Want Excellent Teachers? Let Them Work Together More

A couple of things tweaked me to write this follow-up post on the report from Alberta Education’s Task Force on Teacher Excellence. First was this response to my last blog. The reader commented,

Just a quick question: You say that there a few ( very few) teachers who should be put out to pasture. I agree. But how do we know who that is? What measure should we use? How can the system be changed so those bad apples are weeded out?

Second was yesterday’s episode of The Current on CBC. Alberta blogger and teacher Joe Bower mentioned teacher collaboration as an alternative to “top down” practice assessment, and host Anna Maria Tremonti had no idea what he meant. So I figured she’s probably not the only one who isn’t aware that this possibility for improved teaching exists.

So. Here goes:

Collaborative Professional Development to Promote Teaching Excellence

I was actually mildly frustrated when, in the Current interview I just mentioned, Bower went straight to class sizes as an issue. In the case of evaluating teachers’ practices, class sizes aren’t that relevant. But Bower’s brief reference to collaboration is very relevant indeed. Here then, I want to elaborate on what teacher collaboration is, and why it is under-utilized in schools even though it can be very effective route to improved teaching.

Before digging in to these questions, I’m going to clarify a couple of things about teachers’ work as it exists today. Depending on the teacher’s subject knowledge and past experiences teaching the grade or course, preparation and assessment (grading) time for an hour of “teaching time” can take up to an hour of out-of-class time. But, most teachers can hope for at best an hour or two of non-teaching “prep time” built into their school days. This is why teachers do much of their work at home and on the weekends, after school hours.

Second, the teaching profession is plagued by what Dan Lortie described as an “egg-crate” model – each teacher isolated in his or her classroom, having little professional dialogue or exchange with colleagues. Lortie wrote his study of the teaching profession in 1975. Little, with respect to teacher isolation, has changed.[1] Given that teachers spend all day, every day in front of their students, it’s not terribly surprising that their conversations with colleagues are snippets that occur on lunch hours, or during playground supervision.

Okay. So you might be thinking that teachers have professional development days. They can get together then, right? Right. But PD is often dictated. So if you are a Grade 3 teacher who’s really struggling with your kids’ math achievement, but your school or district is on a technology kick – well you may be out of luck. Further, much professional development is so highly structured that teachers still don’t have the opportunity to get what they really need most: face time with colleagues who are teaching the same grade or subject area.

How do we know teachers need this? Because it is what they tell researchers they need, when anyone bothers to ask them. It has certainly been confirmed in my research work with the Alberta Teachers’ Association. Our Beginning Teachers’ study, for example, found that new teachers who felt most supported in their early years were those who were able to participate in regular meetings with other more experienced “grade level partners.”[2] Experienced teachers grow because they learn from their colleagues. And when it comes to problem-solving, two (or more) heads are better than one.

Collaboration Builds “Professional Capital”

So how does all of this tie in to Alberta Education’s proposal to re-certify teachers every five years? To answer this question, I’ll draw on Hargreave and Fullan’s account of “professional capital.” They argue – and I think they’re right – that if you bring an underperforming teacher into a strong culture of professional collaboration, there is a very good chance that teacher will step up to the plate. There’s nowhere to hide if you are expected, as part of your job, to work alongside of colleagues to improve practice.[3]

But right now, that’s not built into the school day. Teachers do not have time to meet. Some school boards and principals do innovate and move schedules and funding around to “buy” an afternoon once a week or once a month for teachers to meet, but such efforts are the exceptions, not the norm.[4] Without these blocks of time provided, teachers might straggle in for an hour at the end of the school day, exhausted from 7 hours of “face time” already. That is, if they aren’t talking to a parent on the phone, in a staff meeting, on bus supervision, or coaching basketball. See what I mean?

Obviously teacher collaboration doesn’t fix everything.[5] It doesn’t resolve the matter of getting rid of truly awful teachers, but it could address many cases where a mediocre teacher can, with the right supports, become “excellent.” Think of it is peer pressure in the best sense. Or, as Hargreaves & Fullan suggest, think of the pooling of teacher knowledge and expertise as “capital” that can grow if it’s well-invested over time.

We don’t beat on kids to motivate their learning. Why would we do it to their teachers?

So from where I’m sitting, if we weigh the costs of setting up a re-certification process against the costs of buying teachers time to work together during the school day – well, guess where I’d put my money? The effectiveness of teacher collaboration is consistently supported in research, and contributes to the excellent performance of schools in Finland, South Korea, and Singapore.[6] Instead, of going that direction, however, Alberta’ present Ministry of Education would prefer, it seems, to spend money building a bigger stick to whack teachers with.  There is nothing wrong with Alberta’s educational goal of “an excellent teacher in every classroom,” but there are better ways of getting there than the authoritarian, bureaucratic mess that’s proposed in the Task Force Report.

[1] You’d like to think the study just has historical value, but it’s actually scary how little the profession has changed generally since Lortie’s (1975) study. It’s still one of the most outstanding pieces of work in the sociology of American K-12 education. Lortie, D. (2002). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Alberta Teachers’ Association. (2013). Teaching in the early years of practice: A five year longitudinal study. Edmonton, AB. In these settings, experienced teachers can coach novices on classroom management, provide effective teaching ideas and lesson plans, co-develop assessment strategies, or offer advice on reaching kids who aren’t “getting it.” Without the support of a collaborative group or a quality mentor teaching the same stuff, new teachers re-invent the wheel, finding out by trial-and-error what their veteran colleagues already know.

[3] Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2013). Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school. New York: Teachers College Press.

[4] In fact, Alberta’s withdrawal of AISI (Alberta Initiative for School Improvement) funding in 2013 significantly impacted schools’ local efforts to build collaboration time into teachers’ work days. Many collaboration and mentorship programs withered without this funding source.

[5] Hargreaves & Fullan cite studies showing that collaboration still needs to implemented effectively. cf. especially Judith Warren Little’s significant article on this topic: Little, J. W. (1990). The persistence of privacy : Autonomy and initiative in teachers ’ professional relations. Teachers College Record, 91(4), 509-537.

[6] See, for example, Darling-Hammond, L., Chung Wei, R., & Andree, A (2010). How high achieving countries develop great teachers. Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.  https://edpolicy.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publications/how-high-achieving-countries-develop-great-teachers.pdf

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5 Comments

  1. Good stuff, Laura. Some readers might be interested to compare the prep time and collaborative practices of AB teachers to that of Chinese teachers. Teachers there (referring more to urban than rural schools) typically teach two to three 40 minute lessons per day and it is usually the same material each time. Of course there are important differences: material conditions, expectation of mastery, exam focused teaching and evaluation, student and school management duties, arbitrary assignment of extra duties, etc. Collaboration/mentorship of an obvious (and not unproblematic) kind is a crucial if ill-recognized plank of practice evaluation and improvement.

  2. Thanks Lorin! I think the comparison is *very* interesting. It’s not just a matter of “hey look other countries have more collaboration time,” (although that’s noteworthy). I think it also reinforces/reflects fundamental cultural differences too, no? North American society is much more individualistic, and I think that speaks somewhat to the comfort level we have with the “privatized practice” as a default.

  3. Hi Laura, My name is Dan Kass, and I recently read your article, “Who is the “Professional” in a Professional Learning Community? An Exploration of Teacher Professionalism in Collaborative Professional Development Settings” (2009) and I am intending to base much of my dissertation on this work. I am particularly interested in the four conceptions of teacher professionalism and the interplay with professionalism and the possible constraints/tensions created by managerialist command and controls on professional capacity building within PLCs.

    I would very much like to talk/email you and ‘pick your brain’ on the topic if you would be willing. I look forward to meeting you!

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