October 31, 2017

Beyond the Walled Garden: Connection, Collaboration, and Creativity in School Culture

Conversation Leads to Connection
As educators, we know inherently that we’re better when we’re connected. Yet we can still miss the mark in failing to build those meaningful relationships.

As an elementary school principal, my intention was to be a visible leader. I’d walk the hallways of my campus, darting into classrooms to see the day-to-day teaching and learning within those walls. I’d casually observe teachers focused on instruction and talk with students engaged in learning. Even though my staff expected my drop-ins, I frequently sensed that they’d rather be left alone with their students to teach in self-imposed “walled gardens.” Although I’d worked hard to establish a culture of connection with my staff and their teaching teams, something was missing. Teachers still worked independently rather than with each other or their grade-level teams. They struggled with concepts, fearful of pedagogy or missing key classroom management strategies that might have been shared in a casual conversation.

Why was this happening? Why weren’t teachers sharing those critical conversations that could make a difference in their challenging work with students? For me, it came down to one thing: trust.

Collaboration Builds Trust
There’s no doubt that principals have an important and challenging role in building community. A stronger community invites connections, collaborations, and strong relationships between teachers. It drives the mission, sustains the vision, and builds trust.

As a kindergarten teacher in the ‘80s, I built connections through daily face-to-face conversations with my team. Through sharing a classroom, team teaching, and learning my colleague’s nuances, I discovered the flow of collaboration. We planned lessons, projects, and activities in collaborative, open dialogue. I got feedback from my teamie, learning to trust that she’d support me in building on my strengths and that I could lean on her in my weaknesses. If I failed, I could expect the feedback and confidence that I needed to try again.

In our modern age, this is a unique experience that most educators won’t have. When I became a principal with this mindset of trust and collaboration, I discovered that my staff had a walled garden mentality—generally wanting to be left alone while teaching. As I sought to understand why my teachers preferred to close their doors on the amazing teaching and learning happening inside, I began modeling how trust could build a collaborative team.

I knew that building trust would be a process of leading my staff to reflect on their own teaching strengths and abilities. They’d have to see that opportunities to build on those strengths by collaborating with colleagues would emerge once they opened their classroom doors. They needed to have a conversation about the needs of our kids, and to recognize that by sharing their own successes and failures, they’d discover that their colleagues were having the same experiences. I had to initiate critical conversations with my staff and become a “bridge builder” by supporting them in seeing the value that each one of them could bring to the table. They had to learn how to share their unique teaching perspectives and strategies as a team—outside of their walled gardens.

The process took time, and not everyone was thrilled to jump on board. For some, their years of working in isolation with students was extremely comfortable. Why couldn’t they just keep on doing what they’d always done? How would shifting the culture of walled gardens to open classroom doors make a difference? How could this focus on collaboration change the way that kids learned and felt supported to succeed?

Developing opportunities for sharing in faculty meetings was a first step. I removed most housekeeping items in favor of sharing classroom stories, giving any willing staff member the time to share openly about a classroom success or failure. At first, only a few chose to participate and be vulnerable. Those few soon discovered how priceless the experience was! Their colleagues would ask to chat with them after the meeting. Those emerging hallway conversations sounded like “the same thing happened to me.” Teachers shared solutions and eventually invitations to meet and collaborate.

Part of my process involved inviting myself to grade-level team meetings for a sense of how this was unfolding. As their principal and lead bridge builder, I sometimes needed to start uncomfortable conversations with teams who weren’t used to real collaboration. What was their end game with their students? How might collaborating make that potentially tough Reading Comprehension goal easier to navigate? Building these kinds of dialogues among my teachers, I had to bridge the gap between uncertainty and trust. They had to believe that adding trust to their new reflection and collaboration process would shift their impact on student learning. They had to see the value of lowering those garden walls and opening their classrooms into a mindset of co-creation—not just for themselves, but for the students whom they served.

Community Strengthens Creativity
As a teacher, I constantly came up with creative projects and activities for my students. From papier-mache pumpkins to egg-carton caterpillars, I expressed the energy of those fun conversations with my teamie. I was at my best when collaborating for every new teaching season. My creativity sizzled, and my students benefited.

Not so as a principal. I had to rebuild creative excitement for my work through building collaborative systems with my staff—and watching them take off! When educators feel supported in a community that encourages them to initiate and succeed at projects, the wave of creative energy touches the whole campus. Every child and staff member feels the impact. We’re no longer wondering. We’re engaged. We’re doing. We value collaboration and conversation over isolation. When creativity happens because we’re providing feedback and building relationships, the community thrives!

Let’s commit now to providing a safety net for our teaching communities as we explore where change is needed. What systems do we have in place to support this experiment? What tools will help us gather data that will be key to a teacher’s success? Who’s guiding those conversations, and how are we allocating time for this process? Let’s guarantee that, in this age of remote connection, we don’t lose sight of how to create connection on our campuses. Let’s become a model of the collaborative concepts that can fuel creativity in our work—which will ultimately benefit the growth and success of our students.

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