Why We Need Strong Teacher Communities

I am glad that there have been a spate of headlines about the limitations of value-added modeling for assessing teachers. Ranking teachers primarily on the basis of student test scores not only goes against intuitive sense, but it is also junk science, as numerous professional organizations have said repeatedly. (Here is AERA’s statement. Here is ASA’s.)

There is a robust educational research finding, however, that seems to stay out of the headlines: the importance of good colleagues for teachers — and students.

This particular finding, which has been around for decades now, has a hard time capturing the public imagination because we are a society that thinks we do not have a society. We are a society that imagines individual characteristics like grit and dynamism and determination can overcome anything. We make movies about teacher heroes going against the grain, making us complacent about real inequities in our schools. The message seems to be, “Well, if we only had more determined teachers, these problems wouldn’t exist.”

Yet all the research on schools and departments that defy the statistical odds of their student demographics find the same thing time and again: it is not the individual teachers in themselves that make the difference. It is teacher teams working together to raise expectations, coordinate systems, and support students over the years that make a difference.

Think about it. Inequality is an institutional problem. Why do we imagine a lone individual can change these systemic forces?

Especially when we have so much evidence that strong teacher teams can.

In high schools, Valerie Lee and her colleagues looked at the situations that support equitable achievement. To find such achievement, they looked for schools in which students’ demographic background variables (among them race and socioeconomic status) were not strongly predictive of their eventual level of attainment. Schools that have achieved equitable outcomes share identifiable traits: they have a rigorous common curriculum and a strong organizational push for students to enroll in challenging courses. In mathematics departments, Rochelle Gutiérrez found that teachers who take collective responsibility for their students’ success contribute substantially to this organizational push.

Similar findings have been published in top journals by David Strahan, Karen Seashore Louis, Tony Bryk, Milbrey McLaughlin and Joan Talbert. In my own work, I have seen how teachers’ collective responsibility supports students’ long-term positive engagement in the mathematics curriculum.

Teachers who work together can coordinate expectations across the grades, increasing expectations for student responsibility as they mature. Teamwork can give the teachers a place to hold the sometimes-abstract ideas of professional development up against the complex realities of their classrooms. For instance, in one school I worked with, the teachers were implementing a new curriculum and had received training in using it. When one unit required particular cultural knowledge that many of their students did not share, the teachers figured out an appropriate adaptation to bring their students up to speed on a topic the textbook took for granted.

In addition, the team allowed the teachers to coordinate their instruction, pacing lessons together and developing shared language and representations for key mathematical concepts. This allowed teachers to easily tutor one another’s students after school or in support classes, since everyone knew what kinds of conversations and presentations were going on in the classrooms. The collaboration directly contributed to the teachers’ mathematical learning as well. When teachers did not fully understand a concept, or could not anticipate the ways in which a topic would be hard for students, they turned to one another for brief tutorials or ideas to bring into their own classrooms.
Besides all of the ways in which the collaboration supported the goal of increased student achievement, the teachers consistently reported the unexpected benefit of the emotional support they garnered from the team approach. As one teacher reported, “When there’s a problem, when there are issues with a kid, there’s a group to talk about it, to say, ‘Hey, there are issues here. What do you suggest? What do you think? What’s a good way to go?’ And so you have this whole giant support system.”

If the preponderance of evidence points to the importance of collaboration in achieving equity, why is this not a commonplace feature of teachers’ work?

Teachers who want to meet and collaborate with their colleagues often do so at great personal expense. Frequently, they end up donating hours before and after school or sacrificing their scant preparation time. Even in places where teamwork becomes an explicit part of their work, it is seldom adequately offset by any reductions in other time-intensive job duties or it gets taken over by administrative demands.

I would love policy makers to shift their imagination from threats and sanctions against either individual teachers or entire schools to think about how to make productive collaboration a meaningful part of teachers’ work.

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7 thoughts on “Why We Need Strong Teacher Communities

  1. This is so true. As educators, we need to make meaningful connections with each other and work together to meet professional goals. Having PLCs in schools or virtually is what will help our profession grow, but you’re right that we need time to make that happen. Implementation of all initiatives would be more effective if we had the time to roll them out as an informed team of practitioners. I actually have been thinking a lot about this collective efficacy and how we can build more of it in our schools. Great post.

    Katie
    http://www.katienovakudl.com

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  2. Illana, you never fail to write the timely post.

    I am working to learn more about this topic.

    As a math coach at an elementary school, my colleagues and I have been working to co-construct a ‘collaborative inquiry’ learning community amongst ourselves (teachers + admin). The idea is that if we want to see inquiry and problem solving in the classroom, we need to experience it in staffroom – especially through our professional learning. Often times my colleagues and I have found that the best questions to tackle, regarding our professional learning, are the questions WE raise ourselves. The idea is that we feel comfortable talking about our own ‘knowledge and understanding needs’ as professionals but do so for the betterment of our students.

    Aside from your own insight, I also appreciate the links to refereed journals so that I can continue to develop my own understanding.

    I will likely share this blog post of yours, in September, with my colleagues. Hope this is ok.

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    • Paul,

      Glad you found it useful! Please share away. Part of why I started the blog was because my research focuses on what it would really take to support teachers in more effective mathematics teaching — and not from a teacher-blaming perspective but from a point of view that really takes on the real life constraints teachers face.

      I always appreciate your comments.

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  3. Another important element in strong teacher communities is in how they value teachers’ professional knowledge.

    My school has professional development time every Wednesday morning. This year our Humanities department dedicated one session a month to a teacher sharing out a literacy strategy (e.g., annotation, précis writing, prompt analysis, thesis writing, use of evidence). The presenter would explain the strategy and then walk us through an example, often using student work to illustrate its application in the classroom.

    In our final professional development time this year a U.S. History teacher talked about how she could see the transfer of skills from students’ English courses and support students in their writing because she understood the greater context.

    This kind of connection not only helps students but also creates the kind of community where teachers value each other’s expertise. All year I was impressed and humbled by the great work of my colleagues. When teachers collaborate professionally it inoculates the community against the outside “experts” who claim to have magical best practices without understanding the context of the school.

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  4. Pingback: “What do you think and why?” | teaching/math/culture

  5. Pingback: Beyond Beliefs in Teacher Learning | teaching/math/culture

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