Helena MarshThe importance of teacher-teacher relationships, especially in the current climate, the power of collaboration and the necessity for school leaders to provide the conditions to enable this to happen. This week, Helena Marsh, Deputy Headteacher, blogger and education thinker, writes for Relational Schools.

I have always had a keen interest in the study of teacher behaviours and interactions. In my NQT year, my saving grace was the strong bonds that I forged with other newbies – the emotional and pragmatic sharing, support and collaboration was fortifying. I also recall being quite frustrated by solitary, un-giving colleagues that were happy to see new entrants into the profession crash and burn while attempting to re-invent the wheel as they smugly locked away pristinely organised and resourced schemes of work. People are the most important resource in schools and they are fascinating.

As a firm believer in the importance of strong teacher-pupil relationships and the power that they have to motivate and engage pupils, I turned this anecdotal observation into firmer, more grounded research when I embarked on my Masters study back in 2008. When I started to formulate a keener evidence-based interest into the importance of relational education, I became even more interested in the impact and influence of teacher-teacher relationships, which is why I decided to focus my thesis on the subject of conditions for collaboration.

Why collaborate?

At the time of study I led the school’s Teaching and Learning Group and was conducting an enquiry into effective teacher-pupil relationships as well as trying to pilot Research Lesson Study as a model to improve pupil learning experiences. I was really intrigued by colleagues’ habits, views and prejudices regarding collaboration: some dismissed the benefits altogether; others believed in the theory but didn’t prioritise in practice; meanwhile some of the busiest teachers actively sought opportunities to learn with their peers.

The opportunity to conduct a literature review on the topic of collaboration was compelling and exciting. Pre-existing hunches were borne out in the articles that I read. Concepts such as Hargreaves’ ‘contrived collegiality’ and ‘Balkanisation’ really struck a chord with me, not just because of my Eastern European roots, but due to the recognisable behavioural traits that often characterise staff rooms and school meetings. Lortie’s model of the ‘egg box’ culture, originally written in the 70s, still chimed with current experience of busy, diligent teachers squirrelling away in isolated pods.

In my opinion and experience, most teachers are not adverse to collaboration, they just don’t believe that it’s an efficient or effective use of their time-starved day. Why take two hours to plan a lesson with other, possibly even non-specialist, teachers when it could take 15 minutes by yourself? Who has time to indulge in conversations about teaching and learning when there are piles of books that require urgent attention? In my qualitative research I really enjoyed getting under the skin of these issues and talking openly and honestly with committed teachers about their underpinning beliefs about collaboration. The key finding was that teachers only thought that collaboration was worthwhile or beneficial in the case of new curriculum planning or a specific area of development that they themselves lacked expertise in. This deficit model approach to collaboration is an interesting one and highlights teachers’ need for a clear gain to justify their commitment.

Genuine collegiality

As most of my reading indicated, true collaboration is rare and often misunderstood. Sharing resources by email, off-loading behavioural horror stories over coffee or sharing teaching success stories at the pub aren’t real examples of collaboration, but they set the foundations for genuine collaboration to happen. If the forming-norming-storming-performing management hype is to be believed, it stands to reason that colleagues need to have strong working relationships before they are able to perform effectively as a team. Just lumping teachers together once a month and expecting them to create Joint Development Practice is naïve. Creating relationships for professional learning takes time and a real investment in people.

Included in my key findings was the need to create space, time and climate for the culture of collaboration to breed. Excuse the petri-dish style imagery, but schools do need to be mindful of the conditions that they create for their colleagues to promote and prioritise the value of collaboration. If the pervading culture revolves around individual accountability and performance, there is limited scope for teacher-teacher support; each one is to their own. In a school which places greater value on holistic learning and development for all students and teachers, there is likely to be more incentive and inclination to foster opportunities for collaboration and relentless improvement.

The cumulative potential for improvement in any school is immense, based on the vast array of expertise that any group of staff possess. Tapping into this pool of talent and providing opportunities for teachers not only to share best practice to remove the need for duplicated effort, but to create, imagine and develop new ways of learning is incredible. Relationships between teachers helps to cement a culture of trust, respect and reciprocity that creates a thriving learning environment.

Conditions for Collaboration (Helena Marsh)

Interested in learning more? Read the full paper: “Conditions for collaboration” by Helena Marsh (2009)

What do teachers perceive to be the benefits of working collaboratively?

By enabling teachers to share expertise and ideas, collaboration helps them to develop the quality of teaching practice. This not only has benefits for student achievement and school standards but teachers’ own enjoyment and job satisfaction. Collaborative practices also help teachers to reduce their stress levels and pressure by offering them a supportive, collegial working environment. The opportunity to work smarter through joint endeavours also enables teachers to reduce and prioritise their workload.


(SUPER MEd Thesis, reproduced by kind permission of Helena Marsh)



    • Victoria Tully

      Looks like I have some reading to do over half term! Great post, Helena!

    • Cat

      Insightful, thought provoking & true 🙂 thank you!

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