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A New Vision for Teacher Collaboration

Inspired by their work in HGSE's Instructional Leadership Certificate program, a group of Connecticut educators create an in-school learning lab
Derby County educators
Educators collaborate in Derby (Conn.) Middle School's Live Learning Laboratory
Photo: Courtesy of Derby County Schools

“Hey,” a smiling seventh-grader said, poking his head into a newly repurposed classroom at Derby Middle School. “What are you doing in there?” The group of adults who had gathered in the classroom weren’t bothered by the interruption. In fact, they welcomed it —as another opportunity to engage a student in the school’s new Live Learning Laboratory. The lab’s doors — and the learning that happens there — are always open to staff and students alike.

In the lab, school staff gather to talk about the work they are doing in the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Instructional Leadership Certificate (ILC) program. They share concerns about classroom issues and new ideas for overcoming them. And they invite groups of students to participate in live learning sessions, in which teachers try out new ideas to build student engagement, iron out issues with presentation and management, and deliver more impact.  

A District in Transition

Like many small American cities, Derby, Connecticut, is in transition. It was once a hub of manufacturing and heavy industry. As industrial jobs moved out of the United States, Derby's economy contracted. But the rise of technology and the return of manufacturing to the United States has brought Derby’s economy new life.

Derby Public Schools, a district of seven schools and some 1,300 students, is in transition, too. Decades ago, most students who started in the district in kindergarten graduated there. Today, students and their families come and go more frequently. This, in part, has led Derby schools to lag in many statewide performance standards. But the district is determined to change that — and that means challenges for both students and teachers.

“We are currently a turnaround school,” says Rachael Caggiano, principal of Derby Middle School. “So we are undergoing a lot of transformation. We are asking teachers to push our students. … If we are asking [teachers] to step out of their comfort zones and really challenge students, we have to provide them with supporting growth.” 

A Focus on Professional Development

Caggiano and Michael Rafferty, Derby Public Schools director of teaching and learning, thought that professional development might provide that support. But what Derby wanted looked more like lifelong learning than traditional professional development. “If you look at most school districts,” says Rafferty, “they put professional learning in boxes. They do it at the beginning of the year. They do it on election day. They do it on the weekend. We wanted professional development to be available … all the time.”

Since online asynchronous learning seemed like a possible solution, Caggiano and Rafferty focused on HGSE's ILC program, a series of professional development modules designed to help teachers become effective mentors, instructional coaches, and leaders of instructional teams or departments. 

According to HGSE Lecturer Noah Heller, ILC faculty chair, “We designed ILC to bring together an international community of teachers to share their expertise across many different contexts and grow together as teacher leaders inside and outside their classrooms.” 

That’s exactly the kind of growth Caggiano and Rafferty were looking for. The two decided to enroll in the program themselves and invited a group of 10 others to do the same.

Teachers Start Talking

Shortly after the program began, Rafferty and Caggiano noticed something unusual: Teachers were talking about the course outside the online classroom. In the hallways, they’d chat about the class homework. In group texts, they’d discuss strategies for implementing what they’d learned. Even on weekends, the text exchanges flew. 

As time passed, the enthusiasm increased. Harvard T-shirts popped up in the hallways. Teachers dropped by Caggiano’s office to talk about the course — or invited her to their classrooms to check out new ideas. Twelve staff members signed up for the first ILC course; 42 registered for the second, spanning representation from all district buildings and content areas as well as a school psychologist, a speech and language pathologist, social workers, administrators, and coaches. 

The enthusiasm has spread to the students, too. “They are aware of the process,” says Caggiano. “So we’ll say ‘We want to try this out. We have this assignment from Harvard.’ And they say ‘I want to be part of your Harvard course. And they want to help us.” 

The buzz about ILC helped push forward a project that had been talked about but never realized: the creation of a classroom laboratory where teachers could try out new teaching ideas in a real classroom. In fall 2022, Derby Middle School opened its Live Learning Laboratory in an available space in the middle school. According to Caggiano, “the learning lab represents our belief that we may not get all of this right but we need to start to take some risks. We need to say, ‘I have a hypothesis: If I’m doing X, it is going to increase student learning. If I try something a different way, it may pay dividends.’” 

Oddly enough, the ILC program was designed to create just such an experience online. “ILC was developed from a central belief in teacher expertise,” says Heller.  We know that in a room full of professional teachers exploring skills and knowledge for teacher leadership, the answer is most often in the room. Our job designing the ILC was to build a really great online room for collaborative learning to flourish.”

Derby’s Live Learning Lab gives teachers a physical space to gather, talk about instructional issues, and share and test new ideas to increase the impact of their teaching on their students. According to Caggiano, the results thus far are resoundingly positive. 

Hands Off Pays Off

Recently, a group of math teachers in the middle school was having a hard time keeping their students on track. Rafferty and Caggiano helped design an experiment to explore ways to help. They selected a group of sixth- and seventh-grade students of varying proficiency levels, from highly skilled math learners to those who were struggling. Then they invited the students to the lab to try out a math lesson. 

Rafferty and a classroom teacher led the session. They worked at the seventh-grade level — beyond what sixth-graders were expected to do. And they tried two different approaches.

“First," says Rafferty. “we put a teacher, a coach, and a literacy coach in the lab with students. We said ‘Let’s study this one concept together. We have a theory that giving kids more control over the manipulatives to solve a math problem will make a difference in engagement.’ So we do it the first time, [with a lot of] teacher talk and teacher control, and we see low engagement and low ability to solve the problem.”

Then the instructors tried the same lesson over with a different group, but with much less teacher oversight. Students picked their own group partners and their own place to work. They selected their own manipulatives and were given access to calculators and measuring tools without having to ask for them. 

When students struggled, teachers held back, and let the students try to figure things out on their own or with their partners. The result? Even struggling students were able to work through the lesson. Next, teachers took what they learned back to their regular classrooms, where a more hands-off approach is yielding better results. 

More than Just Solutions

According to Rafferty and Caggiano, the lab is a great place to solve practical problems, but it — and Derby’s participation in the ILC program — is providing other benefits as well, including breaking down barriers between staff in different grades and different roles. 

“What I loved about it is the teachers were starting to share their own thoughts and visions together,” Caggiano says. “And what happened for the first time was that team leaders from different grade levels were able to align really quickly and succinctly. … It turned into these deep-rooted friendships and good times, but we are talking about learning, and the course, and life.”

Another benefit is the growth of educators’ morale. “Teachers are so excited about it because they believe in it,” Caggiano adds. “They feel supported by us, that they are valued and we want to give them this additional opportunity.” 

Perhaps most important is the impact on students. According to Caggiano, when they participate in teachers’ professional development efforts, she says, they get a firsthand look at what lifelong learning is all about. And engaging students in professional development helps gain buy-in from all stakeholders. Which explains why the lab door is always open, and why interruptions are always welcome.

—Gary Miller is a writer and editor. His latest book is There’s No Way to Do It Wrong! How to Get Young Learners to Take Risks, Tell Stories, Share Opinions, and Fall in Love with Writing


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