July 22, 2014 by

Stop, Collaborate, and Listen!

Collaborative Learning Week banner with ASCD logo

By Barry Saide and Christopher Bronke

Some might ask what a high school English department chair in the Chicago suburbs has in common with a 5th grade teacher in New Jersey. That’s a good question. On the surface, we are two educators who met at a conference, created a Twitter chat, and now enjoy a shared connection. What we have learned as a result of our interaction is more complex. Neither of us set out to produce a collaborative project. We went to a conference to have fun, to meet new people, and to take back a few new ideas that might help our students and schools continue to pursue excellence.

Barry passion

Educators across the country have similar goals when attending conferences every day. How did we turn our conference experience into an ever-growing Sunday night Twitter chat, a website dedicated to celebrating @amazingteaching, and a working relationship in which we are constantly pushing one another to be better educators(despite living over a thousand miles apart)?

The answer to this is simple: we put our passions first! Below are five tips that might help you develop a national collaborative network or, if nothing else, show you how putting passion first can help you in your effort to make education the best it can be in this country.

1. Let your passion drive your work.

We encourage you to start a side project grounded in your passion. Use this as your solace when your work world is tossed upside down by outside, uncontrollable forces.

There are elements of our career choice that are frustrating and draining. There are tasks we have to complete (paperwork, committee participation, meetings, etc.) and challenging stakeholders that can steal our time at a minimum, or drain our positive energy at worst. What we learned is that when we found a side project fueled by our passions, our energy, attitude, and drive at work was instantly increased and wonderfully sustained. Teaching is hard work, but because we knew we had a side project built on our passions, we instantly had something to fall back on when things around us were otherwise crazy or nonsensical.

For example, our weekly Twitter chats are a source of solace for us. When work is getting crazy and the world starts to revolve at a rate we cannot control, it is so fun to remove ourselves from that revolution and take an hour to communicate with the upcoming week’s guest-host on crafting questions for the chat. It is amazing how this sort of work helps us refocus our energies and keeps us moving forward.

2. Keep the momentum going.

We struggled with this when we returned from the conference where we met. Though we had many amazing ideas about how we would use what we heard to transform ourselves and everything around us, within two weeks of our return, we were back to the daily grind. The education-enlightening conference experience was swept away by the winds of work. We would never have pursued a side project if we didn’t have each other.

It is amazing how much a partner in crime can help keep the momentum going. If either of us tried to do this work in isolation, it would have slid by the wayside. However, because we knew we were accountable to and genuinely respected one another, we pushed on, refusing to let our excellent ideas go to waste. Instead, we invited a third person to join our team. This has helped us not only keep the momentum going, but also increase our level of productivity. So, partner up, hold each other accountable, and work hard to keep the momentum going. And if you can, find a third person to push your momentum past your expectations.

3. Ask for help.

We have both written about this in our individual blogs, and stress this again here—teaching is hard.  Pursuing a passion-based side project is time consuming. Keeping the momentum going is frustrating and draining. These are facts; however, we have a choice: let these facts stop us from doing our part to make American education the best it can be, or ask for help to make all of what we do easier. We cannot change anyone’s opinion on this, but we believe that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness; it is the ultimate sign of strength. Be strong. Be proud. Ask for help!

4. Have fun.

Having fun is the key to great collaboration. No one makes us do this sort of work, so if we aren’t having fun, what’s the point?

Legendary college basketball coach Jimmy Valvano once said, “If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day.” We couldn’t agree more, especially when it comes to collaborating with others. Sharing with and opening up to others is fun—we promise. Laugh with people, think with people, and cry with people. It makes everyone better, and sets an amazing example for our students.

5. Rinse and Repeat.

There will still be days when numbers 1–4 may not work. There may not be someone to ask for help. Momentum might stall, or you may use all of your passion to get through a day. It’s okay to be human and have a tough day, as long as we can remember to put it behind us. Remember, the next day has no memory of the day before.

More on collaborative learning and teacher effectiveness.