Leaning In to Learn Vulnerability in Partnerships

How is professional collaboration on the individual level connected to large-scale partnerships between organizations?  Indeed, how are they not connected?  Collaborative partnerships vary, but what I have experienced can be captured in two buckets: proximity partnerships and purposeful partnerships. Experiences as a teacher and a student revealed an evolution in my thinking about what these types of partnerships look like, what it takes to collaborate, and how making oneself vulnerable is part of that process.

When I first began teaching, collaboration and mentorship seemed foreign to me.  Coming from a marketing department in a telecommunications company meant that knowing what to do and how to do it secured one’s position.  Perhaps it’s an unfair assumption, but I felt that asking too many questions showed weakness or perhaps incompetence.  As a career changer in education, I carried this weight with me into teaching.

Some months into my first year of teaching, I fell far behind in scoring students’ portfolios back when portfolios measured high on Kentucky’s accountability testing system.  My mentor, department chair, and assistant principal dove in to help, and we finished the task.  I remember my mentor asking, “Why didn’t you ask for help?”  This was a difficult question to answer.  Background baggage was the main reason.  If I asked for too much help, would I be seen as less than competent?  Even though this partnership was based on proximity through shared space and time, it required truth telling and exposure.  

Other proximity partnerships included our middle school team meetings about field trips and student issues. We demonstrated the power of collaboration by creating meaningful experiences and high expectations for our students.  Department and staff meetings were spaces for curriculum and school culture development, again arranged for us according to our proximity to each other in areas of the school, grade level, or content area.  We successfully positioned these partnerships to push our middle school to a top percentage in the state.

When I started my doctoral program after seven years at the middle school, I entered a different dimension of collaboration and mentorship.  I remember a few weeks into my introductory doctoral studies seminar when one of the five students said what we were all thinking: “I feel stupid.”  It was true.  Crafting literature reviews as our arguments for empirical research seemed far removed from our various experiences as math or English teachers in our elementary, middle, or high school worlds of education.  

The professor said everyone feels that way in the beginning.  I hope that’s true because I’m laying it out there in a public post.  But the professor’s encouragement of peer collaboration and mentorship made the work doable.  The collaborations were proximity partnerships (same class, same assignment, sitting next to each other); yet, we made ourselves vulnerable by sharing our raw, question-filled work with one another.  Though on different paths, having the same course assignments naturally brought us together.

So where do these experiences fit into partnerships on the broader scale – the purposeful partnerships? I think the vulnerability one must have to establish a mutually beneficial partnership is learned at the micro level, and I learned what vulnerability feels like as both a middle grades teacher and graduate student.

Now, in my educator role at a regional university, I seek area schools to help me prepare future high school teachers.  Their teachers, their students, and their interactions set the course for what my teacher candidates must be prepared for day one in the classroom.  In return, I want to prepare my candidates for day one in their local schools.  But is it a purposeful partnership if the narrative continues to be “their” and not “our”?  Aren’t we showing our vulnerability by caring about another’s needs above our own?

St Peter and St Paul church, Muchelney carolyngifford via Compfight

Purposeful partnerships require systematically chipping away at the ivory tower of academia to engage in practical pursuits.  It is okay to need each other.  Vulnerability means replacing the facade of knowing our local school district or the university structure with the reality of not knowing the scope and scale of what each of us is doing. Acknowledging that we need each other lays the groundwork for designing purposeful partnerships that have the opportunity to thrive.

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