Back-to-School

It’s September. Meg Ryan is smelling bouquets of sharpened pencils in You’ve Got Mail, grade-schoolers are buying 25 duo-tangs and 12 glue-sticks, Ikea is rife with cute pillows for your dorm room, Kylie Jenner’s about to come out with pumpkin spiced latte lip kits (ok, I don’t know if that’s true but it would be unsurprising), and teachers are lying awake at night wondering what will be thrown their way this year.

Dig into most global problems and eventually you’ll get to a cause or solution rooted in “education.”

Gender inequity? Educate girls. 

Donald Trump as president? Turn back time and educate America.

War? Educate the vulnerable and marginalized.

Climate change? Educate kids in environmental stewardship. 

Education is the tarnished silver bullet. And the teaching profession is left holding the smoking gun.

Teachers are rarely given the support or recognition needed as first responders in the global fight against ignorance. Instead, they’re left with oversized classrooms and a sea of expectations. Expectations from parents, from administrators, and from arbitrary standardized tests. To cope, the superficially ambitious collect workshop credits and degrees to bump up their pay grade and their chance at administrative roles, while the more introverted quietly burn-out in a bon fire of inefficient collaboration and perceived inability to address the educational and social needs of the less “typical” students in their classrooms.

As in other sectors, administrators in education have a solution for these challenges: collaboration. Poorly-defined, daunting for most, and often terribly executed, collaboration is among the most misused trends for quality improvement. Classrooms are not boardrooms, students are not products, and test scores are not bottom lines. The recipe for effective collaboration in schools needs a lot more attention and resources than simply pairing teachers up and introducing poorly thought-out projects that do not necessarily address the needs of students nor teachers.

Collaborative overload, as coined by the Harvard Business Review, is a symptom of growing pains that come with change. Change being the ridiculous 50 PERCENT INCREASE in time spent on collaborative activities by managers and employees over the past two decades. This needs to be examined carefully and course-corrected so that better collaborative practices can be realized.  Left alone, collaboration can veer off track and leave some overburdened as others coast along.

Up to a third of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees.

In a classroom context, that means that an already over-burdened teacher is now spending more time a) sitting in meetings, and b) doing extra work in the name of collaboration on behalf of a colleague. For certain personality types, specifically the more introverted, this spells disillusionment and burnout. Mmm my favourite dynamic duo. Good teachers are leaving the profession because of this, and it’s hurting students, other teachers, and society overall.

Good leadership in schools is required to effectively distribute collaboration, to monitor it, and to recognize where it’s helping and where it’s hurting. A one size-fits-all approach to collaborative education simply doesn’t work. It undermines the privilege inherent in being tasked with impressing young minds and the nuanced attention to detail required to inspire, motivate, and protect the 30 or so little people staring up at you.

But while we sit here with bated breath for good leadership to appear out of thin air, let me take a moment to thank you. Here’s to you. The one lying awake at night wondering how to help every one of the 30 little brains. Here’s to you, going above and beyond to create value in otherwise empty attempts at collaborative projects. Here’s to you, teaching a new batch of little people not only how to count, but also to recognize what counts.

Happy new scholastic year!

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