Go Team?

Why teacher teams struggle to work effectively together and how schools can create the conditions for success

March 24, 2015
Thought Balloon

Even when schools recognize the potential of teacher teams to have a measurable impact on improving teaching and learning, many teams fail to achieve the results they seek. Is it simply a case of good or bad chemistry, or are there concrete steps schools can take to cultivate collaboration that works?

To find out, Usable Knowledge turned to Senior Lecturer Katherine Boles and Vivian Troen, director of The Power of Teacher Learning — co-authors of The Power of Teacher Teams.

Both shared some of their insights into the individual and collective roles educators play as they prepare for their own roles as faculty chairs of the professional education program, The Transformative Power of Teacher Teams.

You’ve said that while thousands of schools have structures in place for teachers to work together, these efforts rarely result in improved teaching and learning. What are some of the most common obstacles you’ve observed?

KB: It is essential for teachers to work collaboratively in teams, yet we must recognize that for more than 150 years, teachers have engaged in solo practice and have been prevented by the resultant school culture from collaborating with other teachers to perfect their practice. Nor has collaborative teaming seemed to be essential to the improvement of teacher and student learning. It is important to understand and acknowledge that changing the norm of autonomy to the norm of fully collaborative collegiality is a major obstacle on the path toward helping teachers work effectively in teams. Another obstacle is that school culture supports the notion that all teachers are equal in proficiency, which makes the effort to promote leadership among teachers (an essential element of teacher teaming) all the more difficult.

VT: Another obstacle to the success of teacher teams is the lack of team training. Unfortunately, unlike teams in the corporate world, teachers are not generally given team training in any meaningful way. The result is the perpetuation of the long-established isolated status quo. Putting a group of teachers together and telling them “Okay, you guys are a team, now work together” is like saying, “Poof, you’re a team!” There is no magic, yet leaving uncoached and unguided teachers to work things out by themselves is a recipe for failure. Still, the notion of this as a strategy for teacher teaming is almost always the norm.

Kitty Boles and Vivien Troen

I’ve heard teachers say that their work within their classroom can be isolating. How difficult is it to change some of the longstanding structures within schools where teachers are primarily solo practitioners versus members of a teaching team?

KB: While difficult, it is possible, over time, to change an institutionalized organizational culture, along with the structures that support it. In order to change those structures, teachers need to learn how to work together in a truly collaborative manner, not just to meet occasionally to discuss classroom and school-wide logistics. In order to accomplish this, teachers will need to learn the difficult and many-layered skills of effective teaming. They will need to learn the iterative process of teaming — setting norms for their teams and for their meetings, assuming new skills and strategies that will improve their instruction and, most importantly, improve the learning and achievement of their students.

VT: This teacher learning must incorporate the principles of the instructional core, which consists of the relationship between students and teachers in the presence of content. The team’s goals of improved teacher and student learning must focus on obtaining observable improvements in teaching practice, improving the content given to students, and paying attention to the roles that students play in their own learning. Everything we do in schools and in our instruction must be related to the instructional core.

Are there advantages — or obstacles — to working as a team that are unique to education? 

KB: The many advantages gained by colleagues working in teams have been well documented in a broad range of institutions — from medical to corporate to legal to the military. These include:

  • Increased productivity
  • Improved communication skills
  • The synergy of skills diversity
  • Improved problem solving
  • Smarter use of combined resources

VT: Teachers who work in teams gain exactly the same advantages. In addition, teachers who work in teams can collaboratively:

  • Examine and analyze student work
  • Address issues of class management
  • Learn new curriculum
  • Observe one another’s practice
  • Provide additional support for new teachers
  • Provide roles for veteran teachers as mentors

KB: There are also obstacles to success that are unique to education:

  • Teachers are given common planning time for team meetings but teams lack the leadership and facilitation skills to use their time productively.
  • Both teachers and principals believe that experience equals expertise, but teams generally lack internal expertise and are reluctant to look outside their team for help.
  • Team members speak in terms of “collegiality” and “mutual support” but they rarely engage in the instructional talk that could significantly improve teaching and learning.

What are the essential elements of effective teams?

KB: The Five Conditions of Effective Teams establish a framework to guide teachers as they work in their teams to improve their practice. A team is effective when the team’s task is well defined and articulated and the team’s focus is on improving student learning. The team must also foster an environment that encourages leadership and one in which all teachers have a voice and are empowered to take risks.

Critical to team success is a collaborative climate, which includes being able to have what are called “difficult conversations.”

VT: Teachers working in a team must recognize that every team member is responsible for improving the achievement of every student. It is not enough for team members to work successfully with the students in their own classrooms. Team members are accountable for all the team’s students. That’s personal accountability for both student and team success. 

Teachers need access to outside resources, materials and expertise. Equally important, the team must establish structures and processes that help them work together to achieve agreed upon goals. 

You describe the ideal team of participants as including both teachers and their principal. What role does the principal play in a team’s success, and what can the entire team expect to take away from the upcoming professional education program? 

KB: The role of the principal is key. It’s the principal’s job, as instructional leader, to be a champion for the team’s success. It’s the principal who leads by articulating a vision that emphasizes collaboration and then by laying the foundation for success by providing the time, resources, and support structures.

VT: At the same time we know that principals, even though they are vital to the success of teacher teams, are themselves rarely given any training in how to form and then work with teacher teams. A component of this institute will provide that training.

Additional Resources

Illustration by Susan Eppling.

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