Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

How Teacher Networks Can Facilitate Deeper Collaboration

By Karen Martin — March 05, 2019 7 min read

Editor’s note: Karen Martin, an instructional coach and elementary teacher in the Denali Borough school district in Healy, Alaska, traveled to Finland as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching program. Here she explains what she learned about teacher networks and how they can benefit American teachers.

There is a powerful and somewhat rebellious movement among teachers, unknowingly founded on sociological principles, to self-organize and form networks for collaboration. The idea of networks first surfaced for me while living in Finland. I interviewed a Finnish teacher who told me about a teacher-researcher network she was a part of that connected and supported teachers who had learned how to do action research in a summer institute. Since then, I’ve witnessed the emergence of networks across the United States and Canada uniting teachers as peers in deeper ways of learning and working together. As an advocate of networks that support rural teachers, I have learned this type of connection reduces isolation and increases the collective capabilities of all the teachers involved.

A Vignette From Practice

My teaching colleague and I collaborated with a rural teacher from Idaho and a graduate student from Boston College to develop our pedagogical ability to support math education for our students. Our quest began when we came together at a convening of the Northwest Rural Innovation and Student Engagement (NWRISE) network, a network of rural teachers in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States facilitated by Education Northwest. Our first puzzle was to decide how to support a diverse class of 4th and 5th graders from a rural school in Idaho to collaborate with 5th graders from a remote school in Alaska. We didn’t only want to connect our students virtually to share posters or PowerPoint slides of their projects or to ask each other basic questions. We wanted them to talk to each other one-on-one, face-to-face and push each other to justify and explain their thinking. We thought if we could design mathematical problems that were open-ended and give our students an authentic audience of peers outside our school buildings, we would nurture their perseverance to persist through difficult problems and add purpose and meaning to the mathematical learning we were asking them to do.

We also wanted to develop our thinking and our capacity to teach students to engage in challenging mathematical discourse. As a scientist who values analytical and critical thinking and reasoning as transversal scientific competencies, I value the core mathematical thinking and processing skills that permeate all grade levels in the national standards of mathematical practice that were introduced in 2012. Finally, there is a transparent set of abilities around what it means to be a lifelong mathematician, which adds some purpose to the skills we develop as mathematicians. For example, using evidence to support a claim in a mathematical argument is a necessary skill in a critically thinking and informed citizenry no matter what the topic or content.

My knowledge and practice would not have grown without working and thinking out loud with my network. Our depth of pedagogical knowledge in understanding math argumentation has increased exponentially through our deeper dialogue, feedback and revision, co-analyzing student work, and through a process that mimics lesson study. Our work began by unpacking what it means to develop a mathematical argument and the key elements of an argument. We then created a single-point rubric naming the components of a strong argument: evidence, claim, justification, rationale, conjecture. From there, we investigated how to use the sentence frames that Donna Ross, Doug Fisher, and Nancy Frey created for scientific arguments and identified open-ended problems on Jo Boaler’s YouCubed website that would require our students to use different kinds of mathematical thinking rather than just rote computation. Perhaps the most exciting part of this work is what happened when we fought through the challenges of how to logistically use technology to connect students in small groups so they could talk with one another face-to-face. This is not a small feat for teachers who have little extra time to trouble-shoot tech platforms and sync two sets of devices across two different school settings.

The experience of our students has been powerful. Through a carefully constructed and designed learning experience, our students presented their arguments and mathematical thinking to peers across state lines in small, intimate conversations and modified their arguments based on the feedback from their peers. Our students talked together with sustained energy for 30 minutes about one problem! My motivation for being a part of a teacher network is to raise the level of meaning and purpose in students’ learning and to develop myself, for them, in ways I could never do alone.

The How-to’s of Deeper Collaboration

From educational research we know that the most powerful way to improve the individual capacity of any single teacher is through developing social capital or promoting interactions with peers; developing the talents of one teacher will not impact the collective capacity of a building of teachers. It is through working together that we have the greatest potential to raise our collective and individual capacities.

In their book published last year showcasing their research and observations from collaborations around the world, Andy Hargreaves and Michael O’ Connor present a challenge to our profession as educators: To raise our level of professionalism, how can we fundamentally and intentionally change our ways of working together? Their work is called collaborative professionalism and is based on 10 tenets, including collaborative inquiry, challenging joint work that leads to action, mutual dialogue that is authentic and respectful and grounded in deep knowledge of one another’s teaching, and student engagement in our work and inquiry. Fundamentally, raising the quality and depth of our collaborative interactions must come from within our ranks and intrinsic motivation. Opening up about our practice, confiding our insecurities, respectfully and objectively arguing, and showing student work to our colleagues are vulnerabilities that are difficult in the already emotionally investing work of teaching day in and day out. Ultimately, these ways of being and working together will help us grow stronger.

Through our networking to deepen our mathematical pedagogy, we experienced the following four ways of working together that can raise our professionalism:


  1. Engage in deeper dialogue that results when we feel safe to challenge each other’s thinking, put aside our own ideologies, consider another’s point of view, and not fear being a dissenting voice. Critical thinking, mindfulness and presence, and a lack of defensiveness allow us to push each other forward in deeper discourse about teaching and learning.

  2. Collaborate through inquiry by identifying a persistent puzzle across classrooms and contexts that allows us to work together in a systematic cycle of implementing a solution, articulating and gathering evidence of the impact, and reflecting on our observations. This empowers teachers as active change agents in developing themselves professionally and enacting new strategies flexibly and with agency.

  3. Share responsibility. If you Google synonyms of “accountability,” “responsibility” will pop up. Using the word “responsibility” in collaborative conversations changes the narrative that we as a profession have a responsibility to lean on one another and expect that collectively we are doing the best we can for our students. Shared responsibility means we believe that our actions will have impact and that what we do together matters.

  4. Provide authentic feedback. A form of deeper dialogue grounded in a shared and co-constructed vision of the common goal and purposes of teaching and learning more objectively anchors our feedback to beliefs that we collectively hold and agree to as the most effective supports for student learning. Authentic feedback requires us to share our work, invite others to watch us teach, and to anchor our conversations to our actual work with students and evidence of their learning.

As teachers, when we begin to understand that we can lift our profession together through deep conversations and fundamentally change our ways of working together, we will revolutionize the teaching profession in a way that our national rhetoric and conversations about teacher quality and professionalism have not yet approached. Recognizing teacher agency and our ability to act as change agents is empowering and will reverberate systemically in our classrooms and for our students.

Connect with Karen, Heather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Photo: Teachers (including the author, on the right) collaborating at a NWRISE convening. Photo credit: Kaymbra Mortensen.

Quote image created on Pablo.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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