The Quest for Teaching Excellence Through Communitywide Collaboration

Shira Hammerman

This article highlights five lessons for those who seek to develop communitywide collaborations to support day school professional development. The New Jersey Quest for Teaching Excellence Program was founded in 2011 in the belief that excellent teachers are needed to build excellent schools, and that teacher excellence is best cultivated through communitywide collaboration. Each of four partner schools was tasked with establishing its own robust professional development plan driven by the individualized needs of teachers and overseen by a part-time faculty dean. These efforts were enhanced through ongoing interschool collaboration that enabled teachers and administrators to work with a more diverse range of colleagues than would be found in any individual school. The program sought to strengthen teachers and schools while making efficient use of the local community’s financial and human resources.


Quest is an alliance of four New Jersey day schools with diverse organizational structures, denominational affiliations, and educational approaches. The program is administered by the local Federation, which provides an educational consultant to help schools establish professional development goals and processes, facilitate deans meetings, oversee ongoing collaborative learning opportunities, and organize program preparation for the biannual conference. In addition to monies provided by the schools and the Federation, local philanthropists provide a significant amount of funding to support the program.


Central to the program is an interest in fostering efficient communitywide collaboration and the knowledge that effective professional development is context-specific and driven by the personal needs of schools and teachers. The part-time faculty dean at each school plays an important role in balancing these principles. Each dean directs a school-based professional development initiative that responds to the individualized needs of teachers. Deans meet regularly to share best practices, co-plan all-schools events, collaborate on smaller learning workshops, promote teacher visitation among the schools, and plan communitywide professional development conferences.


Program success is evaluated on an ongoing basis through an annual census documenting each school’s professional development program, feedback surveys completed by participants after each collaborative activity, and ongoing conversation with schools heads and faculty deans. After five years, schools have refined their processes for monitoring, creating and evaluating professional development activities. This has led them to be more intentional in choosing professional development topics and formats that meet the goals of their teachers and programs while aligning their approaches with current research.


School reflections depict a cultural shift regarding professional development. Rather than equating professional development programs with one-time workshops, deans and teachers seek more extensive learning opportunities. Teachers select professional development opportunities based on overarching personal goals; they expect workshops and conferences both to benefit their own professional growth and to give them ideas they can share with colleagues. This has resulted in increased collegiality and greater investment on the part of teachers.


In addition, this collaboration has united local day school professionals and supporters more cohesively than ever before. There has been an increase in the number of ongoing collaborative programs across denominational and professional affiliations, and communal leaders continually reaffirm commitment to excellence in day school education.


Collaboration is Sharing Both the Tangible and Intangible

Many collaborative alliances come together out of a need to share limited resources. Quest is no different. It was created at a time when resources in the community, and in the economy as a whole, were decreasing. Schools were incentivized by a family foundation and a communal day school fund to work together to make the most out of communal funding. To this day, a significant driver is an interest in an efficient and effective use of communal and donor funds. The program could not continue without significant annual funding from communal sources as well as from the schools themselves.


While tangible benefits are often an initial draw, collaborative alliances are strengthened when they share more than material goods. Beyond shared resources, Quest schools are brought together by shared vision and shared experiences. Program coordinators, deans, and school heads shape the program based on a shared vision of professional development, using teacher feedback to ground themselves in the lived experiences of their faculties. Shared experiences take place at collaborative workshops, cross-school visitations, and biannual communitywide conferences. It is through these elements that participants develop collegial connections across organizational barriers.


Collaboration is Multidimensional

Collaboration increases in impact when multiple alliances develop simultaneously. For Quest, this materializes as a multifaceted model of collaboration that promotes alliances within individual schools, among partner schools, and across multiple communal stakeholders. Each alliance has its own purpose but works toward the program’s larger goals of teacher excellence.


Within each school, the dean works with individual teachers to identify professional development needs and with administrators to plan schoolwide programs that respond to those needs. They foster a collaborative relationship among teachers by promoting shared learning opportunities such as schoolwide themes, mentoring programs, targeted professional learning communities, cross-curricular programs, and occasions for teachers to teach one another. Doing so elevates the school’s collaborative spirit and ensures that professional develop is context and participant specific.


Monthly dean meetings, interschool workshops, and a biannual communitywide conference turn teachers and administrators from different schools into colleagues. Deans frequently use monthly meetings as a time to coordinate programming around areas of common interest, to workshop ideas with their colleagues, and to experiment with ideas they have learned from one another. Collaborative professional development opportunities initiate learning and dialogue among teachers and administrators from different schools. This dialogue continues through email groups and a communitywide wiki.


A third dimension of the program extends beyond the day schools themselves to encompass a broader Jewish community. Quest is supported by a larger interschool collaboration that identifies day school affordability and excellence as cornerstones of local efforts to strengthen the local Jewish community in numbers and in spirit. It is coordinated by Federation staff members and consultants, is supported by communal donors, and is dependent on a strong collegial relationship among day school leaders, philanthropists, Federation staff and leadership, and the related agencies. In addition, it creates collaboration between schools and local professional development providers, emphasizing the extent to which day schools can benefit from the communal knowledge that surrounds them. Through this dimension, teacher excellence has become a communitywide endeavor.


Collaboration Strengthens the Parts, in Addition to the Whole

While collaboration often works toward a larger good, it is important to ensure that the needs of individual partners and organizations are considered alongside the needs of the whole. Doing so creates a sound foundation for continual collaboration, trust, and growth and is particularly important when collaborating around context and participant specific goals such as professional development.


Quest considers the needs of its schools by empowering school leaders to individualize how they integrate the program into their existing organizational structures. As a result, some schools view the dean as an administrative role, some view the job as a teacher leader’s role, and some have developed a combination role. Similarly, some schools split the role in accordance with their school divisions, some split the role based on curricular departments, and some have a single dean overseeing its entire K-12 faculty.


The needs of individual teachers are met by promoting individualized professional development plans. These plans serve as benchmarks for gauging the teachers’ progression of growth and as starting points for the deans’ ongoing planning processes. After each program, individual participants are asked to share feedback through online surveys so as to increase the amount of individualized input that is considered when planning subsequent programs.


Collaboration is a Process

Collaboration cannot be expected to develop overnight; rather, it is a long-term process that requires significant work. Schools were drawn together through shared belief in the importance of professional development and the availability of financial support and educational expertise to actualize that belief in individualized ways. They benefited from the partnership immediately but only became true collaborators over time as they communicated effectively, acted with intentionality, and engaged in ongoing reflection to ensure that they are staying true to their shared goals.


After five years, Quest’s collaborative process demonstrates thoughtful planning and practiced implementation. The deans have developed their own cultural norms that shape conversations and interactions. Group expectations include structured meetings facilitated by the program coordinator (with breakfast, of course!), transparency, use of Doodles for scheduling purposes, an unstated understanding that phone calls should be used frequently to supplement email communication, and an end-of-the-year dinner for reflection and celebration. They have each developed similar group norms within their own teacher communities.


Feedback and reflection plays an important role in the collaborative process. The annual census helps deans document their schools’ goals and the professional development programs that they are pursuing in order to reflect on how the program is helping them achieve their goals. Even the development of this tool has proven to be a process; deans provided input into creation of the tool currently in use, and the results are shared and discussed from year to year.


Collaboration is a Relationship

Collaboration is best accomplished within a relationship where partners are accepted, valued, and trusted as they are. This can be a challenge for alliances that bridge would-be competitors. It is therefore not a prerequisite of collaboration. Rather, collaborators who have been brought into partnership for instrumental purposes develop trusting relationships through consistency, patience, and ongoing interaction.


Partners come to trust one another as they learn to appreciate the accomplishments of their colleagues. Often, they must first feel supported and respected for their own accomplishments. The face-to-face dialogue that takes place at monthly dean meetings fosters this process by allowing deans to share their schools’ achievements in a neutral environment where conversation is facilitated by the program coordinator. Through these connections, the deans exchange input and become more and more invested in their colleagues’ achievements. This relationship has benefited from the consistency of four of five founding faculty deans. The length of their tenures has enabled them to develop trusting relationships with the administrators and teachers within their schools, the deans from their partner schools, and program coordinators.


Within trusting relationships, collaborators are more inclined to participate in the give-and-take that is needed to work together. For example, deans become more inclined to set aside their own priorities to benefit their partners as they choose and schedule collaborative programs.


Even with time and trust, it is not assumed that collaboration can bridge all differences among competing schools. Rather, schools come together around goals that are mutually beneficial and “agree to disagree” in areas they are not yet ready to address in partnership.


Questions to Consider

The Quest for Teaching Excellence Program demonstrates that communitywide collaboration can enhance professional growth among day school teachers and administrators. Based on our experience, I leave you with five questions to consider as you embark on collaborative efforts within your schools: What will be shared through your collaboration? What are the multiple dimensions of your collaboration? How will your collaboration consider the needs of the individuals, in addition to the needs of the group? What will be the key components of your collaborative process? How will you develop your collaborative relationships?


The Quest for Teaching Excellence is a program of the Greater MetroWest (NJ) Jewish Day School Initiative. The Initiative supports academic excellence and affordability among the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, Gottesman RTW Academy in Randolph, Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, and Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston.


It is supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest, the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Metrowest, the Paula and Jerry Gottesman Family Supporting Foundation, and the Greater MetroWest Day School Community Fund.

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HaYidion Collaboration Fall 2016
Fall 2016