeping the needs, challenges and positives front and center. 

Come Together

Now go through your answers together, each of you having a copy. Highlight any areas that are exactly the same. Consider and list any commonalities your two areas have together. This task is often easier when you now focus on the area that is not your specialty. Why? You will be looking at that area through your own lens. Perhaps you are a 4th grade teacher, looking at what a visual art teacher wrote. You will naturally look at her thoughts through a 4th grade lens, looking for ways her curriculum can support yours, and vice versa. Take note of these commonalities and talk about them together taking note of them. This is not a process that takes a long time, but it’s important. This is where your collaboration will naturally develop from. 

Create, Communicate, Collaborate

You found the commonalities – now start creating. Teach creatively. Use your common goals and needs to design an experience that will allow your students to access your material in a new way, using the focus of the person you are working with. You’ve been focusing a lot on the areas of struggle, but be sure you also have spoken about your areas of strength. What part of your teaching style really helps kids relate? Be sure you use that! Use the parts of your curriculum they get and will be able to use as building blocks to this new challenge.

It’s important to keep communicating together while you are creating and designing this new task or lesson. If you go back into your respective bubbles, you will only continue to give attention to your area of focus, which defeats the whole purpose of collaboration. Stop communicating and one area will end up being in service to the other. Trust your collaborating partner. You both want your kids to succeed and gain new knowledge, and trust me, they will. 

Collaborations can open so many doors. It allows you to see your students master difficult subjects and perhaps most importantly, a good collaboration allows other teachers to see how beneficial it can be. It will open the eyes of more teachers around you as they will want similar experiences for their students. But collaborations don’t happen over night. They require thoughtful and purposeful planning. Now is the time to think about it. Open those doors to your students and you will also be teaching them the importance of collaboration as they witness it firsthand. Be brave, take a risk, and collaborate! 

About the Author

Holly Valentine is the Director of Curriculum and Assessment for the Institute for Arts Integration and Steam. Prior to joining the Institute, Holly worked as an Arts Integration and Classroom Teacher for 20 years in a suburb of Rochester, NY. She is a certified Arts Integration Specialist and has served as an Arts Standards Writer for the New York State Education Department. Holly has been a recipient of the NYC Broadway League's Apple Award for her work in Arts Education. She also serves as the Director of Education for the Rochester Broadway Theatre League, where she has created nationally recognized programs and develops standards-based curriculum for touring Broadway shows in order to bring the theatre to classrooms and classrooms to the theatre. Holly holds both a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theatre and Psychology as well as a Masters degree in Education from Nazareth College in Rochester, NY,  where she currently lives.