The Virtues of Collaboration

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My teaching career started as a collaborative effort. Dick and I had worked together at Teachers and Writers Collaborative in New York and when we were invited to recreate a version of that program in a small school district in Vermont, our partnership continued. At first, the work involved overseeing a pullout and after school program, but when we accepted the challenge of assuming full responsibility for the school’s fifth and sixth grade classroom, it was, from the outset, a two-headed creature. Although I was the teacher of record, we presented ourselves to our students, our colleagues and our principal as equal stewards of our students’ learning.

Although we had been around a lot of classrooms and the teachers who inhabited them, neither of us had ever actually led a classroom of our own. If I had been asked to step into that role on my own, I would have fled, but somehow the idea that there would be two minds and bodies in the game made it seem more manageable. That turned out to be the case, largely because we were two non-alpha males. Neither of us was inclined to elbow the other out of our territory, which seems to me to be an absolute condition for successful collaboration.

What we did with those small-town Vermont kids was, arguably, the most creative teaching I have ever done. Dick and I tested and refined our ideas in our long planning sessions and figured out how to regroup when our ideas fell flat. But, man, was it time-consuming. It turns out that collaboration, like democracy, is a messy and inefficient process. If I had been working alone, I would have been making decisions about curriculum and about handling the quirks of individual kids and heading for bed at a reasonable hour. Instead, the collaborative planning was sometimes interminable, often bringing me to the brink of wanting to pummel my very gentle and blameless partner. You couldn’t argue with the results, though.

Fast forward thirty years to the start- up of a charter school sponsored by the University of Chicago on the city’s South Side. Once again, I was assuming a role for which I had no experience. I had never directed a school before, didn’t have any formal principal’s credentials and hadn’t taken any courses in school administration. However, I did know a lot about instruction and about what makes teachers tick, so the powers-that-be were willing to take a chance on me. For the school’s first year, I was out there by myself, although I did have a hotline to the university where some people with deep experience in running schools were available to advise me and/or to bail me out when I had already made a misstep. It was a rocky year, but there were enough successes to warrant carrying on.

However, for the remaining four years of my time as school director, I worked alongside a co-director and I was back in the collaboration business. My first partner, Barbara, was someone with whom I had worked at the University before the school was born. When we proposed our co-leadership roles to the University, the consensus was that such arrangements never work. We agreed that this was generally the case, but it would not be true in this instance because we had a prior relationship to build on. And we were right.

We trusted each other’s instincts and had strengths that complemented each other. She was gregarious and spirited in the best tradition of strong camp counselors. I was shyer and a less compelling public presence, but I was able to generate trust directed toward building a strong sense of community. Barbara had worked in the Chicago Public Schools central office and had the savvy that enabled us to navigate around many dangerous bureaucratic sinkholes. On a different level, I could turn my attention to helping individual teachers be their best selves and guaranteeing that they had everything they needed to do serve their students effectively.

Did I forget to mention that Barbara is Black and I am white? The fact that a white guy was overseeing a school whose students and families were almost 100% Black created understandable and legitimate doubts in the minds of both parents and Black staff members. I’ll say that I think I was able to dispel a lot of the initial doubts about my ability to handle the racial dynamics of the situation, but we’re still a long distance away from discounting the distrust that continues to exist across the racial divide. For that reason, my collaboration with Barbara was a gift from the Gods. Everyone could relax a bit on the question of whether the right people were minding the store.

At the end of our first year of collaboration, we organized a field day in the park across from the school. It’s almost an obligatory rite for most schools in America, at least it was before the pandemic upended so much of what had been in place for so long. As the agenda of potato sack races and egg-carrying relays was winding down, the students began to clammer for a footrace between me and Barbara. We were still fit enough in those days to rise to the challenge, but to the disappointment of the competition-hungry crowd, we ran side by side around the track and locked arms as we crossed the finish line. There couldn’t have been a more perfect representation of the way we had proven our skeptics wrong.

At the end of my five year stint at the school, I left to join a team at the University charged with designing a new teacher education program. When it came time to designate a director for the new program, that role fell to Kavita, my younger colleague, while I was designated the Associate Director. Whatever formal titles were pinned to our shirts, we tended to operate in tandem as co-directors through the more than eleven years I was there. Once again, we had a long history that preceded the teacher education program. She and a friend had approached me after years of teaching in suburban and private schools about their desire to move to urban classrooms but were reluctant to do so without support. Together we built a support network for other teachers with the same needs and later I hired Kavita to teach in the school I directed before she went on to earn a Ph.D. in sociology.

Our arrangement surely looked odd to outsiders. We had upended the pyramid by subordinating, at least on paper, the more senior partner to his junior, but it felt just right to us. She was by far a more presentable face of the program than I, and truth to tell, after five years at the charter school I was grateful to cede ultimate responsibility of the program to someone else. Although we didn’t talk about it in these terms, Kavita was on her way up and I was in the final chapter of my career. By the time I left, she had established herself as a respected leader in teacher education in a position to play a significant role in the field for years to come, while I was ready to leave the stage. Again, my non-alpha-ness left me unthreatened by what appeared to be a subordinate role and has allowed our friendship to remain intact almost twenty years later.

It was collaboration that enabled me to build a long and fruitful life in education. There were also long periods of solo flight, particularly those I spent as a classroom teacher after that initial experience I described at the start, but at the critical moments when I was venturing into completely new territory it was collaboration that carried me through the rough spots. It wouldn’t have worked as well for others with personalities different from mine, but I suspect that there are many like me who would have stayed the course in difficult roles in education and many other fields if they were as fortunate as I to have partners at the critical junctures.

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Marv Hoffman

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