Collaboration and the Myth of “Independent” Success

This week marks a major achievement in my life and the realisation of a career goal that I’ve held for the past five years. I’m now a fully-fledged Education Lecturer in a large university. I’m responsible for engaging in, and producing, quality research as well as mentoring the next generation of secondary teachers. At 36, it feels like I’ve come a long way in a relatively short amount of time (I’ve been teaching since 2001), but my experience and expertise have been instrumental in my success.
Anyone familiar with the culture of higher education knows that individual success is extremely important for career building. You need to generate results that show you’re an asset to the university: strong teacher appraisals, funding grants, research publications, industry partnerships and more. A colleague of mine sometimes jokingly reminds me that Education academics are expected to “walk on water,” and I think she has a point. In producing the results, reputation plays a really important role; the more people know about you, the more opportunities become available – and, to some degree, the easier it gets. One only needs to think of the great “celebrity” educators whose reputations effortlessly command audiences in the thousands and whose sound bites are quoted far and wide. To many in higher ed, reputation has a palpable dollar value and none of us can ignore the importance of building a career through individual effort and merit. Like any junior academic, I hope to publish more, continue to receive strong appraisals from my students, explore new sources of funding and receive further recognition for the work I do. 
The truth is, though, that success is never solely individual. Any successful outcome is predicated on our interactions with other people – the work we do with them, the feedback and support we receive, the value they add to our ideas and their validation of us as professionals and human beings. Perhaps this is never more true than in teaching, where our colleagues and students continually let us know just how much we’re valued and provide us with the challenges, space and opportunities to grow professionally and emotionally.
For my current job, one of the criteria was “recent experience teaching in schools and/or working collaboratively with school teachers.” I suppose I didn’t give this much thought until I found myself, at interview, being asked to talk in quite some detail about how I collaborate with others professionally. I’ve been collaborating professionally in one way or another for most of my working life, so I don’t find these questions particularly challenging. I could point to numerous instances. In schools, I’ve co-developed and co-led major initiatives to bring about whole-school change, particularly in the areas of pedagogy and technology. I’ve embraced open plan learning environments where I’ve co-taught, co-reflected and co-improved (if you can allow these “co-“ words!). I’ve worked with industry partners and academics where I’ve co-researched and co-written articles and reports. I’ve co-developed and co-facilitated professional learning programs for teachers from a range of schools throughout the state.
Reflecting on the interview, I had no issue pointing to my success as a collaborator. I’m not especially prone to big-noting, either, so I was a little surprised at being able to sell my achievements so well – that is, until I realised I was really talking about success in the plural – ours not mine.
Over my relatively limited experience of the last fifteen years in education, I could say that I’ve produced some excellent HSC results or that I’ve been responsible for kids developing a life-long passion for music, literature, technology or whatever. I could say that I’ve successfully implemented programs at a whole-school level. I could say I’ve written that article that got published or led that research project. But focusing on the “I” is missing the point – and the truth that there’s no way whatsoever that I could be who I am professionally without the people that have worked alongside me. More specifically, there’s no way I could be successful without them being successful.
My kids – most of whom are now young adults – are the ones that have done the hard work. They’ve produced the results – the high HSC mark might have at some point been “ours” in one sense, but it’s “theirs” in every other sense.   Whole school change doesn’t happen with one person (if it does, there’s something really wrong). As many colleagues with whom I’ve worked know, I bring a lot of half-baked ideas to the table. They’re full of holes and would never work by themselves. But others bring their ideas too, and we work together to make something that’s much stronger than any one person could do. My supervisors and co-authors are the ones who know the field and the right people; without them, I’d probably be scrabbling to get my name out anywhere.
The real reason why I’m now where I am – in one of the most privileged jobs in the world, doing what I love – is that I invested time and effort into others’ success, thereby building my own. That’s what collaboration has given me and I think I’ve managed to expose the myth that success can ever really be independent. I hope I have the good sense to walk this path in future. 

About Michael

Cellist, singer/songwriter, school teacher, nerd, recent scooter enthusiast and failed philosopher.
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