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May 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 8

Team Work: Time Well Spent

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Teachers in outstanding high-poverty schools report that working in collaborative teams can produce significant rewards.

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Teachers in high-poverty schools often feel that their work is so demanding that it may be unsustainable. They can go full-tilt for only so long before fatigue and stress take over. Ultimately, many of them leave.
You might expect that if we asked teachers in these schools to commit scarce time to working with colleagues on teams, they would respond with skepticism, even resentment. But our recent study of teachers' working conditions in six successful high-poverty urban schools suggests otherwise. We were surprised by teachers' enthusiasm as they explained how their teams helped them manage the many pressing challenges of teaching. Although the teachers reported serious concerns about the pace of their work, they said that their teams reduced stress rather than intensified it.

Where Teams Are at the Center

The six high-poverty schools in our 2014 study included traditional, turnaround, and charter schools, all located in one Massachusetts city. Each school had achieved the state's highest performance rating, based on its students' growth and its success in narrowing achievement gaps among subgroups of students. We interviewed 142 teachers and administrators to learn how these outstanding schools supported teachers in their work.
We found that all of the schools encouraged collaboration among teachers, and five of them had made teams the central component of their schoolwide improvement strategy. In these schools, teams were at the heart of teachers' work. Participating on a team claimed considerable time, but teachers widely said this investment paid off, both by helping them teach better and by contributing to the overall good of their school.
Other studies have found that teachers give teams mixed reviews (Charner-Laird et al., 2015; Troen & Boles, 2012). But something different was happening in these five schools. None of the 83 teachers we interviewed suggested that team meetings lacked purpose, wasted their time, or were hijacked by administrators. Instead, many teachers described how teams sustained them, making their job more manageable and rewarding.
For example, we asked an experienced teacher at Fitzgerald Elementary, a school that had emerged successfully from turnaround status, whom she would go to for teaching support. She quickly responded, "My team members." When asked what kinds of support she might seek, she answered, "Everything, every day, many times."
School administrators shared this view. Fitzgerald's principal reflected on her school's rapid improvement after having been placed in turnaround: "A lot of our success is because we really work at teams." Similarly, a leader of instruction at Kincaid Middle Charter School called teams the teachers' "first line of defense." She added,
People are unified in their efforts here. You don't want to see anybody fail. I definitely think that, more than at my prior schools, teachers feel like they can go to somebody and ask questions or admit if they're struggling with something and get support from their coworkers.
In every school, teamwork was grounded in a clear and compelling mission, described by one administrator at Naylor Elementary Charter School as "giving our students the education they deserve." These were not empty words. The schools did not simply have a mission; they were, as Fitzgerald Elementary's principal said "on a mission." That mission gave purpose and practical meaning to teachers' work on teams, where they developed curriculum and lesson plans, assessed their students' learning, gauged the effectiveness of their instruction, and monitored students' behavior, needs, and progress.
Teachers at Naylor, like many of their counterparts in other schools in this study, repeatedly said that their goal was to "close the achievement gap" which meant much more than improving test scores, they explained. Teams had two areas of focus: academic content, which included curriculum development, lesson planning, and data about students' learning and achievement (unit tests, exit tickets, interim assessments, and so on); and student cohort, which included attending to the well-being and progress of individual students and of the group. A Kincaid Charter School teacher described his school's team assignments:
You basically are always part of two teams. You're part of a cultural [cohort] team, and you're part of a department [content] team. Your department team teachers will never teach together, but you will plan [instruction] together. On your cohort team, you never teach the same subjects, but you all teach the same kids.

Content Teams: Planning and Aligning the Curriculum

All five schools had content teams composed of teachers who taught the same subject(s) either within a grade or across grades. This included primary-grade teachers who taught in self-contained classes as well as upper-elementary or middle school teachers who taught a single subject in multiple classes. Content teams focused first on curriculum and pedagogy.
For example at Hurston K–8, a former turnaround school, elementary teachers met with their grade-level team to plan the sequence of topics and competencies they would all teach. This sequence guided their decisions about curriculum units and daily lesson plans. Hurston's 2nd grade teachers, who taught all subjects in self-contained classes, had spent their grade-level content meetings during the previous 10 months planning reading units that aligned with the Common Core. Their team's facilitator, a teacher who was designated and trained as a team leader, called this work "daunting," explaining that "we never had a common curriculum for reading."
A 7th grade English language arts teacher at Kincaid Charter described a typical meeting of her content team:
We planned our students' culminating essay for the unit that they're going to work on. We talked about what we want it to look like. We looked at exit tickets from this past week to look at what the data was showing us about their progress. We talked about what book we want to teach in the next unit, and then we looked at each other's lessons for next week.
Teachers in three schools—Fitzgerald, Kincaid, and Naylor—took curriculum planning a step further by sharing responsibility for planning lessons for other teachers on their team. In some cases, these lessons were detailed, including scripted introductions, explanations, and questions that the teachers could use to promote deeper thinking.
Teachers at Naylor each planned about five lessons a week, which everyone on their content team then used. One experienced teacher explained, "Right now, I'm planning math. One of my co-teachers is planning reading. Another teacher is planning all of the science and writing."
Joint lesson planning not only helped teachers coordinate what they taught across classes, but also improved the quality of lessons and eased the burden of daily planning. Many teachers were grateful for this support. Some, however, expressed concern about their loss of autonomy in being expected to use another teacher's lesson plan. Still others were not convinced that the process reduced their workload. An experienced math teacher at Naylor said,
Co-planning is hard. It's one of the reasons that people like working in schools like this and then also get burnt- out working in schools like this …. So much of the planning still comes down to the teacher, making the materials, designing stuff themselves. It's really a lot of work.
Several schools maintained online banks of units and lessons, sometimes accompanied by videos of those lessons being taught. Teachers who used these resources said their work was easier and their instruction better as a result.
All schools in the study dedicated some team time to analyzing data, which helped them gauge the effectiveness of their current instruction and plan ahead. Naylor and Fitzgerald scheduled separate meetings for data analysis; the other three schools incorporated data analysis into content meetings. At Dickinson Elementary, a traditional district school, the principal met weekly with teachers from paired grade levels (K–1, 2–3, and 4–5) as they reviewed results from state tests, interim assessments, and assignments created by teachers. Teachers took what they learned back to their classroom, knowing that the team would revisit related data about six weeks later.
For example, teachers on Dickinson's K–1 team realized that their students were having trouble with phoneme segmentation as they read. The teachers decided that they would all work on developing that skill. One teacher decided to use small-group instruction to teach phoneme segmentation, and she found that her students' progress on a subsequent assessment far exceeded her goal. She reported that working with a team to closely examine data had helped her implement instructional strategies to improve student learning.

Cohort Teams: Monitoring and Motivation

In cohort team meetings, teachers discussed individual students' progress and needs, took stock of their cohort's behavior, and checked to be sure that they held explicit and consistent expectations across classes. As a Kincaid middle school teacher explained, teachers talked about "what happened during the week, what students were doing well, what they were not doing well, and whether any individual students had problems."
At Hurston, the dean of discipline and the grade-level counselor joined the middle school cohort teams' weekly meetings. One teacher described the process for reviewing individual students:
It's as easy as, "Hey, can we put Felix on the agenda for Friday?" It might start as an e-mail early in the week or a casual conversation between teachers. Then we decide what has to happen from there. Is it a conversation with a teacher who has a relationship with him? Is it a phone call home? Sometimes we invite parents to come to these meetings. If the counselor is there, she might recommend a course of action.
Teams also created new activities, incentives, and rewards to motivate students in their cohort and to keep them invested in learning. For example, the middle school at Hurston adopted a set of behavioral norms called PRIDE (Perseverance, Respect, Integrity, Daring, and Excellence). Teachers recognized individual students when they acted in a way that was consistent with a PRIDE norm by giving them a small certificate. A teacher explained, "It was just in a moment, 'You did something good; here you go. You have to earn 19 more of these to [qualify for] the ice cream party at the end of the month.' " She explained that this approach had "a more positive tilt than reactive punishment," and added that "the top 80 percent of the class gets to go."

What Conditions Make Teams Effective?

The success of teams in these schools was no accident. Administrators and teacher leaders worked hard to create conditions that supported collaboration. Principals protected time for meetings, remained engaged with the teams' work, provided facilitation by teacher leaders, and integrated team experiences with other efforts to support and develop teachers across the school.
Providing and protecting time for meetings. One of the most important conditions that ensured teams' success was having a schedule that provided regular, reliable meeting times. Teachers in all five schools had daily blocks of 50–60 minutes of common planning time for colleagues in the same grade level or content area. Teacher teams met during at least one of these blocks each week. Across these schools, team time was inviolable. A Hurston teacher celebrated her school's arrangements:
We now have schedules that are like a dream. Our content and grade-level meetings are two consecutive hours a week. That uninterrupted time is so precious. … This year, the new piece is that the grade-level teams all meet at the same time. That way, if we need to check in about something or two teams might need to come together on something, we can do that.
Guaranteeing sufficient time for team meetings was relatively easy in the charter schools, which had a longer workday, but was harder at the three unionized district schools. This was particularly true at the traditional elementary school, Dickinson, which had the shortest workday (six hours) and the least amount of time allocated for team meetings. However, the principal skillfully managed the schedule so that teachers had common planning time across two grade levels at once, thus allowing them to meet in smaller horizontal or vertical subgroups. Dickinson's teachers were motivated by strong norms of professional support that the principal and veteran teachers had nurtured for many years. Therefore, although it was not contractually required, teachers also routinely met during their own planning times and lunch breaks.
Principals' active engagement with teams. Principals remained actively engaged in the work of the teams, at a minimum endorsing the teams' importance and monitoring their deliberations and decisions. At Hurston, for example, each administrator took responsibility for following the work of four different content teams. The principal explained that he went to almost all of his four teams' meetings, and "all of us, the administrative team, are on the Google Docs and the listservs for all the teams so that we can follow electronically what's happening, even if we're not there." A Hurston teacher leader commented,
He doesn't micromanage, but he plays a role in some of the decision making. He'll pop in and attend different team meetings, or he'll read the notes and give feedback. But it's not, "OK, you have to do this."
Facilitation by teacher leaders. In three schools (Hurston, Fitzgerald, and Kincaid), teacher leaders planned agendas, facilitated discussions, and promoted online communication among team members. In some cases, team leaders also served on their school's instructional leadership team, where they analyzed schoolwide data and helped to write their school improvement plan. At Hurston, an administrator met with each team leader weekly to review the last team meeting and help plan the next. With few exceptions, teachers praised the work of team leaders, who also said they benefited from the professional experience.
The team process was integrated with other sources of support. Teams were not stand-alone initiatives, but were part of the fabric of these schools. All of the schools had a rigorous process for screening teacher candidates, looking for a growth mindset and a readiness to collaborate so that their new teachers would be well matched to the existing school culture. All teachers received a range of support in improving their practice. Administrators observed instruction frequently, providing teachers with written feedback and discussing their responses in person. About 40 percent of the classroom teachers we interviewed said that their supervisor observed them and gave them feedback at least twice a month. Thus, although teams were a crucial source of support for teachers, they did not bear full responsibility for individual teachers' improvement.
These supports bolstered teachers' confidence in the quality and dedication of their colleagues. One teacher referred to her colleagues as "rock solid," a sentiment that was widely shared in all of the schools.

From Isolation to Teamwork

Overall, teacher teams in these high-poverty schools achieved their intended effects. They increased collaboration among teachers; they created academic, social, and cultural coherence across classes and grades; and they created professional norms in which teachers assumed responsibility for one another's well-being and success. The teachers in our study often said that they chose to stay at their school because of their team. One Kincaid teacher explained, "I'm not allowed to be on an island here."
Of course, the existence of teams did not resolve all of these teachers' problems. Even with this array of supports, many teachers remained concerned about the long hours, the difficulty of finding a good work-life balance, and the focus on test scores as a measure of progress. As a rule, however, these teachers did not express the uncertainty and anxiety that teachers in many other schools experience because they work in isolation.
Some say that the best thing policymakers and administrators can do for teachers is to get out of their way—eliminate obligations outside their classrooms and allow them to focus exclusively on their own students. But our research found that even though teams may increase the demands on teachers to work outside their classrooms, these teams provide significant professional payoff. When teachers realize that their investment of time, preparation, and thought can benefit both them and their students, they readily sign on.
Copyright © 2016 Susan Moore Johnson, Stefanie K. Reinhorn, and Nicole S. Simon

Charner-Laird, M., Ng, M. Johnson, S. M., Kraft, M. K., Papay, J. P., & Reinhorn, S. K. (2015) Gauging goodness of fit: Teachers' expectations for their instructional teams in high-poverty schools. Working paper. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education, Project on the Next Generation of Teachers.

Troen, V., & Boles, K. C. (2012). The power of teacher teams: With cases, analyses, and strategies for success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

End Notes

1 A collection of papers from the larger study, Developing Human Capital within Schools, is available on the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers website at www.gse.harvard.edu/~ngt.

2 All names of schools and individuals are pseudonyms.

Susan Moore Johnson is Jerome T. Murphy Research Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of many books, most recently Where Teachers Thrive: Organizing Schools for Success (Harvard ­Education Press, 2019).

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