The Complex Idea of Creating Synergy


The classroom can be such an island for teachers as they close the door and do the work of teaching their students within the four walls of their classroom.  For that reason, collaboration remains a difficult idea for some teachers to embrace, especially in the advent of accountability and comparing data from one classroom to another.  Not often is there a collective effort of “our students” with a belief that both my students and your students can succeed without risking a loss to one of us.

Some say we learn best from and with others; therefore, teachers should not problem solve alone; they should solicit the help of their colleagues.  Certain teachers mistake collaboration as delegation.  One teacher writes the reading lesson plans, one writes the math plans, and so on.  Plans are then emailed or copied for each member of the team.  The team believes they are collaborating.  Educational consultant Ken Williams once said in a webinar, “Put one in my mailbox is not collaboration!”  Although the work leading up to that sharing could possibly be categorized as collaboration if teachers are addressing a problem of practice and working together, dissemination of material is not collaboration.  Rick Dufour (2003) says we should narrowly define teacher collaboration as “the systematic process in which we work together to analyze and impact professional practice in order to improve our individual and collective results.”  Collaboration in education should look like a team producing a product that does not have a single author, but the work of all involved.

According to Dennis Sparks (2013) teachers working together and collaborating can create synergy that benefits students most.  In his article on teacher teams, he referenced the work of Rush-Henrietta Central School District in Rochester, NY, which followed Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (2002).  They created a rubric with four characteristics: clarity of purpose, accountability, team structure, and trust. Each of these characteristics is rated on a continuum of: starting, developing, deepening, and sustaining.  If these four ideals were in place and approaching sustainability, the team was likely to carry out it’s goals and achieve at high levels.  Unlike what was previous thought of group process as a linear system, groups work in a cyclical fashion.  As groups are reconfigured and members are reassigned, these characteristics and phases are revisited and change the dynamics of the group.

J. Richard Hackman says the research is clear that teams underperform even in the right conditions (Couto, 2009).  He credits lack of coordination and motivation for the failure of many teams (groups).  Just as Lencioni  credited the team structure and forming as critical attributes to the success of the team, Hackman found that if a team does not have time to settle in, it is difficult to get the work off the ground.  This can be troubling when considering how often school groups can change due to new hires, retirements, promotions and/or transfers.

Another important point made by Hackman is that the deviant, one who questions and may stray from the original plan, is a powerful player in a group and can cause growth and creativity.  This brave soul who steps out of the norm and says, “wait a minute” may be someone who pushes the thinking of others and allows for innovation instead of mediocrity.  Most groups will discourage this risky move and crave the congeniality and continuity of the way things typically go.

In theory, one might think that collaboration would always produce better results than independent work; however, the conditions and participants are critical to a successful collaboration (David, 2009).  Also, some individuals simply work better alone rather than collaborating with others, especially in a forced situation.  Not only do we ask our teachers to collaborate with one another, but also our students should collaborate with others as this will prepare them for the workforce and help them become college and career ready.  This works nicely sometimes, under certain conditions, with certain individuals in certain group settings.


Couto, D. (2009).  Why teams don’t work.  Harvard Business Review.  Retrieved from

David, J. (2009).  What research says about collaborative inquiry.  Educational Leadership, 66, (4).  87-88.

Dufour, R. (2003).  ‘Collaboration lite’ puts student achievement on a starvation diet.  Journal of Staff Development.  24, (3), Retrieved from

Lencioni, P. (2002). The five dysfunctions of a team: A leadership fable. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Sparks, D. (2013). Strong teams, strong schools. Journal of Staff Development.  34, (2).  28-30.

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The Need for Teacher Leadership

There are many ways that a teacher can lead among their peers and sometimes teachers do so without being formally recognized as a teacher leader.  Peers will often turn first to those who can answer their questions without judgment and consequence. Teacher leaders serve in an advisory, not supervisory role to those in the classroom and have the current background knowledge and experience that can address the issues faced by those seeking assistance.

Teacher leaders are not hard to find. They are the ones who willing support and assist others because they like to or want to, not because they are asked to. Some have learned from their own mistakes, while others have a natural ability to problem solve and see the bigger impact and implications of decisions.

The call for collaboration among teachers has fostered teacher leaders to be resource providers. Many online websites allow teachers to upload and share materials made. Newly adopted Common Core State Standards will foster collaboration across the country as many teachers now have the same standards regardless of location.  Because of the quick transition to CCSS, districts in many states are also calling on classroom teachers to be instructional leaders or curriculum specialists to produce quality unit planners which address the standards. In Louisiana, a Teacher Leader Cadre was developed last year to include teacher representatives from each school in the state. The cadre participates in many learning opportunities together where teachers lead the training and collaborate to develop resources.

These critical roles do not come without a warning and often barriers to success.  The responsibilities of a teacher have considerably changed and increased over the last decade, especially in terms of accountability. The added stress can discourage a teacher from leading, she has enough to worry about in her own classroom, even though she has the potential and skill set to support her colleagues.  Being a teacher leader requires additional investments in the teacher and all to often schools do not want to allow the teacher time away from the classroom to develop her as a leader.

School systems must find a way to balance the duties of the classroom and the additional responsibilities of a leader when asking one to serve both roles.  They must also be willing to support and encourage the teacher leader if this role is to be authentic and effective. Next, entrust them to make decisions and consult with them about meaningful issues and value their input. Teacher leaders should not feel like the mouthpiece for the views of the administrator. They should be free to express their own professional opinions and speak to the knowledge and expertise they have in the field.

The benefits of teacher leadership far outweigh the cost. Think back to the original title of a school leader. Teachers who stood out among others as a leader and “managed” the school in addition to teaching students were named the principal teacher. As the role changed to one of managerial duties, the position was redefined as the principal. Yet, now again the role is reformed and the educator is asked to serve as the instructional leader of the campus with distributed leadership to others.

Many of the roles mentioned in this blog can be found in Taking the Lead by Joellen Killion & Cindy Harrison 

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Follow the Code

It can be difficult to discern the right thing to do when faced with competing or contradicting beliefs. If it is a dilemma in the workplace, such as a school system, guiding principles can be especially important. Teachers must consider how the decision affects the student, their parents or guardians, others families, and often times, themselves. Above all, educators are public servants and must act accordingly. A code of ethics acts as a reference to expectations of the right thing to do as a social responsibility.

As I consider my own personal statements of ethics, many ideas come to mind. Some are broad and need clarity, while others have some redundancy. To begin, I would like to examine those organizations that I look to for guidance in fulfilling my role as an effective leader and learner. I am a member of Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana (A+PEL), which is a national partner to Association of American Educators. These two teacher associations are nonunion and are committed first to the promotion of the education profession.

Currently as an instructional coach, the bulk of my work is to develop teachers and prepare them for being highly effective teachers in the classroom and also regarded as professionals in the community. Professional learning is critical to my role and that of teachers, so I am also an active member of Learning Forward Louisiana, the professional learning association devoted to advancing professional learning for student success. Learning Forward has a code of ethics for professional development leaders and professional development providers, so I will review both as I determine my own statements.

My first statement of ethics:

Educators are professionals who exemplify diligence and integrity to all their work.

To be deemed as authorities in their field, it is imperative that teachers see themselves as competent professionals and conduct business as such. Of course, depending on your own personal code of ethics, defining competent and what it looks like can vary from one educator to another. However, in general terms these educators work hard to study and improve their practice. They make honest decisions about how their work is done. This is accomplished not only by what happens in the classroom, but also most often by interactions outside of the teaching time.

In the advent of collaboration, leaders are encouraging teachers to work together, share ideas, and participate in creating meaningful learning experiences so all students learn. No longer should teaching be considered an island profession where educators work alone in a silo hoping for the best. Many teachers utilize online resources created and shared by teachers across the globe. Who knew this would be possible in the 21st century? However, the intellectual property of others should be cited even in such small cases.

My next statement of ethics is:

Educators consider how decisions impact students and their school experience.

Teachers are held accountable for providing student services to all students on both ends of the learning continuum, whether learning disabled or gifted and talented. Referral procedures are put in place in many schools to assure that students’ needs are identified and addressed. When teachers willfully neglect to provide accommodations, the chance of success for those students decreases and can be damaging to their future achievement in school. The reasons for not differentiating instruction and assessment range from not being aware of necessary accommodations, to being too busy and forgetting to do so, or it being a difficult task to accomplish. Educators cannot risk what is best for students at the mercy of what is easy for adults.

Students depend on adults to advocate for their best interest and ensure they have an opportunity to have access to a high quality education and achieve at high levels. Many would agree on this statement yet the level of commitment can vary from one ethical standpoint to another. Of significance in the overview, AAE states that students have a right to uninterrupted education free from strikes and other employment issues which focus on adults rather than students (Association of American Educators, n.d.). AAE believes strikes and boycotts are detrimental to the students and the reputation of teachers. I support the idea that nothing in education should be so distracting that teachers are taken away from the work of improving student learning.

My next statement of ethics:

Educators continuously seek learning opportunities to improve their practice.

Learning Forward’s code of ethics is written for professional development leaders and providers “to improve the quality of decision-making” (Learning Forward, 2001). Many times these groups are comprised of school or district level personnel, but they may also include outside consultants who are responsible for delivery of education material. Key positions in Learning Forward’s code of ethics center around the notion that professional learning contributes to school/district goals, are proven in practice, and have been evaluated for effectiveness (Learning Forward, 2001). Leaders and providers can offer quality opportunities, however, it is the responsibility of the educator to participate in these events and incorporate new learning in their work.

The challenging and rewarding task of teaching students is what works for one class, period, or year may not work the following class, period, or year. It is irresponsible for an educator to dismiss the changes needed to make learning at high levels possible. Research is constantly published to educate interested parties on what works. Media is rich with bases for learning more about education topics. It is impossible to utilize every bit of new information, but having a few good sources of information will allow teachers to keep learning and perfecting their practice.

            I have identified three personal statements of ethics that are broad enough to encompass several beliefs, yet still specific enough to know where I stand on certain issues. Moving from a teaching position to a leadership position over four years ago, really changed my perspective on ethics. For so long I believed, maybe naively, that all educators had the same code of ethics. Even though we did not discuss the written “code”, there was a certain level of understanding of right and wrong actions in the education profession. Now, I recognize the significance of ethics and more importantly the need to review, discuss, and adhere to a code of ethics.

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Starting Over

I love Mondays.  Not many people can say that, but I really do love Mondays.  As the first day of the work week, I believe Mondays give me a fresh start and a chance to make improvements from the last week.  More teacher visits need to be scheduled.  Special projects need revisions.  Requests from other staff have to be completed.  Data reports are ready to for me to analyze.  Papers need to be filed. I still haven’t read the three articles I bookmarked.

I try to carefully plan tasks, but in a leader’s world, being flexible and expecting the unexpected is required.  I learned last year about three kinds of work-necessary work, important work, and wasted work.  I often struggle with what I need to get done and what I want to get done.  I strive to balance all three kinds of work, yet there are times I am unsuccessful with the balance, spending too much time on necessary work or wasted work and not enough time on the important work.  

Starting over on Mondays gives me permission to forgive myself for not attacking every project and assignment the week before and an opportunity to create an updated plan for this week.  Lots of reflection is needed to determine how I will start over and make each week better than the next.  I’m an optimistic planner.

  • How can I improve the tools I already use in my practice?
  • What new learning opportunities will I present for teachers?
  • How can I incorporate more technology in our learning together?
  • What big ideas will lead our learning together?

I realize a new week isn’t needed to answer these questions or revise my work.  I can always change the pace and start over tomorrow.

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Live as a Learner

Instructional Rounds in Education, a book about improving teaching and learning by conducting rounds (similar to medical model) where a team observes, discusses, and analyzes classrooms, details seven principles of the instructional core. Here is one that had a lasting impression on me (#6): 

We learn to do the work by doing the work, not by telling other people to do the work, not by having done the work at some time in the past, and not by hiring experts who can act as proxies for our knowledge about how to do the work.

What does it mean to do the work?

During an #educoach twitter chat a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I live as a teacher, even in my coaching position. Among other strategies and practices, I write lesson plans for my PLCs, I use formative assessment techniques to assess participants’ learning, and I try my best to differentiate for the adult learners.  I could not imagine teaching and promoting something that I could not do myself.  Teachers would see right through that facade and I would lose all credibility.  

One of my online mentors Kathy Perret added not only should coaches and administrators live as teachers, but also live as learners.  She is right.  I am a learner first.  I read daily about education to learn how others are effectively improving their practice.  I started blogging to experience this integration of writing and technology.  I participate in various online learning structures so that I can understand the benefits and convenience of connecting with others anywhere at anytime.  I read for leisure to live as a reader who can genuinely promote reading (and because it helps me escape).  

I strongly believe I can do anything if I discipline myself to learn about it.  Dweck would say I have a growth mindset.  With that thought, I had a name for my blog for all the things I hope to work on, note the last word: 

I haven’t learned that yet.

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The Truth Is…

If reenacted by teachers, the profound Nicholson statement, “You can’t handle the truth!” would startle some school leaders because, quite frankly, I have known some who can’t and don’t want to hear it.  As an instructional coach, I have heard my share of the truth from teachers.  My role affords me the opportunity to listen without judgement, without consequence, without retaliation.  No matter the conversation, I listen with intent because their perceptions are their truth and this truth will shape many of their beliefs about our school system, culture, leadership, and future.

Highly effective people adhere to the habit of “seek first to understand”.  Using probing questions, I gather details hoping to identify the breakdown, the derailment, when the truth was altered.  I credit my reading of Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott which taught me to recognize there are multiple truths, each of us own a part of it.  This interrogation of reality is often avoided or dismissed at onset, but all participants must be fully engaged to move forward.  When I feel the need to interrupt the conversation, I remind myself the goal is not to defend my truth, but to provoke learning.  

In an #atplc twitter chat a few weeks ago, @DCulberhouse tweeted “it’s better to hear what needs to be heard, rather than it be said in the parking lot, for it will be said.”  Now that is truth! In this new year, I will live that mantra because in the end, I do want to know.  Earlier this week, I confronted a truth that needed to be addressed.  I won’t pretend it was perfect or painless.  I still made mistakes and did not agree with everything said, but I invited my partner to respond, learned from it, accepted responsibility for my contribution to the issue, and enriched the relationship.  It will be a conversation that I won’t soon forget; it could be the conversation that sets the norm to share the truth.  

The truth is… I can handle it.  


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Questioning Myself

When I first became an instructional coach, I felt torn between teachers and administrators, each group wanting my time and attention. My daily tasks were often not found in my job description and the list of expectations continued to grow as I struggled to identify my urgent priorities.  This new job seemed bigger than I anticipated.  I wanted to please everyone and make their job feel manageable, so I took on more projects.  With every request, I gave a YES, no problem! When the time came for me to evaluate this insurmountable to do list, one question surfaced and influenced my decisions.  Who do you work for?  I reread the job description and each bulleted descriptor seemed to center on “support teachers”.  It was clear.  I worked for the teachers.  The central office hired me, paid my salary; the principal supervised my work; but the teachers justified the need for my services.   

As my work with teachers continued, there were so many things to teach, learn, refine, explore.  Being an elementary instructional coach, I worked with teachers in all content areas.  This sometimes was a daunting task because I wanted to have expertise in all of it to best support teachers.  Kindergarten to fifth grade.  Reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. I knew I would never have all the answers, but that kept me growing and learning.  Constantly reading and redelivering information to teachers, I thrived.  Each discussion brought new questions and opportunities for research.  Although impossible, I kept trying to master my field.  The hamster on the wheel image led me to the next profound question.  Where are you going?  For my own good, I needed to set a five-year plan for where I hoped to be in my career.  I worked incredibly hard every week to develop teachers, but felt I was not doing enough to develop my own path.  I still have not fully answered this question, but the reflective journey has shaped my recent choices on how to spend my time and energy.

Confucius said, “Choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”  As a parent who also happens to be an educator, it can be difficult to separate your work from your life, especially when your children are school-aged.  During my “down time”, I read and learn more about my teaching, their learning and enjoy it!  I’ll be honest, guilt crept in as I worried how this can affect my family, but the only noticeable change was the increased time each child spent developing their own passions.  My son-the musician, my daughter-the dancer; both of them choosing to seek more creative ways to express the work they love.  I would like to think my parenting along with my strong work ethics will shape who they become as adults.  While I sit and wonder about the upcoming year, I pose two questions.  Who am I and why am I here? 

Questions. They can be more powerful than the answers. 

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What’s Next?

Summer gives me a chance to refuel.  Not because I spend my summer weeks relaxing, but because I spend countless hours and days researching and refining what I do for those other 180+ days.  Spending this time upfront preparing and analyzing really does allow me to be more efficient in the long run.  I need my energy throughout the year for problem solving and teaching.  Not a minute to spare because as the Super once said, “the children are waiting.”

This summer I learned how to use Twitter as a professional learning tool.  I cannot keep up with all the valuable information posted, even at 140 characters as a time.  In one month’s time I went from reading tweets occasionally to an obsession of checking every hour to moderating my first twitter chat for #PLC101.  I have followed some of the most passionate, innovative leaders who give me hope that small pockets of excellence can lead to successful systems; and if no one else chooses to lead the way, it becomes even more imperative that I attempt to do so, for teachers and students.

Which leads me to my second summer marathon of learning, blogging.  Considering myself a writer is almost laughable to me; it is something I appreciate and profoundly respect in others, but it is not something that comes easily to me.  However, there are times when I beg for an avenue to release the thousands of swimming thoughts in my head which often leave me restless.  And so here I am, three paragraphs into my first blog, with so much more to say.  I am reminded of the important lesson from Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In.  Shift your thinking from “I’m not ready to do that” to thinking “I want to do that-and I’ll learn by doing it.”  I have to wonder…what’s next?

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