Amanda Steeley, Special Education Teacher

Words Don’t Define People, People Define Words

Collaboration. Inclusion. Diversity. Student-centered learning. The list goes on… There are so many key collaborative-wordswords that stakeholders equate with improved student outcomes. However, like any good learning objective (more key words!), we must define outcomes and procedures in order to truly evaluate the effectiveness of these words. Today I would like to define collaboration.

You will never hear an employer or employee say, “We’d really rather not collaborate here.” Most people agree that diverse groups, working together, offer more than either would alone. But anyone can put diverse groups in a room together with little return. It is how the groups work together that improves outcomes.

Collaboration is…balancing courage with consideration.


So how do Joe and I work together? What makes this collaborative team click? If you meet either one of us, you will encounter energy and enthusiasm. These are character traits that we share beyond our love for education. But we don’t always agree.

Like any good relationship, we both must constantly be present in recognizing the goals, intentions, and motivations of the other person while communicating our own goals, intentions and motivations. As Dr. Stephen Covey said, we must balance “courage with consideration.”

Collaboration is…building each other up.

Yesterday was a special day. Joe was asked to introduce the superintendent of Goochland County Public Schools, Dr. Jeremy Raley, at a Goochland Education Foundation (GEF) event welcoming Dr. Raley to the school system. As the Teacher of the Year for GCPS, and a recipient of a GEF grant that funded our field trips to Powhatan State Park, it made sense that Joe was invited to this event.

The money that we received from the GEF to visit Powhatan State Park was the result of a grant Joe took the time to apply for before we even worked together. But, because we teach collaboratively, and because I was a part of the trip, he requested that I be there, too. When he got up to speak, he invited me up, too. He always seeks to highlight my strengths to others. This not only empowers me, but it increases my trust in him. As a result, collaboration in the classroom is enhanced.

Collaboration is…how you handle disagreements.

Before we went to the GEF event, we spent the day teaching. When our students were outside with the P.E. teacher, Joe and I found ourselves in a conversation with another teacher. I didn’t agree with what Joe was collaborativesaying. I had to share my perspective. I felt strongly about my viewpoint as a special educator.

“I love the way you advocate for students,” was Joe’s genuine response. This exchange again increased my trust. We don’t always have to see eye to eye, but for collaboration to work, we do have to recognize the goals, intentions, and motivations of the other person, and yesterday, Joe did that for me.

I responded with gratitude and shared that I would rather not express disagreement unless it is something I feel strongly about. Joe said that he knew that about me, and told the other teacher that that was also why he was wiling to stop and consider my perspective – if I was speaking up, there was probably a good reason. And so personifies the value of picking your battles…

How To Create a Culture of Collaboration

Good employers hire not just because of a convincing resume, but also because of a connection that’s made with a potential employee.

If you want to know what collaboration is, I believe you must start with this same attitude: Look for a connection first. Joe and I sought to work together because we recognized each other’s strengths and we received administrative support to work together. I believe that our collaborative collaboration-teacherrelationship is a win-win-win: We both benefit, and so do our students.

If you want to increase collaboration, if you want to make it more than just a word, you must carve out time for general education and special education teachers to meet, share goals, interview one another, and have a voice in who they ultimately choose to work with.

I have heard some school systems will pull apart strong collaborative teams to “share the love” and grow the practice among teachers who wouldn’t be open to collaborative teaching otherwise. This doesn’t work. It’s like calling a fish a bird and asking it to sing. This is an example of using the word – collaboration – without defining it’s meaning.

In order to get people excited about collaboration, you must show them a team that’s excited about working together, you must allow them to experience the personal journey to wanting the benefits of collaboration in their own classroom, and you must let them choose who they work with based upon personally conducted, and administratively supported, research. To create a culture of collaboration, you must allow individuals to become vested in the collaborative teaching experience.

Collaboration, simply put, is relationship building at its finest.