I’m not sure if you would ever call it pressure but, when you start a new school, or even when you begin a new term in August, there is an expectation that you join a Working Group. That group might have a whole school responsibility; it may focus on one aspect of Learning and Teaching, or many aspects; it may even be something that you, wait for it, are genuinely interested in taking forward in your school. However, in my experience, the early session enthusiasm you display at the start of these groups doesn’t always last. Why is that? What are Working Groups really for?
In reality, working ‘collaboratively’ with colleagues can cause more friction and stress than it relieves and doesn’t often achieve intended aims. External forces are probably the real culprits here. Lack of time to meet appropriately, imposed agendas from management or local authority, a lack of trust in fellow group members? Perhaps. Getting to the point where you have forgotten why you even bothered to volunteer in the first place might also be true. The problem with formal collaboration, it seems, might be that it is almost impossible in a school context. Yet acknowledging that doesn’t make things better. We still try it. Every year.
I reread some of Andy Hargreaves’ work on collaboration recently. ‘Changing Teachers, Changing Times’ is twenty years old now but it seems that much of what he was saying about collaboration and collegiality still rings true today. Contrived ways of working are rarely successful as they fail to take into account the individual strengths of teachers. We obsess over outcomes of Working Groups rather than focusing on the process of allowing teachers to work together towards what should be the goal: teacher improvement, not a set of resources to be handed on. Twenty years on, I don’t think we are getting that message.
I’ve come to the conclusion that much of the development work I’ve done over the years has been a waste of time. As both a silent member of a Working Group, unable to implement any of my own ideas, to a leader of a group unable to inspire others, I have learned to keep my mouth shut at opportune times. It appears to me that most development workI undertake is destined to fail unless I recognise that I have a weakness in that specific area and that I am committed to improving. I must recognise that weakness myself, and not by someone else, and undertake my own research, not reliant on anyone else. If I am unconvinced by the goal of collaborative development work then it will be a waste of my valuable time.
As Hargreaves says though, ‘much of the way teachers work together is almost unnoticed, brief yet informal encounters.’ (Hargreaves, p.195) My collaboration comes in the form of staffroom chats, informal corridor meetings, shared ideas on Twitter. The outcomes are often unknown or uncertain but I learn how others are attempting similar ideas and delivering similar lessons. I am trying to free myself from the tyranny of the Working Group. That freedom allows me to collaborate in a far more effective way. ‘There is no such thing as ‘real’ or ‘true’ collaboration or collegiality,’ said Andy Hargreaves, twenty years ago. I’m not so sure but we need to think very carefully about what it means first.
Hargreaves, Andy (1994) Changing Teachers, Changing Times. Teachers Work and Culture in the Post Modern Age (Cassell, London)