By Jessica Miller, a member of the SkillCorps Kenya April 2017 team

Sometimes collaboration is hard. I often find it easier to be in the role of giving instructions, or of taking them – a clearly-defined role. But collaboration – working together; give and take – that can sometimes be tricky, depending on the personalities of those involved, the setting, cultural differences, and many other factors. I love a good collaboration. But a bad one can be painful.

In our orientation in New York, we learned a lot about cultural awareness and how important it is to make sure we don’t force our priorities on others. In some cultures, independent living skills (eating, washing hands, tying shoes, etc.) are taught early. In others, it’s very typical to see a mother spoon-feeding a child past the age of 6-7. It wouldn’t be sustainable to go into a country where that was the norm, and insist the staff start teaching these skills to 2-3 year olds. For one thing, it wouldn’t be reinforced at home. And for another, the staff would probably drop the program as soon as we left. As one person said during orientation, the people at our partner site might be checking their watches and saying, “When’s that plane coming?” That’s definitely not what we want.

Learning what programs are realistic and sustainable is a big part of the first few days at the center. We were instructed to mostly just observe on the first couple of days. I believe this time spent observing was one of the most valuable parts of the collaboration. I decided that the first day I would strictly just observe, with the exception of asking a rare question if I didn’t understand what was going on. On my second day, I asked a few more questions, trying to use the Socratic method that we discussed in our orientation.

The first couple of days, I wasn’t sure how the collaboration would work once we started offering suggestions. I wanted to be sensitive to the fact that we’re outsiders, and they are the experts on these kids. I was afraid of sounding like a know-it-all or offering advice when I didn’t fully understand the situation. I thought about how much I would dislike it if a group of people from another country came into my job setting and starting offering suggestions without taking the time to understand the environment and dynamics.

About halfway through the first week, we were each getting to know certain staff members fairly well. When I asked for clarification on the error correction procedure they were using for Direct Instruction, they explained and then asked if I had any suggestions. I told them what I would do, and said I would be happy to model next time. Everyone was more than willing to see another technique.

I really enjoyed what happened next, because it was unexpected. I stepped in, did some brief pairing with the two students, and then began instruction. When the student we were focusing on errored, I ran the standard error correction I always use. But I was never able to fade my prompt and get an independent response. Sometimes that happens. That’s okay. But it didn’t set things up for a great “Aha!” moment for anyone. I tried several different things, and then another teacher asked if she could try. She tried a couple of things, and we all genuinely collaborated. Nothing was totally successful with that specific issue on that specific day, but it felt like we had approached the problem as a team.

The next day we tried again. I modeled the step I wanted to focus on – getting at least one unprompted response to a letter sound before moving to the next letter. The staff member I was working with practiced, was receptive to feedback, and the student got through several words in that manner.

From that point on, collaboration felt natural. I might offer suggestions, ask if they had tried various methods, and listen to the answers. Sometimes my suggestions were taken, and other times they weren’t. Very often I found myself seeing techniques I’d like to incorporate in my work. Give and take – the definition of a true collaboration. Not bad for one week’s work! I’m looking forward to seeing what develops next week.

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