Why Schools Need Both Horizontal and Vertical Collaboration

A time for professional sharing of best practices.

"We can learn how to better serve our students from EVERYONE who works in the school, from our teammates to specialists to support staff."

Teachers can’t go it alone. And honestly? Students suffer when they don’t have a team backing them up. Collaboration in the school setting is critical for so many reasons: to build school culture, share best practices, enhance policies, and (most importantly) for student success! The best kind of collaboration occurs when members of the learning community work together both horizontally and vertically. But, what’s the difference, and why are both important? We tackle those answers below.

What is horizontal collaboration?

Horizontal collaboration is one of the most common forms of collaboration that occurs in schools. This form of collaboration is composed of various kinds of school teams. However, these teams may vary from building to building and even within the same school district. Above all, these five horizontal teams are an important part of the school culture:

  1. Grade Level Teams
  2. Special Education Teams
  3. Teams for Specials Teachers (Art, Music, Gym, Library)
  4. Ancillary Staff Teams (School Psychologist, Speech Pathologist, School Social Worker)
  5. Para Educator Teams

Horizontal collaboration teams often share ideas, information, and resources. They bring their expertise and unique perspectives to the team. “Teachers are better together.”


What is vertical collaboration?

Vertical collaboration occurs when teachers and staff gather to form collaborative affinity groups. These teams are not likely to meet as often as horizontal teams meet, however, they are also an important part of the school culture. For this purpose, you might consider forming one or more of these vertical collaboration teams:

  1. Primary Teachers Collaboration Team (K-2)
  2. Upper Elementary Teachers Collaboration Team (3-5)
  3. Co-Teaching Teams
  4. School Leadership Team (Composed of a representative group of building staff.)
  5. School Improvement Teams (Related to content areas; math, literacy, social studies, science.)
  6. Social/Emotional Learning School Improvement Team.

Celebrating student success is energizing to the work of vertical collaboration teams. These achievements are a result of the shared commitments teams have for student success. In addition, the positive deposits that we make in each other’s emotional bank accounts will pay off later when we’re knee-deep in data dives, interventions, lesson planning, and certainly, experiencing teaching fatigue.

Why schools need both types of collaboration teams.

Collaboration teams in schools are constantly identifying the unique needs of their school community and then determining the best use of their teams’ assets. Both horizontal and vertical teams use student data to make instructional decisions and determine necessary interventions and supports. For instance, pre-assessment pieces might be used by grade-level teams to determine the course of action for upcoming units of study. The data might be used to identify groups of students who require extra support and intervention and others who might benefit from enrichment activities. Similarly, vertical teams such as paraeducators might use discipline data to create activities and supports for reducing conflicts during recess time. There are numerous ways teams can work to make important instructional decisions, and both types of collaboration teams help to create a positive school culture.

Tips for making collaboration teams work!

Not everyone will be excited about yet another meeting. One tip, especially for horizontal collaboration teams, is that they should have a common planning time period. This allows the teams to meet weekly or biweekly during that time, instead of tacking on additional meetings. Here are some other tips that work for both horizontal and vertical collaboration teams.

Determine the collaboration focus.

Decide on the focus prior to each meeting, and consider creating a small agenda to help keep the meeting on track. Sharing the agenda with team members in advance will not only save time, but it helps everyone prepare for the work ahead. The collaboration focus of the grade level team could change from week to week or it could be carried over across several weeks.

Establish team norms.

For both vertical and horizontal collaboration teams to work, the team should establish a set of norms. These norms are not a set of rules, but rather a way of being. Here are a few commonly used norms.

  • Respect our meeting time.
  • Respect the process and come prepared.
  • Keep the focus on our students.
  • Respect everyone’s ideas.
  • Ask for help when you need it.

Keep the list of norms short! You’ll want team members to actually adhere to them. (Take a look at how we set School Staff Meeting norms.)

Allow for team building and connections.

Consider engaging the groups in team-building tasks. Team building is a great way to connect and create positive relationships. Collaboration teams in schools that have a good rapport work well together and become more cohesive. Building positive relationships takes time and effort.

What are the horizontal and vertical collaboration teams like in your school? Please share how your school teams meet and collaborate in the comments below.

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Why Schools Need Both Horizontal and Vertical Collaboration