Teaching Together for Change

Five factors that make teacher teams successful — and make schools stronger

By Leah Shafer, on February 29, 2016 4:10 PM
Teaching Together for Change: Five factors that make teacher teams successful — and make schools stronger #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

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.

A new paper by Susan Moore Johnson, Stefanie K. Reinhorn, and Nicole S. Simon from the Harvard Graduate School of Education examines when and how this collaboration works best.

What Makes an Effective Team

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:

  1. When teams and meetings have a clear, worthwhile purpose. Groups did not meet “just to meet,” but rather had a specific goal for collaborating, such as giving all students the education they deserved or eliminating the achievement gap.
  2. When group meetings occur regularly, with sufficient time set aside. When teachers and administrators prioritized the meetings over other activities, the teams were more productive. In these schools, meeting time was sacred, and always free from interruptions.
  3. When administrators offer ongoing, engaged support and attention. While some principals regularly attended meetings, others expressed support by following online notes. This support held teachers accountable and kept administrators notified of teachers’ strengths and struggles.  
  4. When there are trained teacher leaders to facilitate meetings. Teachers appreciated having peers responsible for leading their work. Although some leaders found the role difficult to balance, they also commented that the position let them expand their responsibilities and have a greater impact at the school.
  5. When there is an integrated approach to teacher support. Because the hiring process in each of these schools highlighted the importance of collaboration, teachers were confident that they could count on their colleagues. They also received continual feedback from administrators that augmented the planning that happened in team meetings.

The Consequences of Teamwork

In each school, these factors led not only to a more a unified staff, but also to other positive consequences, both intended and unintended:

  1. Greater consistency across classes and grades. In content teams, teachers developed curriculum and lessons together, with some schools even assigning a rotation of teachers to plan lessons for the rest of their team.
  2. Increased rigor and expectations for students. When teachers intentionally aligned their expectations for students, they developed new ways to ask students to think bigger and deeper about tough concepts.  
  3. Opportunities for skill-sharing. While early-career teachers had more chances to study the experience of veteran teachers, veterans also learned from the new skills and training of their early-career colleagues.
  4. Frequent feedback. Instead of having to wait for formal reviews from supervisors, teachers could ask their teams at every meeting for feedback on lesson plans, behavior management, and pedagogy.
  5. A support network for new teachers. With pre-organized team meetings, new teachers had colleagues to turn to for advice and support.  

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.”

Additional Resources

  • 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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Topics in this article

Schools, Teaching

Faculty in this article

Susan Moore Johnson

Susan Moore Johnson studies, teaches, and consults about teacher policy, organizational change, and administrative practice.