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School Stories

Collaboration, the Ally of Improvement

When I started at Graland, I felt pretty good about myself. I loved teaching literature and composition to my ninth-grade students. I was passionate and proud of my reading list that included classical masters like Homer and Shakespeare, and more contemporary literary geniuses—Toni Morrison and Isabelle Allende. I was also fulfilled by having the autonomy to try and refine innovative teaching practices. Overall, I was very confident in what was happening within my classroom.
This confidence grew over the years and most times it was a benefit, but at others it drifted into arrogance and stifled my ability to grow. Specifically, I found that my deep devotion to my discipline and my righteousness about what and how I taught hindered my flexibility when I was asked to cooperate with initiatives that went on outside my classroom. I sometimes resisted the ideas of my colleagues if they proposed something that would disrupt the vastly important work that was occurring in my classroom. My arrogance curbed my collaboration, impeded my growth, and ultimately impacted the student experience.
 
 Fortunately, I had two mentors, John Threlkeld and Tony Catanese, who had the courage to address those moments when I opposed the innovation of others because I considered what I was doing as somehow superior to their proposal. These Graland teachers were masters at what they did in the classroom, math and theater, respectively, but they were also skilled leaders who taught me to see the benefit of interdisciplinary connections between the academic disciplines and between the arts and academics. More importantly, they showed me how fulfilling it was to work together to create a program geared to foster both the intellect and character of students. They were a constant reminder of the quote from Anthony Alvarado, “Isolation is the enemy of improvement.”

 I first read this quote in The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner, a book that detailed the seven survival skills students would need to thrive in the world. One of these skills was “collaboration across networks and leading by influence.” In talking to numerous CEOs, Wagner learned that the world needs “young people who work effectively with others and understand and respect differences—not just in our country but around the world.” In his next book, Creating Innovators, Wagner again stressed the importance of collaboration and its impact on innovation, stating that one essential quality of a successful innovator is “collaboration, which begins with listening to and learning from others who have perspectives and expertise that are very different from your own.” Since Wagner’s books were published in 2008 and 2012 respectively, the focus on collaboration has only increased. In a 2018 study on the future of work by ICC (Innovate, Coach, Consult), the top two most valuable skills were leadership agility and coordinating with others. 

 At Graland, collaboration, one of our six Innovation Skills, often happens between students during discussions, cooperative challenges, and group projects. Throughout these activities, students reflect on their strengths and their weaknesses as collaborators. These experiences are vital to students growing up to succeed in the world. Equally important is the effective collaboration between teachers. Students notice this collaboration, they sense strong teamwork between their teachers, and they are influenced by those exemplars.

Over this past year, we have heightened our emphasis on collaboration. Gail Sonnesyn, Associate Head of School, has helped facilitate peer cohorts that bring together teachers from all realms of the school to support each other’s professional growth. She has also encouraged groups of teachers to attend professional development together; recently the seventh grade MESH (Math, English, Science and History) team attended a learning opportunity at High Tech High and have returned invigorated to initiate change together. Finally, the collaborative summer grant program, also directed by Gail, has led to an interdisciplinary project in first grade which unites specialists in Science and Spanish with classroom teachers to promote an integrated and engaging program for students that includes service learning. All of these examples are detailed in this issue of Graland Today, showing our commitment to faculty cooperation and our belief that teamwork enhances student learning.

Admittedly, early in my career at Graland, I, at times, displayed a resistance to collaboration. It seemed easier to go it alone. Still, over my time here and thanks to several mentors, I have learned that the most fulfilling accomplishments come through working together, specifically, the collective pursuit of fostering student growth. It takes courage to commit to others, to listen openly, to demonstrate flexibility, to engage in conflict, to sacrifice individual goals for the goals of the team, and to build trust over time. Just like with innovation, it takes shedding your pride and embracing the progress that comes from the act of collaboration, because in the end the objective is not simply professional development, it is the growth of the students as they cultivate the social-emotional and intellectual skills necessary to thrive in school, in work, and in life. 
 
Josh Cobb joined Graland in 2002 as a seasoned educator with 20 years of experience teaching history, English and drama. Now the Head of School, he invites you to join his Book Club discussion on January 15 (6:30-7:30 p.m.) in the Hunt Family Learning Commons featuring The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.
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Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1924, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.