Posted by Ariel Sacks on Wednesday, 11/18/2015
Last week, bloggers here in the CTQ Collaboratory kicked off a two-week exploration of the theme: How Do Teachers [Really] Learn? We invite you all to join us with your thoughts and questions here on the blogs or on social media at #Love2Learn.
Two years ago, I published a piece in Educational Leadership called The Problem Solving Power of Teachers. In it, I shared an example of how my grade team came together to solve a problem impacting student achievement by creating a better grade-wide system for responding to missing homework. In a nutshell, instead of mining our grade books individually each week for students who missed two or more homework assignments and assigning them detention with the school dean, we identified our students who chronically don’t turn in homework across classes, and we assigned them after school “office hours,” where they would receive help and quiet, comfortable space to work several times per week. (More details here.)
I argued that our solution to the problem of missing homework was a demonstration of how teacher-created policies work better for teachers and students than top-down ones do. Looking back, I also recognize this as an example of the kind of professional learning that happens when teachers have time, support, and enough autonomy to work together in teams. In her post, Professional Development and Adult Learning Theory, drawing on theory of Dr. Malcolm Knowles, Liz Prather advocates for PD that is problem-centered, immediately relevant to our work in the classroom, and that makes use of the diversity of experiences of the teachers involved. That is exactly what we did in this process.
So what did us adults learn from our collaborative problem-solving?
- We learned that certain students had difficulties that impeded their learning, not just in our individual subjects, not just in the category of homework, but throughout their days in classes and after school—and this was overwhelming and anxiety-producing for them.
- We learned that by looking at the whole child and working together we could support students better than we could individually, each pushing against seemingly intractable behavior.
- We learned more about what our colleagues were teaching, which made it easier to spot opportunities for cross-disciplinary learning, which could benefit all students, as well as those we were targeting after school.
- We learned from watching each other engage 1:1 with the students who tended to be most challenging to reach in the classroom. We each brought different styles, levels of experience and skills to our work with these students, and peer observation happened organically (while it can be difficult to schedule ordinarily).
- We learned that our relationships with disengaged students improved when we figured out how to help them. We learned that their behavior in the classroom improved, and this had a positive effect on other students in the class as well and on teacher morale.
I should mention that I could share many more examples of how I’ve learned through collaborating with my colleagues through team or PLC structures, but I’ve returned to focus on this particular instance for an important reason.
Our initiative took place over the spring semester of 2013. I want to talk about what happened afterward. Warning— it’s not pretty.
The following September, our 8th grade team of ten teachers had shifted so dramatically that only myself and the Dance and Physical Education teachers remained from the previous year. (The PE teachers had been less involved in implementing the initiative in the first place, because they didn’t assign regular homework and often led after school activities.) There was a range of reasons for the personnel shift. Some teachers left the school for other jobs. Others were moved to different grade levels to accommodate the school’s addition of a grade per year. Regardless, the result was the dismantling of a productive team, something that happens disproportionately at urban schools that serve high need populations, where it is difficult to retain teachers.
So there I was, in the team leader role, with a new group of colleagues, most of whom were also new to the school, and some of whom were also new to teaching. There were so many procedures and policies that had become second nature to returning teachers at the school, but that new teachers needed to learn for the first time. Despite our best efforts, we were constantly bombarding new teachers with new information and tasks. Without a critical mass of well-informed colleagues to lend support, new teachers were overwhelmed, and the steady progress of our team was replaced with frequent confusion and the “putting out of fires.” Individually, team members were all very committed to our students, but we were not able to come together effectively to problem-solve, help students, and learn together.
On top of the overload factor, time and space issues seemed to impede our collaboration on the after school "office hours" initiative. Our biweekly team meetings had been replaced with longer, monthly meetings. With less frequent in-person communication, there was less of a group identity. The attractive, cushy classroom we’d used in the past belonged to a teacher who was no longer on the team, which meant that there was no obvious space where we should all convene for community office hours. Teachers seemed to prefer giving extra help to students in their own classrooms, when they had the time, rather than committing to a set communal schedule.
In short, the office hours solution I had written about in the spring fell by the wayside. I didn't feel right mandating the program to a group of teachers already stretched thin, especially since much of the strength of the initiative was that we--the team--both created and implemented it.
Lest I sound like a pile of excuses, which is not my purpose here, I want to highlight the crucial role that a stable team (or PLC) plays in teacher learning. Stable teams with time, support and autonomy can identify problems of practice, study them together, and create real solutions. The culture of learning that teacher teams can provide seem to pay back dividends far beyond the initial focus points of the team. But learning takes bandwitdth. A certain amount of stability is necessary in order for teachers to feel comfortable working together and taking risks. Teacher retention is an often overlooked, but crucial factor in sustaining effective collaboration among teachers.