While reading over fall break, I kept finding ideas about collaboration and success when I wasn’t really looking for them. I dog-eared a few pages in a few books to save the places because the passages make sense for us. After all, at their core, professional learning communities depend on our ability to successfully collaborate, learn from each other, and trust each other.
I was reading Running and Being, an old book by the great Runner’s World columnist Dr. George Sheehan. When Sheehan wrote Running and Being in 1978, the first American running boom was, well, booming. In his chapter on healing the runner’s constant injuries, Sheehan urges his colleagues—other doctors, both specialists and general practitioners like himself—to work together to help athletes in training. He writes:
The athlete needs a medical team to treat him. A team composed not only of physicians but also of professionals from all the health-science fields. The physician educated in isolation from these colleagues is usually unaware of the contributions [other doctors in other fields] can make; and is unwilling to give them authority and autonomy in caring for patients. The physician still sees himself as a member of an elite group in which some members are more elite than others.
In The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown (2013), a retelling of the story of the University of Washington men’s crew team which won the 1936 Olympic gold medal in Berlin, the idea of the collective superseding the whole becomes the central theme of the book. Again and again Brown focuses on how these college athletes had to learn to work for the team rather than for themselves in order to achieve more together— Olympic gold—than they could have ever achieved alone.
Brown’s narrative is largely told through Joe Rantz, a member of the gold medal team and a kid with a very, very difficult start in life. As Rantz is learning to become part of Washington’s varsity crew, he is taken under the wing of a wise, older boatbuilder and coach, George Pocock. On the brink of being cut from the varsity team that would eventually row in Berlin, Rantz finally “hears” the boatbuilder’s advice, which is this:
Pocock [after watching Joe race and fail and race and fail] said that there were times when Rantz seemed to think he was the only fellow in the boat, as if it was up to him to row the boat across the finish line all by himself. When a man rowed like that, he said, he was bound to attack the water rather than work with it, and worse, he was bound not to let his crew help him row.
He suggested that Joe think of a well-rowed race as a symphony, and himself as just one player of the orchestra. If one fellow in an orchestra was playing out of tune, or playing at a different tempo, the whole piece would naturally be ruined. That’s the way it was with rowing. What mattered more than how hard a man rowed was how well everything he did in the boat harmonized with what the other fellows were doing. And a man couldn’t harmonize with his crewmates unless he opened his heart to them. He had to care about his crew. It wasn’t just the rowing but his crewmates that he had to give himself up to, even if it meant getting his feelings hurt.
Pocock paused and looked up at Joe: “If you don’t like some fellow in the boat, Joe, you have to learn to like him. It has to matter to you whether he wins the race, not just whether you do.”
Rantz, of course, made the cut.
The thread of selflessness and collaboration that runs between these two passages and our work is, to me, flat-out daunting. In fact, after 20 years of teaching, it is much more challenging for me to work with my colleagues than to work alone.
But I’ve also been fortunate to be a part of PLC schools for more than 10 years now, and this experience has changed me as an educator. Adamantly opposed to the idea of collaboration and assessment of data when I first learned about PLCs in the early 2000s, I have changed my thinking entirely as I have seen again and again and again their success with increasing student learning in my classroom. Also, after reading the research on the efficacy of teacher collaboration based on student achievement data, I remain convinced. Working with colleagues in PLC teams regarding a shared, agreed-upon curriculum with the same goals and common assessments makes me a much, much better teacher and, in turn, helps my students learn more.
Good luck to you. You are doing very important work as you get teachers to “see the contributions others can make” (Sheehan) and to get them to “care about the crew” (Brown). Neither is an easy task, but they are both so very worthwhile.
Brown, D. (2013). The boys in the boat: An epic true-life journey to the heart of Hitler’s Berlin. New York: Penguin.
Sheehan, G. (1978). Running and being: The total experience. New York: Simon and Schuster.