Making Collaborative Teams Meaningful and Effective

Cory Johnson, School Improvement Consultant

Business teamwork

Throughout Great Prairie, schools have built structures and implemented processes to promote collaboration amongst the teaching staff. The models vary (Data Teams, Professional Learning Communities (PLC), etc.) but the purpose is the same: create a collaborative culture that ensures what Austin Buffum and Mike Mattos describe as the 4Cs: Collective Responsibility, Concentrated Instruction, Convergent Assessment, and Certain Access. The Great Prairie School Improvement Team has developed a new tool that schools and teams can use to monitor and improve collaborative structures and processes.

Teacher collaboration is not a new concept. In the 1990’s, Linda Lambert wrote about the development of Leadership Capacity, Robert Garmston and Bruce Wellman wrote and presented workshops to support the development of collaborative groups, and the DuFours and their colleagues began publishing materials to support the development of Professional Learning Communities. Other authors followed with their own structures including Doug Reeves, Brian McNulty, and their colleagues with the Data Teams model. These researchers and others, including Carrie Leana, Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves, and John Hattie have provided evidence to support the value of teacher collaboration.

It seems as though models of teacher collaboration continue to teeter on the edge of success. Most educators recognize the value and importance of building “Social Capital” in school settings. However, the disagreement over which model to use, difficulty finding time, the social dynamics of schools, confusing protocols, and the feeling amongst teachers of having “something else” added to their plate seem to become barriers to fully embedded implementation. Indeed, most collaborative structures continue to be leader dependent and have difficulty continuing after that leader’s departure.

In 2004, Richard DuFour wrote:

The professional learning community model has now reached a critical juncture, one well known to those who have witnessed the fate of other well-intentioned school reform efforts. In this all-too-familiar cycle, initial enthusiasm gives way to confusion about the fundamental concepts driving the initiative, followed by inevitable implementation problems, the conclusion that the reform has failed to bring about the desired results, abandonment of the reform, and the launch of a new search for the next promising initiative. [Further] reinforcing the conventional education wisdom that promises, “This too shall pass.” (p. 6)

DuFour recommended that in order to avoid this inevitable failure, schools must maintain a focus on the big ideas and concepts. What are the primary components of the model we have chosen and are we focused on implementing them with fidelity? As GPAEA Chief Administrator, Dr. Jon Sheldahl wrote in the September 2014 issue of the Cornerstone, the “characteristics of the system trump picking the right model.” The ‘right model’ is the one that promotes effective teacher collaboration and improved student achievement within the contexts of each individual school environment.

How does a school develop a structure and process that becomes embedded in the culture of the building and the staff? Keep a focus on the essential components of the collaborative process and be sure that all staff members have a common understanding of the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of these components. The Great Prairie School Improvement Team has defined the Characteristics of Effective Collaboration. Currently in rubric form, these research-based characteristics are described along a continuum so that schools, and the teams within them, can identify their current reality and develop clear plans for deeper implementation of collaborative structures and processes. The rubric, originally published last year, has been revised based on our experiences using the first version of the tool with schools and our continued research on the subject. The new version of the rubric, along with supporting documents, will be available next week and can be found at

Clarifying these structures and processes locally is essential to success in your school. While published models, protocols, agendas, and other materials are available, the context of each school varies. Utilizing the GPAEA Effective Collaboration Rubric will allow your system to measure your collaborative structures against research based best practices regardless of which model you have chosen to implement.

The members of the Great Prairie School Improvement Team are eager to help you use this new tool and are available to support the work of collaborative teams in your school.

Great Prairie School Improvement Team
Evan McCormick-Eastern Region
Cory Johnson-Central Region
Mike Stiemsma-Western Region
Doreen Underwood-Diverse Learners
Dr. Lonna Anderson-Director of Instructional Services

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