Designing a School for Teacher Collaboration

The journey between the head and the heart

Over time I’m discovering how much our own experience in life and in school affects how we handle situations and how we teach. We bring a very strong belief about schooling to our classrooms every day and in every way.

  • What was your experience in school?
  • What is your story?
  • What do you believe is a good education?
  • What is your idea of an educated person?
  • How should schooling look like?

One of the first questions I asked Randall Fielding of Fielding Nair International is why he decided to immerse himself in school design and create amazing new innovative learning spaces. The answer was simple, yet daring – he ran away from school in Kindergarten because it was nothing like the comfort of his home, which eventually led him to deinstitutionalize schools and make them more inviting and caring spaces.

Norma Rose Point School is a Fielding Nair design produced by local architects, Think Space. The learning spaces – or pods – are indeed comfortable, welcoming and inviting. They are designed for up to four teachers to collaborate, and to share a professional office and learning community of 66-120 students. The teachers co-plan and co-teach. We often refer to it as “working in community” as teachers do not escape to isolation. It can be an absolutely magical environment and learning situation. However, it also creates a level of discomfort for teachers that can be too much for some to handle. It is our greatest challenge and it shouldn’t be a surprise. Since everyone experienced schooling in their own way, and often in a traditional setting, educators’ ideas are diverse and every teacher has their own “movies of the mind” as to how a student’s educational experience should look like. Sometimes teachers become absorbed in their own movies of their mind that it is bound to create tension that does not exist when teaching in isolation.

What would you do if you were expected to work as part of a team the majority of the time? How would that look for you?

Clay Shirky describes three levels of collaboration referenced as the Shirky Ladder:  sharing, cooperation and collective action. Although he frames his model in the context of the Internet and social media and how they are enabling forms of collaboration outside of traditional norms, it has incredible relevance on collaborative efforts within schools. These levels exist on a ladder of increasing commitment, risk and reward. The rungs represent how much the individual has to work to coordinate actions with the group. Sharing is the easiest of the three. You offer something of use to others who can do as they wish with the item or content. Cooperating is the second level and is harder because it means “changing your behaviour to synchronize with others who are changing their behaviour to synchronize with yours”. Cooperating involves shared risk and reward – conversational skills are important as well as adhering to mutually agreed upon standards while remaining flexible. Collective action is the third and rarest level of collaboration – when a group of people commit themselves to a shared effort where it’s an “all in” kind of thing. It requires significant collaboration and dedication. It’s a game changer and creates interest and demand from others regarding the collective efforts. It’s the hardest to get going and to sustain, involves shared risk, reward and accountability. This level is by far the most difficult as good intentions can be lost because of individuals motivated by their own need over the collective good.

At Norma Rose Point School, we are definitely immersed in collective action. We are not working in silos. We are organized in pods and are accountable to all students. Our collective efforts in flexible learning spaces with creative and innovative professionals is atypical in a school setting and is being recognized by others worldwide. However, I’ve been struggling for the past two years to find out how I, as a school leader, can engage staff in addressing the messiness of collaboration and in establishing practices for success. I’m left with more questions than answers:

  • Why is it so hard to work together?  
  • What have teachers learned so far about their collaborative efforts?  
  • What has worked well?  
  • What are the advantages? Unique possibilities?
  • How do we decrease the inordinate amount of stress and “divorces” happening within communities?  
  • What is causing the “divorces”?  
  • What creates an effective team?

In general, there is a common understanding that a collaborative group of educators has a potential that doesn’t exist in isolation. Groups can transform educational practice by building on everyone’s strengths to improve learner outcomes. In the article by Steve Munby and Michael Fullan, Inside-out and downside-up:  how leading from the middle has the power to transform education systems, they speak of “cluster-based school collaboration” as an avenue for system-wide school improvement, in essence to what Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser have been advocating for decades in establishing networks of inquiry and innovation in British Columbia. Fullan and Munby note the success factors for effective system-wide school collaboration:

  1. Above all, the purpose of collaboration must be to improve outcomes.

  2. Building on #1, every partnership must be founded on a clearly articulated shared moral purpose.

  3. If we accept #2, then we should also see that transparency, trust and honesty are both crucial and a professional obligation.

  4. A commitment to and capacity for effective peer review form the engine that drives improvement under these conditions. (p. 5)

Unequivocally, it is agreed that collaborating towards collective action is worth pursuing. How, then, should it be pursued?  

A recent article in the New York Times, What Google Learned in its Quest to Build the Perfect Team says that it’s not about the WHO, but rather it’s about establishing group norms and listening with heart. The successful teams shared insecurities, fears and aspirations and created successful psychological safety. A beginning point, then, is to spend the time to learn what each team member is about and to share vulnerability.

Steven Covey has long spoken about one’s emotional bank account and how we need to make deposits into these accounts otherwise they go into withdrawal. We need to continually build the trust – enough trust to make many withdrawals without going far into overdraft.

How do we navigate this? How do we navigate through the difficult times?

Patrick Lencioni in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team speaks about teams as inherently dysfunctional since they are made up of imperfect individuals who have egos and selfish goals. He goes on to speak about making teamwork a top priority and why trust is the basis of all teamwork. Building trust within the team allows members to share vulnerabilities, weaknesses and mistakes openly and become comfortable engaging each other in conflict. A revealing comment is that teams perform poorly in the absence of teamwork because they waste time and energy on politics – trying to outmaneuver each other. This results in low morale, less focus on performance and the loss of valuable players who have had enough.

With all of the above stated perspectives from the field, what I realize, first and foremost, is that we need to go back to establishing our group norms and our moral purpose before moving any further. Although collective action is exhilarating, it presents many challenges within an educational setting such as ours. In almost two years, what have we learned as part of our lived experience at Norma Rose Point? Here are the basics of what we need to continually work on.

First and foremost, we need to be willing to let go of past assumptions, traditions and beliefs unless they are grounded in research. Our ways need to be evidence based not just feelings based. No one can say that they know everything and have 100% success rate. It’s not humanly possible to believe that your way is the only way. Listen as much as you speak while modeling respect. Being respectful means although this is not the perfect way for me, it’s OUR way based on everyone feeling heard and valued. It may not be my right and true way but we will get there, incrementally. It’s not going to look like your last school. It’s not going to look like your “movie in your mind”. It’s going to look like a bit of each member on the team.

Everyone. Represented. Valued.

Remember, without trust, people aren’t wanting to be told how to change. They are wanting to be told that they and their ideas are valued, first and foremost. Without having built trust, instead of thinking of major changes all the time, why not just consider minor edits? Minor edits over time creates trust and the impetus for change. This will allow for sustainable working groups instead of fleeing working groups.

You need to give it time. A brand new group of people coming together to team is like entering Kindergarten. The following year of working together is like entering Grade 1 and so forth. We need time to build on our skills and to grow as learners. Even adults.

We know that establishing group norms is important but we aren’t harping on it as much as she should.  There are standard norms but we need to be very specific and detailed about what each team has agreed to – from which days they will be staying late to when no more changes can be made to a day’s plan. The group expectations need to be explicitly stated to ensure a common understanding. Set ground rules and play within those rules.


Do not compare. How do we find the fine point that allows us to change things while not diminishing someone else’s worth? There’s a fine line and it’s challenging to know where the tipping point rests with every individual. Different teams will look different. One is no less nor better than the other. Modeling care is foundational. Judging others gets us nowhere. In fact, it gets others on the highway away from the team. Remember, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it that matters.” Focus on your group and your strengths. Avoid comparisons.

Communicate and assume you are being filmed. Every group recognizes the individual that has a harder time accepting compromise if they don’t get their way so others back off. Teachers become silenced because of what others say or how they behave. Be careful not to show anger and to refrain from being judgemental. The dissatisfied feel put down, inadequate, afraid to speak, and not acknowledged for their strengths. Those getting their way, feel even more frustrated things aren’t moving along as fast as they want them to move along. Everyone believes they are compromising their ways. Never abandon your team in haste, in anger or in frustration. Talk about what you are experiencing on a weekly basis by reflecting on collaboration using this protocol, adapted from Navigators Council:

  • What brought you joy this week?
  • What was something that was hard this week?
  • What is one specific thing I can do for you this coming week?
  • Is there anything that has gone unsaid:  convictions, confessions, unresolved hurt?
  • What’s a dream or thought that’s been on the forefront of your mind this week?

The questions above very much reflect on connections of the heart. Lara-Lisa Condello quoted in Arresting Hope offers an insight shared by a medicine man, “The longest journey I will travel is the twelve inches between my head and heart.” May our continued efforts recognize this undeniable journey between the head and the heart. At the same time, may trust ensue to take on the necessary challenges within our innovative learning environment because “with trust, conflict is nothing but the pursuit of truth”.

Meet the Expert(s)

rosa fazio

Rosa Fazio

Rosa is passionate about changing schools to reflect our world. For the past 27 years, she has been working in the education sector providing leadership in alternative settings, inner-city and affluent communities, always looking to spearhead new initiatives to engage learners. The launching of Norma Rose Point K5 and Middle School (NRP), an innovative learning environment, has taught her most about how learning spaces can transform the way students and staff experience learning. Always seeking to improve, she values change and the challenge it presents in making today’s schools the best possible learning environments for all learners. To connect with Rosa, check out her twitter feeds @collabtime and @RosePointSchool or learn more at http://rosafazio.com.

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