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March 9, 2022

Nurturing Collective Efficacy in Changing Times

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As education leaders reimagine schooling, they are in a propitious moment to create better systems of support.

March 2022 Tricia Maas Header Image
Credit: Copyright (c) 2017 garetsworkshop/Shutterstock. No use without permission.
I started teaching when I was 21 years old. I grew up in a town of 11,000 people, with an almost entirely white population. As a child, I considered where, not if, I would go to college and joined Teach for America as soon as I graduated. I had a desire to improve the world and narrow the education system’s existing opportunity gaps.
But I soon realized just how unprepared I was to manage a classroom, much less one in which many students’ academic and social-emotional needs had been chronically underserved and whose cultural norms were different from my own. On my first day of teaching high school in the fall, one of my students took a picture of my butt and the class roared. I had no idea how to respond. In the weeks and months that followed, students regularly made inappropriate comments, ignored me, and put their heads down on their desks. I felt in over my head. My confidence—and my sense of efficacy—evaporated.

Stress or Success?

Being in a job that you’re failing at with no clear path to improvement feels like being lost at sea without a lifeline. These feelings are especially pronounced in stressful situations when you have little experienced or observed success to lean on (and teaching consistently ranks among the most stressful professions). My mindset became one of survival.
I spent my time blindly executing suggestions my school and Teach for America put before me. I wrote lesson plans in a prescribed format, put an agenda on the board every morning, and attempted to conference with kids in the hall when they behaved inappropriately. I tried to create systems to make success visible; my weekly “hot list,” where I listed top performers on the previous week’s assessments, was a success, but most efforts failed.
I stood at the door during class changes and tried to find ways to get kids out of their seats (like turning worksheets into scavenger hunts). And, of course, I was supposed to assess, grade, and track performance data, all of which I instinctively did in the style that I had observed from my own teachers growing up—one that primarily evaluated rote memorization and focused on performance, as opposed to growth.
I’d like to say I recognized early that my tactics weren’t working for most of my students, who simply disengaged from my teacher-centered approach and from the assignments that lacked relevance to their lives. I’d like to say I reassessed priorities and considered my cultural background and the community needs. But I didn’t. I plowed along for two years, clinging to small wins, and feeling exhausted, unsuccessful, and frustrated by mentors and coaches who tended to flip requests for help back on me (“What do you think you should do differently?”).
In my second year, I remember listening to the REM song, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and nodding to the lyric “. . .withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy.” I still cared deeply about addressing the systemic inequities in education, but I had withdrawn emotionally from the day-to-day work of teaching. I was disgusted with the grueling demands and the weak support I received and also with myself. By my second year of teaching, I left the classroom.  

Easing Burnout Symptoms

I began a career in education research in large part to understand what happened during those early teaching years. What should I have done differently? How could the school system have supported me better? Should I have been there at all? If not, who should have been there, and how could education systems have helped them to be successful?
These are big questions, with complex answers. But often nestled in the middle of those answers is teachers’ sense of self-efficacy, or teachers’ “judgment of his or her capabilities to bring about desired outcomes of student engagement and learning, even among those students who may be difficult or unmotivated” (Tschannen-Moran & Hoy, 2001, p. 783).
Conceptual frameworks describing the inputs and outcomes of teacher self-efficacy tend to have bidirectional arrows. That is, scholars recognize that teachers’ self-efficacy is complex and necessitates a combination of factors. External stressors, social supports, and teachers’ emotional stress responses all influence their self-efficacy, which in turn influences job satisfaction, engagement, and burnout. Teachers with a strong sense of self-efficacy tend to be more engaged and satisfied with their work and less inclined to leave the teaching profession (Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2016). Teacher self-efficacy is also linked to student achievement, motivation, and students’ own sense of efficacy (Tschannen-Moran & Hoy, 2001). In short, research makes clear that teacher self-efficacy is positively associated with desirable outcomes for schools.
But teacher self-efficacy tends to have cyclical relationships with other desired outcomes. Self-efficacy leads to success and success supports self-efficacy. So, teachers often find themselves in one of two feedback loops: 1) success that both feeds and is fed by positive beliefs about their ability to succeed, or 2) struggle paired with negative beliefs about their ability to succeed. With 41 percent of teachers leaving the profession in their first five years of teaching (Ingersoll et al., 2018) and particularly large numbers of teachers considering leaving the profession during the COVID-19 pandemic (Zamarro et al., 2021), it’s clear that education leaders need to actively position more teachers to develop a sense of efficacy early in their careers.

How Teachers Become Efficacious

This begs the question: How does a teacher become efficacious and successful? The most powerful source of self-efficacy is mastery experience, or having experienced success in the past (Bandura, 1986, 1997). The second is vicarious experience, or observing and learning about others’ successes. Some individuals will have had the life experience, education, and intuition to meet early success, even absent intentional systemic supports. But most new teachers will not. Without school-embedded supports, underprepared teachers are likely to cling to, and frantically attempt to replicate, whatever small successes they encounter, however isolated those successes may be from meaningful impact.
So, although teacher efficacy can sound very individualistic and intrapersonal in practice, it results from a combination of experience, mindset, actions, environment, and systems of support. Given this, it’s no surprise that collective teacher efficacy, or teachers’ belief that the faculty as a whole can have a positive effect on students, has produced effect sizes that are shockingly large (Eells, 2011). Teacher self-efficacy does not emerge solely from good faith, and weak self-efficacy does not mean that a teacher is not capable. Nurturing teacher efficacy requires intentionally constructed systems of support.
The data on the rates at which teachers burn out illustrate that relying on individual initiative is insufficient. When I was teaching, my friend Rob—a master teacher at my school—invited me to observe his class. He was opening a door for me to develop my teacher self-efficacy by having a vicarious experience. But I didn’t take him up on the offer. Peer observation wasn’t the norm in my school, and I worried that going into his classroom would be disruptive or that the kids would ask questions about why I was there and needed help.
Moreover, Rob and I taught on the same schedule, so observing him required me to find someone to cover my class. I needed more than Rob’s kind offer; I needed peer accountability, encouragement, and aligned school-level supports (for example, a clear way to get class coverage during peer observations) to pull me out of my slump.

Tools for Guidance

Administrators approaches’ to fostering collective efficacy nearly always have some common traits: they leverage clear collective visions and goals and use data-driven cycles of continuous improvement, trusting relationships, authentic communication, and empowered teachers to reach those goals. Given the complexity of these approaches, collective efficacy requires intentional design and ongoing maintenance from school and district leaders.
To nurture collective efficacy, school leaders can take a few concrete steps. First, they can clearly set and consistently reinforce schoolwide goals and priorities that unite the staff in a meaningful mission that goes beyond test scores or a statement on a banner. For example, a school may prioritize strong staff-student relationships and set a goal of having every student in the school know at least one school staff member they feel comfortable reaching out to in a difficult situation.
Additionally, administrators can support collective efficacy by carving out time for staff to engage in ongoing, embedded, and collaborative professional learning that supports their priorities and goals. Notably, the school where I taught used professional learning communities, which I valued because they provided the opportunity for me to share ideas and build relationships with my colleagues. But the meetings largely stood in isolation from school-level goals, guidance, and supports. The meetings helped me build relationships with my colleagues and to see that I could learn from them, but didn’t provide systems and supports with which to do so.
School-level systems integrated with PLCs—for example, regularly scheduled time to build relationships with administrators and regularly communicate team challenges, concerns, and ideas to them—could have made PLC meetings more effective and driven collective efficacy.
As education leaders reimagine schooling in the wake of a pandemic and establish new schedules, structures, and priorities, they are in a propitious moment to create systems to support collective efficacy. Leaders may, for example, create new systems to regularly solicit staff and community feedback using approaches like surveys and focus groups, then thoughtfully respond to what they hear; build intentional time into school schedules for staff relationship-building, sharing, and collaboration; and normalize public practice through supports like structured peer observation and learning walks. The pandemic has created an especially acute need for connection and open listening. This moment of transition presents an opportunity to reimagine how schools can support these needs.
The stakes are high. Chronic feelings of isolation and defeat lead to burnout and teacher turnover, or worse, a school full of burnt-out teachers. And teachers have just experienced two years of increased isolation, stress, and work hours (Diliberti et al., 2021). To serve their communities well, school leaders must prioritize taking ownership over their collective mindsets and ways of work. Indeed, research has demonstrated that doing so is the most expedient path to school success.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

Diliberti, M.K., Schwartz, H.L., & Grant, D. (2021). Stress topped the reasons why public school teachers quit, even before COVID-19 (Report No. RR-A1121-2). Rand Corporation.

Eells, R. (2011). Meta-analysis of the relationship between collective teacher efficacy and student achievement (Accession No. 3469968.) [Doctoral dissertation, Loyola University Chicago]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Ingersoll, R. M., Merrill, E., Stuckey, D., & Collins, G. (2018). Seven trends: The transformation of the teaching force (CPRE Research Reports). Consortium for Policy Research in Education, University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from https://repository.upenn.edu/cpre_researchreports/108/

Skaalvik, E.M., & Skaalvik, S. (2016). Teacher stress and teacher self-efficacy as predictors of engagement, emotional exhaustion, and motivation to leave the teaching profession. Creative Education, 7(13), p. 1785–1799. Retrieved from https://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ce.2016.713182

Tschannen-Moran, M., & Hoy, A.W. (2001). Teacher efficacy: capturing an elusive construct. Teaching and Teacher Education, 17(7), p. 783–805.

Zamarro, G., Camp, A., Fuchsman, D., & McGee, J. B. (2021). Understanding how COVID-19 has Changed Teachers’ Chances of Remaining in the Classroom. Education Reform Faculty and Graduate Students Publications

Tricia Maas is a former senior research scientist at Committee for Children, where she specialized in social-emotional learning (SEL) and developing strong educator communities. During her time at Committee for Children, she led research for Second Step® SEL for Adults, the organization’s program designed to help K–12 school leadership and staff strengthen their social-emotional skills and create a positive school climate.

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