Sunday, 9 February 2014

Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.

Most great learning happens in groups. Collaboration is the stuff of growth.
-Sir Ken Robinson Ph.D. 

Yesterday I sat in a staff reflection at the end of the first week and a teacher reflected, “I am in love with team teaching. Every teacher in New Zealand should find ways to do it and give the kids of New Zealand this incredible opportunity for accessing learning at a completely different level than we can do by ourselves in single classrooms.”

And I agreed and then I just kept the meeting going. But I shouldn't have. I should have stopped then and there and done something momentous. 

Because I nearly cried when I heard that. It’s all been worth it. The sweat, the tears, the joys, the debates, the cajoling and the facilitating. After three years of planning and working towards it, we are in our new school buildings and teachers are finally able to truly work together in learning communities with large groups of students of mixed ages. 

I became convinced of the merits and advantages of team teaching many years ago- way before the advent of MLE (Modern Learning Environments). When I started team teaching in 2002 we literally cut a hole between two classrooms with a chainsaw one night so that we had a shared space. There were no beanbags and very little technology. We created individual timetables on papers and fought a lot of big and little suspicions about why we were doing it, from people who were terrified that the change might be forced upon them.

What you gain as a teacher working in a larger space with other teachers and larger numbers of students is comprehensive. It is the best professional learning I’ve ever done, and continue to do. And it makes you a much better teacher. You have to think about, and discuss everything you do. It is tiring, it is exhausting and sometimes you just want to shut yourself in your own room and do your own thing. But the benefits for those kids you have the privilege of learning with and responsibility for are extreme. I’ve always said my teaching became exponentially better the first year I started team teaching, and I truly believe that. It has continued to become exponentially better every opportunity I’ve had to team teach in the last 12 years.

To see that vision for team teaching come alive across a whole school- not just a primary school but a school encompassing Year 1-13, and to see groups of mixed ages learning together successfully is truly exciting. To see their learning truly focussed on an integrated inquiry focused curriculum instead of focused on separate learning areas right through to Year 13 is true life long learning.

It’s exciting and mostly unchartered territory and its no longer just the territory of new schools in major cities which tend to be in higher socio economic areas.

We've done it while working with these kids for the last three years. We didn’t have the privilege of a years planning and thinking time without our students on board. We started with our kids three years ago in run down temporary buildings. We had a full roll from Day 1- none of the opportunities building a year group at a time gives some new schools to really refine their practice a year at a time. 

Our kids aren’t necessarily the most well prepared for school. Some come having rarely seen a book. Most don't have internet at home, and many battle a lot of social demons on their path to adulthood.

But they deserve this stuff as much as any young person in a privileged big new city school in Auckland or Tauranga or Wellington.

In fact this is imperative for them. We are here to help them make a real difference to what the rest of their lives can be. And by working together in teams of teachers with groups of students I passionately believe we’ve got a much better chance of doing that.

Why would we continue to imitate- and poorly because of our size- a secondary system that has dismally failed some of our most vulnerable learners for years? 
Why would we, when our kids live such whanau based lives, continue to segregate kids by year groups?

Our young people have adapted over three years to a very different schooling system. The benefits of time and the energy of a small bunch of committed and caring educators who have worked tirelessly against some back breaking physical conditions at times have helped, but our kids are the ones who have adapted the most despite their initial suspicions and misgivings at something that was so different from their understanding of what school should “look like.”

Now we are in our very own purpose built MLE they are thriving, but only because that vision for learning started three years ago, way before we moved into the flash buildings or new “modern” furniture.

Change is scary for everyone. I think its probably much scarier for adults than for young people. But I say to the teachers out there, still convincing themselves that THEY need their own classroom and THEIR own control, who is it all about? Who is the future for? And if you are still doing the same thing you were doing in a classroom even 10 years ago- even if it was excellent practice then- is it really serving the young people trusting in you the best?

Ive heard it said before- the way our classrooms have operated for years doesn't just need tweaking, it needs to be completely overhauled. Don’t use the excuses that you don’t have the property, or the flash stuff, or the leadership team is against it. Three or four teacher heads in a classroom with 60-75 kids is going to move each kid so much further than one head focused on 25 kids. And teachers need to let go of a fair bit of the ego that is present in many single cell classrooms to achieve that. 

And it is our most vulnerable learners that need this the most.

Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.

-Helen Keller


  1. Great insight Karyn..Thanks. It makes me question if Team teaching works so well because there is a more direct sense of accountability by the teaching staff..and if so the teacher assumes more of a learner role/position within the classroom. Team teaching could therefore instigate more effective team learning...
    and on that note....
    Nā tō rourou, nā taku rourou
    ka ora ai te iwi
    With your food basket and my food basket
    the people will thrive

  2. Great post Karyn and I agree Morgan, I find myself reeling myself in, asking others their opinions, talking about why we are doing something, thinking and talking about individual students needs. I look forward to seeing what we can achieve and how we can make a difference as a team.

  3. Nicely said, mate. Am sharing this with as many teachers as we can. Enough with the convincing and cajoling - this just needs to happen. It should be an expectation, not the privilege of a few.

  4. Love hearing how you explain what we are thinking Karyn. We will be using this and much more that you have shared with our community as we move towards a similar learning model.