The Research Partnership for Professional Learning explores the question of what works in teacher learning. In Building Better PL: How to Strengthen Teacher Learning, they stress the role of teacher collaboration.
“The ‘egg crate’ nature of K-12 schooling, with individual teachers teaching groups of students on their own behind closed doors, has deep roots.
There is mounting evidence that broader engagement among teams of teachers can help breakdown this counterproductive isolation; collaboration is now considered a key feature of effective schools. We also know that learning does not happen in isolation—well-structured collaboration can promote (teacher) learning.”
My career as an educator was birthed, incubated, nurtured, developed and seasoned on teams. My student teaching was a year-long experience in a grade-4 classroom with a master teacher, two student teachers, a graduate assistant and visiting professors. My first year as a teacher I was on a four-teacher team with 120 grade 5-6 students in one large room. While students left early once a week to create team time, all days ended with the team around a table figuring out “what happened today” and “what are we going to do tomorrow?”
After five years in that setting, I became a grade one teacher teaming with an experienced primary teacher in a double classroom. I survived the transition thanks to a team approach. We were also members of a seven teacher K-1-2 team. After a few years, I became the team leader for the K-1-2 staff and joined my principal’s school leadership team. In weekly meetings, I learned to plan for student learning K-8 and coordinate student, teacher, parent, and system needs across the school.
My last thirty plus years as a teacher and administrator trainer and consultant have been built and supported by a team of talented individuals bringing scheduling, design, art, technology, publishing, communication, travel planning, etc. — skills to create the services we provide. I have always felt that teachers working as a team was a benefit. I believe today, it is a requirement. The complexity of desired outcomes we are looking to produce can no longer be accomplished with the skills and resources of an individual.
Most educators have not really had team experiences in their work in schools. Sometimes teachers will tell me that they have strong teams in their school. When I ask them to share an example of why they say their teams are strong they might tell me, “We share everything.” While sharing is nice, it is a far step from teaming. (You can find a blog on teaming vs sharing here.) I have found that what most school personnel label as teams are really franchises.
Teachers who are franchised may work together well to discuss possible solutions for struggling students. However, when the meeting is over, it is up to the teacher of the struggling students to decide what to do. The teacher is not responsible to inform other members of her decision or the outcome. Teachers on a team will decide together the strategy to implement. The teacher serving the students is accountable to implement the plan, seek additional support from the team if needed, and report back evidence of progress or lack of progress. Common (shared) goals encourage teamwork.
The building of effective teams takes conscious effort both from leadership in a school as well as from the teachers being encouraged to team.
“Effective principals help align teachers on a common purpose and provide the organizational conditions necessary for success, including strong and supportive cultures that promote ongoing development.”
In a podcast, Dr. Andrea Honigsfeld, a university professor and editor of Portraits of Collaboration: Educators Working Together to Support Multilingual Learners, shared the following when I asked her about collaboration and teaming:
“I can’t help but think about the research around relational trust and creating an educational environment or any kind of work environment in which there is a solid foundation of trust among those who work together, whether it’s the two co-teachers or the coach who’s supporting their collaboration or the administrator who creates the master schedule in which collaborative time is embedded. The teachers need to know that they will have additional support for their work as they launch co-teaching or strengthen their co-teaching partnership.
We build relational trust by understanding our own strengths and assets, what we bring to the partnership and honoring our partner’s strengths and assets and knowledge and avoiding any kind of shame and blame. It’s merging the first person, singular, I, to make it the first person plural, we, so that we together, can have an impact on student learning. How do we do that? It definitely happens incrementally, it definitely happens through systemic support for communication and ample time for teachers to work out different philosophies, different teaching styles, different thinking about what works for this population and honoring each other’s expertise, clinical expertise, in class expertise, knowledge base, and having a platform where I can freely share what I know about this work without feeling that I might misspeak. That takes time because it is a lot of communication, a lot of trial and error, and definitely the larger systemic support for collaboration time is needed.”
If you agree that “collaboration is now considered a key feature of effective schools,” creating and supporting the necessary environment becomes a component of your leadership.