Chapter 5: Collaboration

By William Powell

Traditionally, teaching has been characterized as a "lonely" profession (Sarason, Levine, Godenberg, Cherlin & Bennet, 1966, p. 74) and historically, much of the work of teachers has been performed in isolation from their professional colleagues (Lortie, 1975; Rosenholtz, 1989).

If the regular classroom teacher has felt isolated and alone, the special educator must have felt even more so. The segregation of traditional special education programs further removed and alienated the special needs teacher from the core life of the school.

Accordingly, the special education 'mystique' was fostered. Regular classroom teachers came to perceive educators working with exceptional children as having some special preparation or capacity for their work. "Special educators were a breed apart . . . and it was inappropriate to expect teachers lacking in such preparations and inclination to participate in educating students in wheelchairs or students who have difficulty learning academics (Stainback & Stainback, 1995, p. 19)." In other words, special educators had opted to serve these children, and it was better left to them. This separation and specialization also implied that other educators could opt out of responsibility for these children. Special educators created a repertoire of specialist terms that often confused parents, alienated classroom teachers and further removed them from membership in a genuine learning community.

Ironically, the resulting territoriality rarely served the educational interests of the special needs child who was frequently 'fought over' for scheduling purposes and sometimes also 'given up on' by teachers who had too many pull-out schedules to keep track of during the course of a week. Without the skills to enter a professional dialogue with one another, special and general education teachers often found themselves in opposition to one another. After experiencing the move to an in-class model of student support, one regular class teacher remarked: "I used to hate it in those days when you took the children out of my class. I never knew what you were doing with them and I felt I would look stupid if I asked. I thought what I was teaching was important, but I never knew how to tell you that." While the teacher never previously stated her feelings, the non-verbal communication had certainly been made. Little did she know how difficult it also was for the special education teacher to enter hostile territory to retrieve a child for his scheduled pull-out time.

With the introduction of the Regular Education Initiative (Will, 1986) and as inclusive educational practices have spread, we have seen the successful return of many exceptional children - ESL, children with learning disabilities and the highly capable - to the regular classroom. This inclusion has inevitably been accompanied by a simultaneous return of the special educator to the core professional life of the school.

This return has not been without its accompanying difficulties, as general and special education teachers alike have had to sort out new roles and 'terms of engagement.' The questions remain the same, e.g. Who is responsible for the education of special needs children? What curricular program should they have? Now that the location for supporting exceptional children has changed to the regular classroom, general and special educators have to develop interactional skills to participate effectively in the joint planning, problem solving and instructional delivery needed to promote the success of exceptional learners (Stanovich, 1996; Voltz, Elliott & Cobb, 1994).

And this has happened by way of collaboration.

At this point, it is appropriate for us to reiterate that one of our core inclusive assumptions is that a professional partnership is exponentially more effective and more satisfying than the sum of its parts.

Collaboration is a deceptively simple concept with wide-ranging and exciting implications for the education of all children and the effectiveness of all educators. Originally termed "collaborative consultation," the emphasis was upon the special educator and the classroom teacher sharing information about a child so as to better plan an appropriate educational program. Such consultation was defined as an interactive process that enables people with diverse expertise to generate creative solutions to mutually defined problems (Idol, Paolucci-Whitcomb & Nevins, 1987). The operant definition was later expanded to refer to the participants as co-equal partners (Friend & Cook, 1992) and as having a shared vision (Wiig, 1992). The expanding definition reflected a broadening of the concept of collaboration in common professional practice.

Simply defined, collaboration takes place when members of an inclusive learning community work together as equals to assist students to succeed in the classroom. This may be in the form of lesson planning with the special needs child in mind, or co-teaching a group or class. Friend and Cook (1992, p. 6 - 28) listed the defining characteristics of successful collaboration as follows:

1. Collaboration is voluntary;

2. Collaboration requires parity among participants;

3. Collaboration is based on mutual goals;

4. Collaboration depends on shared responsibility for participation and decision making;

5. Individuals who collaborate share their resources; and

6. Individuals who collaborate share accountability for outcomes.

Many years ago, when the elementary section of the International School of Tanganyika first moved to a collaborative approach in serving students with special needs, general
education teachers were given the option of forming collaborative partnerships with the special education teachers. In the first year of the program, very few took up the invitation. A variety of reasons were cited: suspicion of the unknown, lack of self-confidence in sharing personal classroom space, and increased responsibility for the education of special needs children. Despite the slow start, class teachers and special educators did gradually come to understand the potential of their relationships and what they each stood to learn from the other. The exposure also served to de-mystify special education practices for the class teacher and enhance appreciation for the regular class program for the special educator. In her annual review of their collaborative work, one 5th grade teacher said she especially appreciated the credibility of the special education teacher and her skill when conferencing with "difficult parents." The class teacher also appreciated having learned some of the theory behind using specific strategies that had made content more accessible to diverse learners. The special education teacher said her own learning curve had also been high, recognizing how quickly the class teacher was able to assess changing classroom dynamics and adapt lessons accordingly.

Knowledge, perspectives and values must be shared by participants in order for collaboration to be successful, and for this to happen, participants must be willing to work together. Collaboration can be an expectation in an organization but individuals must participate voluntarily. They need to develop and share common goals for their work together and have sufficient knowledge to understand the ideas and suggestions of other participants. Team members must have compatible and interactive work styles. Their individual knowledge needs to be complementary and yet the team members need to have sufficiently different perspectives and experiences so as to make their contributions diverse.

Clear, simple definitions may inadvertently suggest that the concept itself is simple. Collaboration is anything but simplistic. At its heart collaboration means:

• Self-consciously forging constructive interpersonal relationships

• Working towards interdependence (giving and receiving help)

• Sharing information, expertise, observations and reflections

• Overcoming territoriality - "turfism has no place in the collaborative process (Tilton, 1996, p. 129)"

• Moving beyond what Piaget termed "egocentrism"

• Instilling a community-wide expectation of ongoing reflection and professional development

• Participating in co-planning and co-teaching

• Working to improve communication

• Developing a sense of belonging and membership in a learning community

• Creating a common vision/a shared purpose

• Moving from the idea of "work" to the concept of meaningful mission, what Hannah Arendt (1958) refers to as the vita activa

In our minds, the remarkable motivating power of collaboration lies in the last three. Teachers come to share a common vision, one that is larger than themselves and their self-focused needs. They feel included and part of a community and their work takes on a new and greater meaning - they develop a sense of mission.


• Instruction becomes more accessible to all students because frequently, one teacher 
   will focus on content material while the other might focus on presentation and processing of material

• Direct whole class teaching and individualization can occur simultaneously

• More time is available to provide individual assistance to students as teachers pool strategic repertoires

• Greater and more varied ways to check for understanding

• Reduced referrals to special education (Wood, 1992)

• Increase of direct student-teacher contact time (Villa & Thousand, 1995)

• Access for all students to limited resources

• Potential for maximizing instructional outcomes (Wood, 1992)

• Potential for increasing teacher accountability (Wood, 1992)

• Opportunities for co-planning and co-teaching

• Opportunities for peer teaching and observation

• Opportunities for teachers to further develop a "sense of audience"

• Increased creativity in lesson planning (more ideas)

• Enlarged repertoire of instructional strategies

• Increased awareness of educational research and recent developments in learning theory

• Shared responsibility for celebrating success and analyzing failure

• Better understanding of different roles and areas of expertise

• Greater clarity and precision in communication

• Improved professional understanding of colleagues, greater openness, honesty and mutual

• Increased flexibility

• Improved organizational skill (including time management)

• Professional and personal growth through shared reflection and ongoing feedback

• Less teacher territoriality

• Less teacher isolation/alienation

• Greater professional satisfaction

• Improvements in staff morale (Villa & Thousand, 1995)

It is not always easy to set up collaborative partnerships. Obstacles are plentiful. School systems are not always set up to encourage collaboration, community biases may need to be addressed, and resentment may exist when content-area teachers come to perceive collaboration as "extra work" and additional responsibilities (Teemant, Bernhardt & Rodriguez-Munoz, 1996).


• Existing organizational hierarchy (learning to collaborate as equals)

• Lack of planning/reflecting time

• Scheduling/time-tabling problems

• Absence of training/inservice in the skills of collaboration

• Personality conflicts

• Differences in teaching styles

• Territoriality

• Absence of administrative support

• Communication problems

• Resistance to change

• Loss of classroom autonomy

• Teacher discomfort in developing a "sense of adult audience" (experiencing colleague
observation - perhaps for the first time)

• Fear of criticism and/or judgment by colleagues

• Fear of the unknown: "What, exactly, does collaboration look like?"

Despite these obstacles, teachers who have entered into collaborative relationships with colleagues very rarely wish to return to their previous isolated autonomy. They see that both inclusion and collaboration "offer tremendous opportunities for growth for all students and the adults who work with them (Tilton, 1996, p. 134)."

The two most commonly cited challenges to collaborative planning, teaching and reflection are the lack of sufficient time and scheduling difficulties. While these obstacles to collaboration may on occasion be used to mask personality conflicts or a school climate lacking in trust, there is no question that sufficient time is a vital resource for teachers and it is "not auxiliary to teaching responsibility . . . it is absolutely central to such responsibilities and essential to making schools succeed (Raywid, 1993, p. 34)."

"For most of us, time permeates and controls our lives through schedules, appointments, seasons and life's rites of passage. Generally, we're in a rut when it comes to our use of time. Our days, weeks, and months are programmed, and we flow through them happily or sadly, relaxed or, all too often, stressed out. Usually, we become conscious of how we use our time when we want or need to make major adjustments to our lifestyles or workstyles."

                                                                                                                                                           Adelman, & Walking-Eagle, 1997, p. 107

And yet, many (perhaps most) schools suffer from a shortage of time. Not surprisingly, the most energetic schools with the most dynamic programs suffer the more acute time famines, leaving precious little opportunity for the "relaxed alertness" that Caine and Caine (1991; 1997) describe as the optimal state for reflection and learning. Sometimes schools become so busy and so task-oriented that personal relationships are abandoned and the day to day workplace becomes emotionally barren.

There are some very powerful, specific behaviors that promote and nurture collaboration. Here we turn to the groundbreaking work of Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman in developing the concept of the Adaptive School (1997). They identify seven norms of collaborative work. These are behaviors that, when carefully employed, will create opportunities for groups to experience relaxed alertness (Caine & Caine, 1991; 1997), the state in which we experience low threat and high challenge at the same time. Research shows clearly that threat and fatigue inhibit brain functioning, whereas challenge accompanied by safety (but not comfort) and belief in one's abilities leads to peak performance (Caine & Caine, 1997; Jensen, 1998). Relaxed alertness is vital for the trusting reflection of meaningful collaboration.


• Identify staff who need to collaborate and re-design the master timetable to include those regular meting time

• Build team meetings (child study, grade level, etc.) into the master timetable

• Hire a "permanent substitute" to periodically cover for teachers who need to attend meetings during the school day

• Schedule specialist elementary school lessons (French, music, PE, etc.) during the same periods so that class teachers have one or two periods each day to collaborate

• Schedule a regular program of assemblies during which specific teaching teams can be released for collaborative planning

• Institute a "late start" program in which every other Wednesday school for students begins 90 minutes later. Teachers then use the 90 minutes for collaborative planning and reflection

• Increase the school day for students by 10 - 15 minutes. The additional student contact time could then allow for regular (monthly?) early dismissal of students and corresponding time for teachers to meet

• Set aside some faculty meeting time for small group meetings

• Use a portion of professional development days for collaborative meetings

• Lengthen the school year for staff but not for students