Professional Development Opinion

Listening to Teachers and Building Capacity to Support Good Teaching

By Melinda George — November 18, 2014 6 min read
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When Chelsia Berry, STEM academic coordinator and biology teacher at Central High School in Prince George’s County, Md., participated in the October 6 Good Teaching Summit put together by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, she discussed her definition of good teaching. For her that included words such as “collaboration, professional-learning communities, journeys, interaction, real-world, and opportunity.”

Chelsia also provided an in-depth look at how her school’s leadership was shifting the culture to support good teaching by building bridges between the teachers and the administration, giving teachers decisionmaking authority around budgets and curriculum, and recognizing the importance of working together to make the student experience rewarding. She noted that teams of teachers now had dedicated time for collaboration, planning, and learning to design multidisciplinary experiences for students.

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Chelsia and her colleagues are the kinds of voices that those of us in the policy community need to hear from more regularly to put in place the conditions for effective education reform. Teachers are on the front lines of the work to ensure the success of every student. They know first-hand about the opportunities for positive change and the obstacles that hinder progress. It’s time to elevate teachers’ voice and use their experiences to drive school improvement.

An Isolated Profession

One factor that has been consistent in the work that NCTAF has done over the years has been our awareness of the critical need for collaboration in teaching. Earlier this summer, NCTAF was pleased to partner with the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development in the United States release of the Teaching and Learning International Survey. As I reviewed the TALIS data, I was very pleased to see a positive picture emerging across TALIS countries and particularly among U.S. teachers around their satisfaction and confidence levels. However, TALIS also presented a troubling picture of the demands on American teachers’ time. The survey found that U.S. teachers spend far more time teaching in the classroom—27 hours per week, or 44 percent of their time—than their counterparts in other developed countries.

On the surface, that time allotment may seem reasonable—teaching is what teachers do, after all. But when you compare U.S. teachers’ daily schedules to those of educators in other high-performing countries (like Finland), you see that the latter have significantly more time for collaborating with their peers and engaging in team work. And their students are performing better.

The desire for and power of collaboration was evident throughout the TALIS findings. And yet, in the United States, teaching still is reported as a largely independent profession, with educators isolated in their classrooms. This is an area where we in the policy community must listen to teachers and learn from their experiences. Collaboration is a critical element in organizing schools for success and we need more models, case studies, and examples of where and how collaboration is making a difference.

Starting the Conversation

NCTAF’s 1996 report “What Matters Most” launched a national conversation on the importance of good teaching. The report’s recommendations—still very relevant today—spurred a great deal of change with regard to standards, licensure and collaboration.

Today NCTAF wants to jumpstart a national movement toward refocusing our individual energies to find ways to improve learning for all children by supporting good teaching in all schools. Through authentic collaboration among education organizations at all levels, and by seeking input from teachers, we hope to drive a new conversation around the conditions that foster good teaching. Our work will be action-oriented. We intend to advocate targeting resources to the area of highest needs, aligning policy across local, district, and state levels, and organizing our teaching force to support these conditions.

So where do we begin? We believe that the best place to start is to expose examples of positive change in schools. At the Good Teaching Summit, for instance, Maryland Superintendent of Schools and NCTAF Commissioner Lillian Lowery shared the strategies that have contributed to success in Maryland’s education-reform initiatives. Lowery was clear that positive change will not come through top-down directives, but rather through multi-level collaboration and teacher capacity-building.

In Maryland schools, collaboration is not just a buzzword; instead, it is the linchpin for implementing critical initiatives such as higher academic standards, better state assessments, and more meaningful evaluations anchored by continuous support for teachers and school leaders. Superintendent Lowery meets regularly with teachers, principals, local superintendents, and representatives from local boards of education to share information and discuss ways to strengthen instruction for students. That feedback from the field is critical for her team because it helps them understand what best practices are making a difference and what should be replicated.

Maryland’s district teachers of the year serve as an advisory group providing realistic and honest assessments on how effective the state policies are to improve teaching and learning. This type of two-way communication is critical to fostering the conditions that help teachers and students achieve high standards. Maryland’s example reminds us again of a critical point: Teachers must be at the table and their voices must be heard for educational initiatives to be successful.

Also at the summit, Chelsie Jones, instructional guide at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, shared a glimpse of how collaboration plays out in her high-achieving school and the impact it has on building a culture of learning among teachers and students. Each year, Two Rivers’ teachers come together to determine a school-wide instructional focus for the year. Teachers across grades and subjects spend the first six weeks of the school year digging into the chosen focus and building a culture for project-based learning in their classrooms.

Chelsie said that collective understanding of the instructional focus helps build shared responsibility and leadership and ensures that information is housed school-wide. “The bank of knowledge is not held with one principal, teacher, instructional guide, or expert,” she said. “This professional structure we have whole-school really allows us to share in a collective learning experience that filters into weekly common-planning time … Teachers open up their classrooms to share in a particular question of practice with colleagues,” she said.

She emphasized that school leadership must provide structures for whole-school knowledge and capacity-building and that collaboration must be a school wide-effort in order to impact all students. “We have such a rich bank of ideas and by putting teachers in the position of leadership and really developing a shared understanding, our work feels sustainable.”

These are the sorts of voices we need to hear to promote initiatives that work on the ground. The first step is to create channels to promote them.

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