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.

Next Steps

Finding a Space for Teaching

When the partnership began, it was more of an agreement for teaching space.  After a semester of using a high school classroom and engaging in a few opportunities that being in a high school presented, the division chair and I planned more intentional experiences for the candidates and mentor teachers.

Adding Instructional Topics

In the fall, a teacher presented on the learning management system, demonstrating a number of features this tool provides such as seating charts, student schedules, and mail merge emails.  To enhance our discussion of assessment, the division chair guided us through an analysis of a test: its format, the student responses, most-missed questions, and next steps for instruction.

Planning Intentional Experiences

At the end of the fall semester, we surveyed the mentor teachers and collected Student Evaluations of Instruction for feedback that would help us plan for the spring.  This chart captures some of these findings and shows next steps for the spring semester.

Spring 2018 SEI (4.0 or below) and comments Spring 2018 Mentor Teacher Feedback Fall 2018 SEI (4.0 or below) and comments Fall 2018 Mentor Teacher Feedback Spring 2019 Next Steps
Policies of the course on such matters as grading, absence from class, schedule of assignments, etc., were stated at the beginning of the semester included in the syllabus or communicated through some other communication method. More information about candidate’s role for implementation in the classroom The instructor’s communication was clear and expressive (e.g. instructor provided clear examples). There were times when I had two teachers at once and then I wouldn’t see one of the candidates for a couple weeks. I felt that parts were a little unorganized and not consistent. Send email to mentor teachers discussing feedback from Fall 2018, detailing objectives for Spring 2019, explaining task list for field experiences, and assigning candidates.
reading material was interesting, except maybe the book on reading lenses. Some of the links were not available and I think it made the lenses seem more complicated than they were. The readings were helpful, but provide more opportunities for teaching in front of classes. In-class presentations will help prepare candidates for microteaching, but more analysis of real teaching in real time needs to be implemented.

















Additional notes included lengthening the time for mentor teacher and candidate interactions and providing more opportunities to present or teach in front of a class.  Feedback from candidates and mentor teachers informed our planning for the spring semester.  It is our hope that consistently asking for feedback and responding to it will develop trust among stakeholders in this partnership.

When Weather Hits

Partnership Placements

Our district-university partnership for teacher preparation presents me the opportunity to teach my spring English methods course in a local high school every Tuesday.  The embedded field experience hours (practice) interplay with the theoretical readings and other assignments (praxis) to better prepare candidates as practitioners.  This clinical model depends on the high school division chair and university instructor planning as well as mentor teacher buy-in, both of which have developed positively over the past year.

This arrangement works, until it doesn’t.

Alternate Avenues

This week’s snowfall and polar vortex presented new challenges to this model when the district schools closed – and the university did not.  Three emails from candidates alerted me to this problem and asked where we will meet.  The university planned to be open, yes.  But what about an online class?  I looked at the types of engagement I wanted candidates to have with the material and decided on three ways they could interact with each other: Padlet, Google Docs, and Backchannel Chat.

Screenshot of Blackboard post with step-by-step directions for online class

During one of our planning meetings, the division chair recommended my students watch Sugata Mitra’s TedTalk “The Child-Driven Education.”  Candidates used Padlet to chart ideas from this video along with their readings from Patrick Finn’s Literacy with an Attitude and 180 Days by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle.  The next step was for them to take these ideas and categorize them onto a Google Doc, a strategy called Affinity Mapping – the School Reform Initiative has a nice description of this process.

Finally, we watched Sean McComb’s TedTalk “Let’s Put Compassion Before Grades” and logged onto Backchannel Chat to write reactions to the video.

Capturing Conversations

I made this screencast video using QuickTime Player on the MacBook:


School Partnership Beginnings

Persistently Reaching Out

Since November of 2017, the director of educator preparation and I had been working to find spring placements for my five secondary English education candidates in one school setting.

In previous semesters, candidates had been scattered across area school districts that were demographically, culturally, and often pedagogically different from one another. With all five candidates in one place, we could focus on conversations about the common school culture while investigating best instructional practices.

The university director stated the following in her January 9, 2018 email to the school principal:

We have a time-sensitive issue of trying to find clinical placement for 5 English teacher candidates for this spring and hope that you can assist.  The placement that was scheduled unfortunately fell through on yesterday due to teachers leaving that district and or changing positions. We really need your help!

She explained the field experience hours and objectives, as well as possibilities for collaboration.

The principal asked that I contact the division leader for ELA and Social Sciences. My introductory email on January 9 said to the division leader:

The principal forwarded your contact information regarding mentor teachers for my secondary English education teacher candidates.  I am beyond excited that you school can accommodate all five of my candidates for observations this spring.

I wanted my candidates to be with mentor teachers at least one day per week for fourteen weeks to complete some of their 40 field experience hours.  For the remainder, they could schedule additional time on other days or attend school academic functions. At the end of their field experience, they would teach a lesson that would be observed by a university supervisor.

Timing Is Everything

The high school division leader said the email came to him at the right time – there was a small window of opportunity in early January that had him in his office planning schedules and not in meetings or involved in other duties (teacher observations, coaching).

In our first phone conversation on January 10, we discussed my request for secondary education candidates to be placed with five mentor English teachers. He said:

“I have five teachers. They’ll do it.”

And, indeed, before our phone conversation he had already identified and communicated with the English teachers for the placements.

The next few minutes of the conversation consisted of the required 40 hours and field experience objectives. We discussed the candidates and their involvement in the classroom, as well as a few views on teacher preparation.

Sharing a Vision

In the midst of such a productive conversation, I decided to share my future goal for the methods course:

“My dream is to have a classroom in a high school.”

Without skipping a beat, he replied:

“I have a classroom.”

The next few days consisted of emails and face-to-face meetings to figure out the logistics of having a methods classroom located in the high school. By January 12, John had placed candidates with mentor teachers, scheduled the classroom, arranged wifi connectivity, and planned an orientation for our first day at the high school.

Moving Forward

The timing of an email on January 9, 2018 and sharing a vision helped launch the district and university partnership that has gained traction for over a year. I hope to hear from others about their experiences with partnership planning and implementation in teacher education.