Dialogue Across Difference: The power of collaboration when colleagues disagree

Lauren Applebaum and Sivan Zakai

We often think of collaboration as working together for a common purpose. But in many educational settings, we work with colleagues quite different from ourselves. We may share both space and students, but have different ideas about what we should be doing in the classroom, and why we should be doing it. What happens, then, when colleagues attempt to collaborate across these differences? What does it mean to collaborate when colleagues do not share educational goals, and when even the values and assumptions underlying those goals are strikingly different?


Scholars have long agreed that collaboration is one of the core elements of good teacher professional learning. When teachers have the time and support to work together with autonomy and responsibility on topics of mutual interest, they are less isolated, more innovative, and more equipped to make lasting changes to their teaching practice. While it is often most comfortable for educators to collaborate with colleagues who share a philosophical approach or pedagogical style, profound learning also occurs when educators learn to collaborate with those quite different from themselves.


For the past two years, we have been collaborating to lead a professional learning community for educators with a shared interest in Israel education. Hosted at American Jewish University, this Teaching Israel Fellowship brings together educators with a wide range of denominational, political and educational affiliations to discuss topics in Israel education, deepen their pedagogical content knowledge, and engage in critical colleagueship and inquiry. By guiding our fellows through a process of collaborative learning, we have learned that collaboration among colleagues who share neither goals nor underlying values and assumptions about teaching Israel—a particularly fraught topic in nearly all schools—can be a catalyst for meaningful learning.


Talking with a colleague with whom we agree can be like talking to a mirror: we see ourselves and our ideals reflected back at us. But talking with a colleague with whom we disagree can be even more powerful. Like using a high-powered microscope, it forces us to see what is often hidden to the eye: our assumptions, our flaws and our strengths. When teachers collaborate with those who do not share their goals, assumptions or values, they are able to better understand themselves, their students and their own role in the classroom.


Disagreement About Goals

Mira and Jennifer both teach about Israel, but there the similarities end. Mira, a Jewish studies teacher, identifies as both a committed Zionist and an Israeli. Her politics are decidedly right-leaning, and her curriculum focuses on helping students understand the historical connection between Jews and the land of Israel. Jennifer, a social studies teacher from a day school across town, is a proud leftist and a US citizen who considers herself “openly questioning” about contemporary Zionism. Her classroom focuses on the politics and culture of contemporary Israel.


The most notable distinction between these two teachers, however, is their educational goals. Mira’s primary goal is instilling in her students a love of Israel; Jennifer’s is to expose students to multiple narratives. While both teachers were enthusiastic about the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues to achieve their goals, those goals were often in tension with each other: Jennifer views Israel education as a vehicle for fostering critical thinking about a complicated and often contentious topic, whereas Mira views it as an opportunity for instilling in students a deep and abiding love of the Jewish state.


When first given an opportunity to work with one another, Mira and Jennifer viewed each other’s work as antithetical to their own. Mira believed that Jennifer’s focus on multiple narratives could undermine students’ commitment to the Jewish collective, while Jennifer worried that placing love at the center of Jewish education could lead to an uncritical, unreflective student body. How, they wondered, could they collaborate if they had such different goals?


Over time, however, these teachers realized that working together forced them to better articulate their own pedagogical and political positions. Instead of attempting to change one another, they used their conversations with an openly skeptical interlocutor as a way of articulating, defending and honing their own quite different approaches. In doing so, Mira and Jennifer actually helped each other develop their disparate approaches to teaching about Israel. As Mira explained to Jennifer at the end of their learning together, “You know I don’t agree with you. You know we don’t see eye to eye. But you have helped me become a better version of myself, and I have learned a lot from you.”


This ability to listen to difference without forcing consensus or even pushing too sharply on the contours of those differences is a critically important skill for any educator who works in a diverse setting. Highlighting and naming difference without attempting to change the other can form the backbone of respectful collaboration.


Disagreement About Foundational Values

Ezra, a high school Jewish studies teacher, teaches a unit about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the final paper for his class, he asks students to read and analyze a series of documents offering possible solutions to the conflict—including some that he personally finds troubling or politically untenable. As part of Critical Friends work this past year, where teachers took turns presenting a challenge from their own teaching practice for the group to consider carefully, Ezra brought this assignment to his colleagues.


When the conversation moved to a consideration of why he had chosen the assignment and whether or not it worked, there was a lot of disagreement in the room. Several of Ezra’s colleagues raised concerns that some of the political positions that Ezra asked his students to consider might undermine a commitment to Israel as either a Jewish or democratic state—mirroring the concerns that motivated Ezra to bring the assignment to the group in the first place. Other colleagues applauded Ezra’s commitment to expose his students to a wide range of political beliefs and opinions, and to evaluate his students based on the quality—not the political content—of their arguments.


Listening to the heated disagreements of his colleagues offered Ezra a microscope to examine his own foundational values as an educator. While he had thought carefully about the assignment when he designed it alone, he had focused primarily on its efficacy as an evaluation tool. Only with a group of critical colleagues was he able to surface the at times competing assumptions and values that he was bringing to its design. Hearing his colleagues articulate their own complicated beliefs about what and how to teach helped Ezra understand the competing values within his own approach to teaching and feel comfortable maintaining that tension in his curriculum (rather than resolving it). In the end, he reaffirmed his commitment to the assignment, explaining, ““I think from your feedback that this project is a worthwhile, sophisticated way of teaching Israel even with all the risks involved, and now I feel much better about assigning it.”


Creating a Collaborative Culture

In order to create the space for productive collaboration across difference, school leaders need to establish a culture in which teachers feel safe and encouraged to share their own ideas with, and offer challenges to, those with whom they disagree. Creating such a culture requires setting clear expectations for collaborators, which we call the “ABCD’s of collaboration.” They make explicit our assumptions of admirable intentions, betterment, competence, and difference.


Admirable Intentions: Fruitful collaborative partnerships across difference rest on an assumption that educators work with the good of their students at heart. Only when admirable intentions are assumed from the outset are teachers able to hear a colleague describe a lesson plan or suggest a resource that they may find personally disconcerting and engage in a productive discussion about it rather than reject it from the outset.  This opens the doors for colleagues to ask questions and offer critique of others’ work in the spirit of collaboration.


Betterment: When educators come to a collaborative group with the assumption that all members of the group hope to better themselves, their students, and their work, they are more likely to push one another to grow. Without the assumption that colleagues want to develop as professionals, it becomes easy to offer only the platitudes of “good work” or “nice job.” Instead when an assumption of betterment undergirds collaborative work, educators understand that offering only positive feedback is unhelpful, and they become more likely to help one another articulate areas for growth, and work to improve in those areas.


Competence:  The assumption of betterment works hand in hand with an assumption of competence—the idea that educators are skilled professionals, and that they seek to grow not because they are bad at what they do, but precisely because they are good at it. An assumption of competence sets the standard that asking questions, admitting confusion, and surfacing doubts are signs of strength, not weakness.  Educational leaders can model this by asking their own questions, revealing their own doubts, and offering positive feedback when teachers share a vulnerable idea.


Difference: The assumption of difference makes clear that there is more than one way to be a good teacher. Teachers with radically different personalities, different pedagogical approaches, and different educational philosophies can be powerful mentors, guides, and role models for students. Rather than assuming that a shared passion for education and shared work in Jewish day schools means that all educators are the same, an assumption of difference honors the fact that all educators in the room bring their own beliefs, values, experiences, ideologies, and skills to the work, and that the wisdom of the group enriches the collective.


Any commitment to the “ABCD’s of collaboration” requires firmly, respectfully, and publically correcting any language or behaviors that stray from these expectations. Especially as educators learn or relearn how to collaborate with colleagues who are different from themselves, they may need opportunities to “redo” words and actions that miss the mark, with the support and modeling of their school leaders and facilitators.


Under the Microscope

Collaborating with a group of like-minded colleagues—standing in front of a mirror—offers teachers a safe and comfortable space to reach out beyond the walls of their classrooms. Collaboration among colleagues who fundamentally disagree—standing under a microscope—offers teachers something else: an opportunity to articulate and sharpen their goals, assumptions, and beliefs, and to carefully consider the effects of these stances on their students. It may feel more comfortable to stand in front of a mirror than under a microscope, precisely because a mirror doesn’t force us to change; it just shows us what we are. But when teachers are empowered and encouraged—and explicitly given support—to put themselves under a microscope by collaborating in thoughtful ways with colleagues different from themselves, they are offered the rare gift to examine—and then improve—themselves and their practice.

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HaYidion Collaboration Fall 2016
Fall 2016