Roland Barth and Collegiality - Steve Barkley

Roland Barth and Collegiality

I have been creating a series of blogs and podcasts that identify some of the researchers, authors, and presenters who influenced my early days exploring coaching and teaming in schools. I am hoping those who are “newer” to coaching roles might value some history and that those more seasoned might appreciate revisiting those earlier days of building a coaching culture.

Many years back while visiting a friend, who was a principal and frequently called from her office, I found myself pursuing her bookshelf for a distraction and a chance to find out what I might be missing. I found a copy of Improving Schools from Within by Roland Barth (Jossey-Bass 1990). Reading a few pages lead to a request to “borrow” the book which I finished reading over the next few days.

I had previously read and quoted from several articles by Barth but I hadn’t read this book. I was surprised by how Barth’s descriptions of difficulties facing teachers and principals were and are still present and, in some cases, even more severe. My work with school improvement, professional development, coaching and professional learning communities is built around my belief that collegiality is a critical element in any plan to increase student achievement.

Here are my thoughts that I found reinforced in Barth’s writing:

  • Until a school becomes collegial, it will not reach maximum student achievement. (Positively phrased: If we can increase teacher collegiality, it will have a positive impact on student achievement.)

Barth: “My years in schools suggest that the quality of adult relationships within a school has more to do with the quality and character of the school and with the accomplishments of students than any other factor. (163) “Unless adults talk with one another, observe one another, and help one another, very little will change.” (32)

  • In working with instructional coaches, I have suggested that one of their job descriptions should be the building of teacher collegiality. There is rarely sufficient time for an instructional coach to provide all the coaching that needs to occur. By getting teachers to be collegial and coaching each other, the coach’s work is more likely to impact students. Building a collegial culture takes conscious, purposeful actions.

Barth’s words reinforce the need to “work at” collegiality-

 “… collegiality is not the natural state of things in schools and never will be. It will not occur on its own. It seems that collegiality will come to schools only if it is valued and deliberately sought after, only if someone deliberately takes action to overcome the obstacles.” (32-33)

  • I have written and presented often about the importance of the instructional coach and principal partnership. The coach should make the principal look good. The principal should make the coach look good. In that situation teachers are most likely to place confidence in both the coach and the principal as a culture of collegiality is modeled by these two school leaders. I often recommend the coach and principal publicly coach each other.

Barth: “There are many important relationships within a school… I am convinced that none of these relationships has a greater effect on the quality of life under the roof of the schoolhouse than the relationship between teacher and principal. I have found no characteristic of a good school more pervasive than a healthy teacher-principal relationship– and no characteristic of a troubled school more common than a troubled, embattled administrator-teacher relationship.” (19)

Following Barth’s death in 2021, Jon Saphier (Research for Better Teaching) posted a tribute to Barth titled “Framing an Era”.  Jon shared his personal connections with Roland Barth and the impact of Barth’s work identifying the important role of school leader as a “builder of culture.” [ An interesting history connection: In the early 70’s Jon Saphier and I were both teachers on the staff of a new K-8 school in New Jersey that was built around teaching teams]

What signs indicate the quality of collegial relationships currently existing among your staff? Do you see signs of teachers being congenial but not being collegial? Are there signs of parallel teaching (teaching near each other not with each other)? Are interactions among teachers improving teaching and learning? What conscious leadership action actions are in place to build a culture of collegiality? How much collegiality is being modeled by your leadership team?


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