Collaborating on Collaboration and Professional Development

Kate Zehnder voyager
Kate Zehnder voyager

The word “collaboration” can often have a messy connotation. To some, that five-syllable word is associated with confusion. It can be loud, unstructured, overcrowded, and things rarely resolve perfectly when collaboration is involved.

That having been said, collaboration is also a core value of teachers at Voyager Academy High School. We not only require it of our students, but we practice it professionally.

At our campus in Durham, N.C., teachers work in Critical Friends groups twice a week to share ideas, debrief projects and lessons, discuss pedagogy and encourage cross-curricular teaching.

But just having these collaborative groups in place doesn’t mean they always work as well as we want. And even when they do, it doesn’t mean we always get the results in the classroom that we desire. The values are there, and the system is in place, but — as is often the case — more needs to be done.

As such, we brought a team of five teachers to Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center with the goal of improving our Critical Friends groups. Of course, we knew that was our goal, but that didn’t mean that we were able to articulate that to anyone else. And the irony did not escape us that we needed outside collaboration to help us realize that our goal of providing more effective collaboration. Eagle Rock gave us the place and the people necessary to achieve that goal.

voyager academy at eagle rock

Simply getting off our campus and isolating ourselves in the school was a start. A change of venue, a library of professional development resources, and quite frankly, a gorgeous mountain location was apparently exactly what we needed.

Dan Condon, Eagle Rock’s associate director of Professional Development, helped us start the conversations about improving our staff professional development by explaining his school’s own philosophy and struggles with it. We discussed the idea of restorative practices, and how to work with students rather than for them. It was easy for us to identify places where we could apply that mentality, but it was truly invigorating to hear the honesty that Dan and teachers at Eagle Rock infused into reflections on their own school. It’s freeing as a teacher to hear the struggles of others and feel safe to muddle through our own weaknesses.

The teachers at Eagle Rock opened their classrooms to us, and we participated in a debrief of student-centered coaching with those teachers, learning from and joining in on their collaborative process. We took away new structures for our own project debriefs at Voyager. In particular, we were excited about the idea of each teacher stating how they would apply something from the debrief to their own classrooms.

A team of teachers from Los Angles later joined us, and we used a protocol with them to work through our dilemma of more effective collaboration. The chance to work with other teachers, hearing their questions and ideas, helped us clarify our needs and come home with clear ideas for improvement. We were then able to reciprocate, using the same protocol to work through their dilemma of more effective project-based learning. And that process proved to be just as valuable for us.

The Voyager Academy teachers who went on this trip came home invigorated and excited to apply new strategies and systems to our Critical Friends groups. And as much as I enjoy the mess that collaboration usually entails, it.is nice to feel like that mess is progressing towards better teaching and student learning.

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