In 2010 Tony Bryk published his book “Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago“– the culmination of 2 decades of work in the Chicago Public Schools while that district engaged in a massive experiment in local control. The story goes, when Chicago public schools were deemed “the worst in the nation,” in 1987, Chicago made the bold move to give all the power for governing schools back to the local community.
Each school created a Local School Council including the principal (who had to give up their tenure!), parents, teachers and community members. Those people were given the task for setting a pedagogical agenda and overseeing the work of the school. Over the course of about 9 years, every school in Chicago engaged in the process of governing itself. By the time the mayor (inevitably) took back total control of the schools in 1997, a lot had been learned about what works (and what DOESN’T) to improve schools.
At the end of about 10 years:
- Roughly 50% of schools stayed right where they were (no better, no worse)
- About 25% of schools tanked. Their effectiveness went down significantly.
- But! About 25% of schools actually showed marked improvement.
The question Bryk seeks to answer in this 2010 book is this: What paves the way for schools to improve? Now, remember that Tony Bryk is the guy who INVENTED hierarchical linear modeling (a scary statistical technique that graduate students fear). As a result, this book is a TOME, densely packed with complex modeling and statistical caveats. His findings, though, are clear and actionable.
Schools that improve:
- Are marked by a strong, reciprocal trust amongst all members of the community (parents, students, teachers, leadership)
- Have a strong, catalyzing leader who is well respected for his/her instructional expertise
- Create strong family and community partnerships
- Create an environment where students feel known, cared for and safe
- Hold high standards for all students backed by rigorous instruction
and then, my favorite:
- Encourages and supports teachers to engage in substantive collaboration ALL THE TIME.
Now, Tony is no fool (and neither are you) so he’s not talking about ensuring that all teachers sit through at least 3 staff and committee meetings per week. Creating a professional community, as he describes it, involves this critical component: teachers must feel mutually responsible for each other’s success.
Teachers are guided by well-defined learning outcomes, and when someone falls behind other teachers step in and provide the guidance, ideas, support, and alternative perspectives to pull that teacher back on track. There is more to it, of course, but that phrase: mutually responsible for each other’s success has stuck with me now for years.
I asked my teacher community (the Group Hug!) what makes teacher collaboration worth the time and what makes the teacher-teacher relationship so special. Here’s what we came up with.
The top 5 reasons teachers need teachers to survive
- Reduced workload. Everyone knows that “working in a group” can cause your workload to double. But when collaboration is done right, the workload should drop. In collaboration models like lesson study, a group of teachers work together to plan a lesson that they can all then use (and the others come to observe and offer feedback to improve it before another teacher uses it- win-win!). In co-planning models, teachers in the same grade level or subject department plan lessons and homework together during the school day. Though it requires some creative scheduling on the part of the school leader, it can can significantly reduce redundant work AND make planning for a sub MUCH less complicated.
- Sanity check. Another component to Bryk’s description of professional collaboration is a stance amongst teachers to innovate and try new things. This is HARD WORK when you are doing it all alone. Teachers who are working to bring a particular innovation into their classrooms together will collectively benefit from the learning they each individually experience. In addition, your colleague will point out to you when you are doing too much at once (a cardinal sin of iterative design!) and when you aren’t really pushing yourself. That sanity check and support can keep you engaged and creative for much longer.
- Help prevent burnout. I have so many articles chronicling the ins and outs of how collaboration is a great buffer against burnout (I’ll share the rest next week!). At the heart of burnout are emotional trauma, exhaustion, isolation and a hopeless feeling of ineffectiveness. When you have a team of teachers who are mutually responsible for each others’ health and success you will have people to talk to about your emotional burden, you’ll be able to plan and troubleshoot together, reducing the burden and easing exhaustion, and you certainly won’t feel isolated. It’s also hard to feel hopeless when you’re in it together.
- Coherent experience for students. Teacher collaboration, when done right, is GREAT for teachers. But, it’s also really, really good for students. Bryk discusses the importance of schools offering a “coherent experience” for students. Coherence, as he describes it, is having fewer initiatives rolled out with more regularity. Having a new behavior management system like class dojo rolled out in just one class, for example, can be confusing for students. Having class dojo next door to one of the other competing class management systems can be downright perplexing for students. When I have seen this happen it’s usually because the teachers didn’t know that their colleague was using another system. Working together on co-planning and in mentorship relationships connects teachers to each other and raises the overall awareness of what other teachers are doing. And that keeps things much clearer for the students.
- Teacher jokes. Finally, there’s this truth bomb: only teachers get teacher jokes. And teachers NEED to laugh at their professional hardships to be able to set them aside. Sharing videos of Eddie B Comedy or Gerry Brooks doesn’t resonate with your accountant AT ALL, but you can stand around your computer at 3:45 and watch these with the other teachers in your building. Doing so will strengthen your bond, which will pay dividends in your professional collaboration.
Essentially, teachers need teachers to survive. You need teachers in your building who can collaborate with you and support your ongoing work. But you also need teachers OUTSIDE your building with whom you can share your worries without fear of being labelled. I’ve got your covered. Join our teacher support group, the Group Hug, and get a whole new group of teacher friends who will celebrate your wins and support you in your times of frustration. See you in the Hug!