Mantras and Metaphors for Collaboration

A guest post by Tan Huynh

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I often hear EL teachers painfully retell their experiences with co-teachers using phrases like these:

  • “My teacher doesn’t want to collaborate.”
  • “They don’t give me time to teach the class.”
  • “My teaching partner says there’s no time to plan.”

When I hear complaints like these, I gently and subtly reframe the discussion by suggesting, “When teachers are not yet comfortable with collaboration, you can…” and then continue the conversation. Working with teachers can sometimes be sensitive and require advanced emotional intelligence, so I would like to offer a few metaphors and mantras for effective collaborative relationship building.

Earned, not Assigned

We have to remember that we must first earn the trust of our assigned teaching partner if we want the relationship to be fruitful. Simply being assigned to a teacher does not mean that they are willing or ready to collaborate with you. It might be the first time that they are asked to teach collaboratively, or they might feel like they’re being evaluated by having another adult present. Most teachers are used to working alone with their students, as this is the traditional model. These teachers might require a significant amount of time to become comfortable with collaboration, and so most of our initial work needs to be poured into establishing a foundation of trust.  

The Gentle Stream

Another metaphor I offer is that of a stone in a river. Imagine a rock with many sharp edges. When we place it in a stream, the edges wear away over time as the stream gently and consistently flows over the rock. I encourage you to take this long-term approach to collaboration. When we can be consistently positive, we create the culture that is conducive and inviting for our co-teacher to reach out and seek chances to collaborate. If we fail to produce this culture because we adults cannot “play nicely,” our students ultimately pay the highest price.

Deposits and Withdrawals

Because our first priority is to establish trust, we have to remember that our actions in a relationship are like banking transactions, with each interaction serving as either a deposit or a withdrawal. The Gottman Institute coined a theory called “The Magic Relationship Ratio.” They suggest that for a positive relationship to be formed and remain sustainable, we need to have five positive interactions for every one negative one. Applying this to teacher collaboration, we need to make sure that we have more positive interactions than negative when interacting with our co-teachers.  

The Four Seasons

For each collaborative relationship I enter into, I gauge the teacher’s readiness and willingness to work together. I compare his or her readiness and willingness levels to different seasons.

  • Spring: moving in a positive direction
  • Summer: excited to work together
  • Fall: hesitant but not resistant, cool but not cold
  • Winter: resistant, relationship at its coldest

With this framework, I know how I should interact with my co-teacher. Just like we have ways to keep cool in the warmer seasons and ways to bundle up to stay warm in the colder ones, we can thrive in any co-teaching relationship we find ourselves in.  

Practice Makes Positive

After I share this Seasons framework, EL teachers often tell me, “I have a winter teacher.” I always have them reframe it by having them say, “Because our relationship is currently in a winter phase…” This reframing reminds teachers that they make-up 50 percent of their co-teaching relationship. Combining the Magic Relationship Ratio and the seasons framework, we can affect how cold or warm our relationship becomes. Every interaction either causes a thawing of a chilly relationship or cools a warm one.

Here are practices that help nurture positive, trusting relationships, as well as practices that should be avoided.

Relationship practices to nurture Relationship practices to avoid
Find something positive to tell your partner every day Overly criticize their teaching practices or ideas
Thank the co-teacher when they allow you to use EL-friendly strategies (ie: allowing use of the home language) Insist that they use EL strategies or demand that they cease using ineffective strategies
Use collaborative language (What if we…, We might consider X if we want students to…, In addition to X, we can possibly…) Use judgemental language (ie: It’s a better idea if we…, Let’s make it more engaging by…, To make it less confusing…)
Build on their ideas or existing plans Reject their ideas or existing plans
Support your co-teacher, especially in front of students. Correct the co-teacher, especially in front of students.
Honor their expectations for how to use the room (ie: room arrangement, resources, heating system) Changing the furniture arrangement or the layout of the room without consulting your teaching partner

I offer this closing quote by George Santayana to support your work in creating a positive relationship with your co-teacher:

To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.


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