By Reva Jaffe-Walter and Cheri Fancsali
This month’s authors from the current Educational Forum wrote the article, “Complicating the Conversation on Teacher Quality: A Comparative Examination of Contextual Supports for Effective Teaching.” It is available free for the month of June here.
Reva Jaffe-Walter is an Assistant Professor in the Department Educational Leadership at Montclair State University. She is an anthropologist of education exploring questions related to nationalism, the education of immigrant students, educational policy and school leadership. Her current research funded by the WT Grant Foundation examines key practices and relationships of effective schools serving recently arrived immigrant students.
Cheri Fancsali is Deputy Director at the Research Alliance for New York City Schools (New York University), where she provides leadership for strategic planning and organizational development. She has over two decades of experience in research and evaluations of school- and community-based educational programs, with a strong focus on teacher capacity building, school reform initiatives, STEM, computer science education, afterschool programs, and socio-emotional learning.
“I just need support, and I don’t care where it comes from. From anyone. It feels like the support here doesn’t go to the teachers. No one asks me what I need for my classrooms. This week they gave me an overhead projector. A projector isn’t going to help my kids. I feel like it’s the showy stuff—’let’s have smart boards for when the suits come’—but it’s not about the teaching.”
Too often, teachers struggle in isolation without the support that they deserve. But it doesn’t have to be this way. New research highlights how schools can better respond to teachers’ needs, so that they in turn can respond more effectively to the needs of their students. In our article, “Complicating the Conversation on Teacher Quality: A Comparative Examination of Contextual Supports for Effective Teaching,” we found that when schools supported teacher collaboration, gave teachers an active voice in school decisions, and offered professional development that was aligned with teachers’ needs, they were more likely to use instructional practices that are shown to be effective. Further, these key dimensions of school context gave teachers more resources to engage in the complex work of addressing the needs of marginalized students. Reorienting schools around these kinds of humanizing practices will be particularly important as we work to fully reopen school buildings and help students and communities recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our research illuminates critical questions to ask when assessing a school’s professional context: How are teachers positioned within the school’s culture? Are they seen as embodying important local knowledge about practice and students, or as requiring top-down direction? Is time dedicated to teacher collaboration intermittent and sporadic, or a consistent part of community practice? What happens during common planning times? Who is determining the agendas of meetings and professional development?
The type of authentic teacher collaboration that supports effective teaching might look differently in different contexts. For example, in our study, we observed one interdisciplinary team collaborating to devise strategies to support students who were struggling academically. They took turns sharing insights about the challenges facing each student and offering suggestions for different support strategies aimed at encouraging the students to persist in their education. Another team described weekly collaboration with their colleagues to support the development of the lessons and instructional practices: “As a team, we visit each other’s classes and do observations. In our team meetings we discuss what we saw in each other’s classrooms and make suggestions.”
When teachers engage in true collaboration and are empowered to contribute meaningfully to school decisions, they have more opportunities for professional growth. As one teacher said while reflecting on her involvement in school-wide committees, “It makes you grow, because you’re connected to your community. You’re not an island who doesn’t know what others are doing.”
Other studies have shown that teachers working in schools with strong professional supports for collaboration and learning, as well as opportunities to play a role in decision making, tend to be more satisfied and committed to their schools and students. Satisfied and committed teachers are more likely to stay in their position, and the field, reducing teacher turnover and its negative effects on students. Our study adds to this evidence, highlighting how school support for collaboration, high-quality professional development, and teacher leadership are in fact linked to the use of effective instructional practices such as hands-on instruction, frequent assessment and feedback, and peer collaboration. Given student learning loss and trauma due to COVID, as well as the longstanding legacy of racism and inequality in this country and recent racist attacks against communities of color—now more than ever—teachers need time and space to reflect on how to engage in discussions of these events with their students. Schools can facilitate this by building in frequent, structured opportunities for teacher collaboration with a culture of reflection and inquiry. As school districts around the country engage in recovery efforts and work toward re-opening, it will be important to address teachers’ needs by attending to the professional structures, practices, and cultures that support their work.