While 21st-century pedagogy puts group projects and collaborative learning at center stage for students, these cooperative habits have not yet assumed such a prominent role for teachers. But collaboration among teachers — and a desire for that teamwork — is growing, with positive repercussions across schools.
The researchers, members of The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, looked at teacher teams at three public and three charter Massachusetts schools located within the same city. All of the schools have a record of successfully serving high-poverty populations. In five of the six schools, teachers met with assigned teams on a regular basis (in the sixth school, teachers were strongly encouraged to collaborate but not assigned to teams). The researchers identified two types of teams: content teams, in which teachers focused on curriculum, lessons, and pedagogy; and cohort teams, in which teachers discussed behavior, individual student needs, and school culture.
Regardless of structure, teachers across the schools praised their teams, reporting that “working collaboratively helped them to manage the continuous, intense demands of instruction and to align their efforts with those of their colleagues.” The researchers found that five factors consistently contribute to a team’s success:
In each school, these factors led not only to a more a unified staff, but also to other positive consequences, both intended and unintended:
The researchers recognize that, in some schools, teachers perceive teams as an annoying obstacle to their “real work.” The teams worked in these six schools, explains Johnson, because “teams were at the heart of their real work.” She continues, “Working closely and purposefully with colleagues helped the teachers in these schools do better with their own students, while building a better school. Students in these schools presented many needs, but no teacher felt alone in meeting them.
“Many factors contributed to these schools' success — careful hiring, frequent feedback on instruction, strong norms for both students and faculty, student supports, and skilled management — but it was teams that knit these components together for the good of students.”
“It turns out that teams can be a very powerful engine of change,” says Johnson, “but only if principals and teachers invest not only time, but also their best ideas, energy, and selves.”
Read an interview with Harvard Graduate School of Education Senior Lecturer Katherine Boles on the challenges of and benefits to teacher collaboration.
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Susan Moore Johnson studies, teaches, and consults about teacher policy, organizational change, and administrative practice.