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Deepen Classroom Collaboration by Refining Your Leadership Skills

Updated: Jan 10, 2019

By Beate Planche | Originally published in The Learning Exchange Blog April 17, 2017

Applicable to every level of a school system, collaborative professionalism is defined in the Ontario Ministry of Education Policy and Program Memorandum No. 159 as “working together, sharing knowledge, skills and experience to improve student achievement, and the well-being of both students and staff.” This is a very affirming and laudable articulation of what we need to strive for in public education and as a former superintendent and principal, I am personally delighted to see this language as part of a policy and program memorandum.

The memorandum states a goal that few would dispute as being vital to continued progress. Translating the language of collaborative professionalism into actions that move us forward is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. Schools and school boards do strive to foster collaborative cultures and initiatives. How the work is structured and communicated impacts whether or not these efforts result in sustainable success.  As leaders in the classroom, school, or board office, we recognize the need for many specific skills involved in impactful collaboration such as how to:

  • invite participation and establish a team approach to problem solving

  • establish norms for participation

  • analyze information and/or data to be used in decision making regarding collaborative endeavours

  • articulate problems of practice with clarity so that clear goals can be determined

  • translate goals into criteria for successful collaborative work

  • facilitate conversations and meetings so they are valuable for all involved

  • determine effective actions and gaining support for next steps

  • communicate effectively so that those affected by collaborative goals can buy-in to the work and feel well-informed

  • monitor progress and keep goals for improving staff and student success front and centre

(adapted from Sharratt & Planche, 2016).

The list above represents very important skill-sets and while skill development will vary a little from person to person, the list represents leadership behaviours and actions that can be learned and honed over time.

There is another level of skills that are just as important.  These skills integrate the capabilities of strong communication and interpersonal interaction with the skill sets involved in effective collaborative processes and include how to:

  • articulate a vision for the work which brings life to the stated goals

  • listen respectfully to many voices some of which may be opposing

  • seek and ensure inclusivity in representation around collaborative working tables

  • ask for help and know when and how to delegate

  • give and accept advice with sensitivity and diplomacy

  • probe for deeper understanding through open-ended questions

  • clarify key points for others

  • integrate the opinions of those who disagree with the majority while re-directing focus as needed

  • take responsibility for the challenges in collaborative work when needed

  • let others take the lead once the work is underway

  • let others take the credit to spur motivation

  • listen intently and restate what was heard when needed

  • encourage those on the fringe of the work to become more engaged

  • respond calmly to frustration or anger

  • advocate with passion to keep interest high

  • redirect the work when needed

  • help groups reach consensus when differences appear to stall the work

  • help others move from expressing good intentions to accountable and purposeful action

  • monitor using a reflective feedback stance

  • work to refocus those who drift away

  • articulate purpose often

  • celebrate individual and group successes

  • recognize individuals for their effort and the group for its collaborative success

  • keep the focus on learning and working together

(adapted from Planche, B. 2004, 2008, Bens, I. 2012 and Sharratt & Planche, 2016)

To me, this second set of skills represents a deeper level of skills which integrate key leadership values as well as strong communication and interpersonal skills. These skills underpin essential concepts about trust and safety which we seek to evolve through collaborative work as well as reinforcing the importance of nurturing relationships in leading collaborative learning (Sharratt & Planche, 2016). Leaders must recognize that influencing others, be they students or staff to become engaged in collaborative work, begins with modelling the values that help to empower others through what is said and demonstrated in behaviour and disposition. A question for systemic leadership is how do we grow such leadership? Do these skill sets represent an approach to leadership or perhaps a philosophy about leadership itself?

If we can agree that a major element of leadership is about influence, our preparation programs  for school and system leaders would be well served to ensure these collaborative skill sets are being unpacked and integrated into programming, mentoring, coaching and leadership practice. The ultimate goal of effective learning and working cultures which can be sustained through collaborative professionalism is so hopeful. The journey to enact this worthy goal needs to include attention to the collaborative leadership behaviours, values and actions that pave the way, as well.

Bens, I. (2012). Facilitation at a glance! (Third Edition). Salem, NH:GOAL/QPC.

Planche, B. (2004). Probing the complexities of collaboration and collaborative processes. Unpublished doctoral dissertation.  University of Toronto, Ontario. Canada.

Planche, B. (2008). Leadership perspectives on the complexities of collaboration. The Beacon: A publication of the Pennsylvania School Study Council.  5(1). 1-7.

Sharratt, L. & Planche, B (2016). Leading Collaborative Learning: Empowering Excellence. Thousand Oaks: CA. Corwin Press.

Dr. Beate Planche is a former teacher, principal, superintendent of schools and superintendent of Curriculum and Instructional Services with the York Region District School Board.  Presently, she is a sessional instructor with Western University – Graduate Education and working with schools as an educational consultant and instructional coach.  Contact Beate @bmplanche on Twitter and

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