By Marilyn Friend, Ph.D.
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Representative to the Representative Assembly (RA) for the Teacher Education Division (TED)
Greetings, Colleagues, and Happy New Year. It’s time for the January blog, and the topic that I thought might be helpful to focus on is collaboration, that is, the rather complex responsibilities that all special educators have for effectively working with other teachers, related services and other professionals, paraprofessionals, administrators, parents, and others in school and the community. I’m wondering whether you’re finding that you were well-prepared to work with students; understand clearly your responsibilities related to writing, implementing, and monitoring IEPs; and realize the importance of current efforts to raise academic expectations for students with disabilities…but that the most challenging part of your job, in many ways, is the part that involves working with adults!
If you think about it, in education we spend a lot of time talking about collaboration, but not a whole lot of time teaching the skills related to it. Perhaps you had a course that focused on working with colleagues and parents, but did your general education co-workers take such a course? Your principal? Are working relationships addressed at staff meetings? How are parents prepared for collaboration? Even student teaching (if you completed a traditional program) often works against collaboration: Whether you student teach in an elementary, middle, or high school, usually you start by observing your cooperating teacher, then gradually assume teaching responsibilities until you are teaching for the entire day. Then a critical step takes place: Your cooperating teacher leaves and you manage teaching responsibility by yourself for several weeks. This type of experience sends a message that effective teachers can do their jobs by themselves, and it partly explains why most early career special educators find developing collaborative relationships one of the most important and sometimes most difficult part of the first few years of their careers.
Here’s another thought. It’s almost un-American to say anything other than that you fully support collaboration, but many teachers really want to collaborate only with the professionals with whom they are friends or with whom they largely agree on important instructional and behavior matters. Perhaps you’ve heard teachers mention, for example, that they want to assign students with disabilities only to the classrooms of certain teachers because those teachers are easy to work with. However, collaboration skills really aren’t that necessary among friends—friends know what you meant even when you misspeak, they readily overlook the things you do that they do not necessarily agree with, and they gently let you know if they think you made an error. Collaboration is most important when you partner with someone with whom you do not “click.” It is when you are having a disagreement, encounter resistance, or experience difficulty in communicating that collaboration is essential.
And so what does this mean for you? For this first week of collaboration blogging, I guess my goal was just to get you to think about the collaborative experiences you’ve had, to analyze what makes some interactions effective and some ineffective, and to think about how to improve those that are challenging. I hope you’ll share your successes and challenges related to collaboration and ask questions you may have about working with others. Next week I’ll offer a few comments on one of the most common collaborative arrangements being implemented in schools today—co-teaching. The week after that will address what to do in difficult or awkward situations, and the last week of this January blog I hope to plan based on your input.