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September 1, 2021

Why Teacher Teams Are More Critical Than Ever

Effective instructional teams helped schools navigate the pandemic—and they’re essential to helping schools thrive in its aftermath.

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Professional Learning
Leadership
School Culture
September 2021 Moore Johnson header image: A teacher speaking to students through a digital platform.
Credit: FIZKES / SHUTTERSTOCK

For well over a year, school shutdowns and ­sputtered reopenings have tested educators’ resourcefulness and resolve. As the new school year begins, many are reflecting on small triumphs and lessons learned from that experience. One practice that proved central to many schools’ resolve and resilience during this crisis was teachers’ ­collaboration on school-based teams. I believe that such teams, which enabled schools to respond quickly and often wisely to unprecedented demands, can now propel schools to become even better as they move beyond crisis mode.

When schools shut down in March 2020, I was starting a round of interviews with administrators and teachers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The Lawrence Public Schools serve Massachusetts’s poorest city, home to many recent immigrants. The district had been in state receivership for nine years, but unlike most state takeovers, this one was increasingly seen as a success (Schueler & Bleiberg, 2021). As a researcher, I was exploring how school-based autonomy, one component of the district’s turnaround strategy, was playing out in its schools. When Massachusetts officials closed schools statewide, I saw an opportunity to explore how Lawrence officials and educators were contending with the many unanticipated challenges of the pandemic, including how schools’ autonomy affected their responses. In the midst of this transition, I shifted the interviews I’d planned to do with district educators to Zoom (which incidentally helped explore teachers’ and leaders’ responses as the situation was unfolding).

Within a week of shutdown, the city’s mayor had funded Chromebooks for all families, local businesses were creating hotspots for internet access, and Superintendent Cynthia Paris had issued guidance for remote instruction. Meanwhile, schools were scrambling to contact their students, distribute devices, and get on with teaching and learning.

As I talked with administrators and teachers, I realized that the pandemic had laid bare the strengths and weaknesses of their schools. In particular, those with well-established ­instructional teams were faring much better than those where individual teachers were left to solve problems on their own.

Schools with teams were pivoting quickly: Teachers moved their regularly scheduled meetings online and planned together for the work ahead. No teacher in those schools was expected, or even allowed, to go it alone. Meanwhile, educators in schools where teachers ­routinely worked in isolation were ­overwhelmed. Many seemed resigned to wait out the crisis alone.

Relying on One Another

At Spark Academy, a neighborhood middle school in Lawrence, Principal Kevin Qazilbash purchased three internet domain names—one for each grade—and then worked with teacher leaders to design the websites, where students would go for live instruction, participate in small group discussions, and meet with tutors and counselors. Meanwhile, teachers used Zoom to connect online with their colleagues on grade-level and subject-based teams. Together they explored their instructional options and received training on the available technology platforms before selecting one. Unlike in many schools, where classes were largely asynchronous, Spark went “live,” using synchronous instruction. Teachers decided together how they would teach, what a daily class should look like, and how much homework to assign. Once systems were up and running, Spark students attended three live, virtual classes each morning, where their English language arts, math, and science teachers presented lessons and convened small groups for extra help. In the afternoon, students participated in a live fitness class and one other option: music, counseling, tutoring, or an enrichment exercise.

Similarly, at Guilmette Middle School, teams were already well-established before COVID-19. Principal Jessica Cunningham, who had been a Guilmette administrator for several years, knew she could count on teams of teachers to make online learning work. “It was really easy to figure out. ‘How do we do staff meetings? How do we still connect on a professional level?’ We just took our normal structures—grade 5 and grade 6 [teachers] meet every Monday at a certain time, for instance—and Zoomed them. Our verticals [subject-based team meetings] kept taking place.”

As at Spark Academy, Guilmette Middle School’s teachers first learned to use the new online platforms together and then taught live classes. The school embedded support staff—such as teaching assistants for English learners and special needs students—in the teacher teams so that all educators who interacted with students shared the same information and expectations. Students who relied on special assistance could easily have been left behind if the entire team had not been present for both planning and instruction.

The crisis galvanized some school teams into action. At Guilmette Elementary School, Kathleen Smith had been principal for only eight months when COVID-19 hit. Before the shutdown, she’d encouraged teachers to collaborate more and create greater coherence and continuity for students. But it wasn’t until schools closed unexpectedly that teachers realized that they would have to work together and decide how to proceed. “It’s been so challenging to reach all of our learners,” Smith reflected. “People have had to rely on one another and become a team in way more dramatic ways than before the pandemic. That’s the silver lining through all of this.”

When I asked Jessica Cunningham how she thought things would be going at her school if teams hadn’t already been well organized, she responded, “A mess. A complete mess.”

The Price of Working in Isolation

In fact, teachers did struggle in schools where grade-level and subject-based teams didn’t exist or functioned erratically. Most teachers in such schools created and distributed work packets with weekly assignments. Sometimes, they convened their classes virtually so that students could see each other. Even then, they encountered daunting problems—technological SNAFUs, missing students, and ignored ­assignments. Although many waited in the hope that everything would soon return to normal, their schools remained closed for over a year.

A teacher in one such middle school told me he had always enjoyed “incredible autonomy” in what to teach and he seldom conferred with ­colleagues about instruction or students. But when his school suddenly closed, he felt unmoored:

I didn’t know who was in charge of anything, really. . . . I’m mostly sticking with the curriculum that I had planned this spring but doing it much slower. Really, we’re only doing about 25 percent of the curriculum I had planned. . . . I’d say 25 percent of my kids are just kind of MIA.

At another secondary school where teachers were left largely on their own, one told me,

It’s been chaotic, and we’ve been trying to just do the best we can. I don’t think there is anything similar about any of the classes in this school right now.

Strengthening Collaboration

I checked back with the school leaders this past spring, a year after my initial interview, and asked how teacher teams were working. Over the summer and fall of 2020, they had all taken steps to further strengthen collaboration. Jessica Cunningham provided training to support her teams’ work. She modeled ways to facilitate a meeting; identified roles individuals might assume during meetings, like co-host, recorder, and tech supporter; and demonstrated engagement strategies teachers could use with both peers and students. So that team members could learn more about their colleagues’ instruction, some volunteered to serve as “­resident teachers,” who welcomed peers to observe their online classes.

At Spark Academy, administrators and the school’s Teacher Leadership Team (TLT) assessed their spring 2020 experience with synchronous instruction. They realized that hours of live teaching via computers had been stressful for students and teachers alike. When school started online again in September 2020, attendance lagged. So Spark introduced more varied and active learning experiences for students, including frequent opportunities to meet in small groups with their teachers for guided instruction.

Schools with well-established instructional teams pivoted quickly. Schools where teachers routinely worked on their own were overwhelmed.

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Principal Qazilbash said that in the months that followed, Spark’s teams used some of their planning time to “redesign for the long term.” They chose a new curriculum to better support students’ development in reading and writing. They also decided to shorten classes from 60 to 45 minutes for the 2021–2022 school year to provide more time for teachers to meet with colleagues and instructional coaches and to confer with parents. Each day, teachers will have four periods of teaching, one period of intervention with a small group of students, and three periods for planning and professional growth. (It’s not yet clear exactly how instruction will happen in the district throughout the 2021–2022 year, but seems likely most students will be back in school full-time, with some still remote).

Qazilbash reflected on the benefits of collaborating about schoolwide decisions: “It’s helpful to have the TLT consult with other teachers and think it through with us and say ‘Yes this is the right choice’ or ‘No, let’s go in a different direction.’ And it’s not just for buy-in: It’s helpful because often we get a better product.”

When Massachusetts began to reopen schools in April, 2021, district officials decided that all Lawrence schools would provide instruction for students attending class in person as well as those attending online from home. How they would do so was up to the schools, and again teacher teams deliberated how best to move ahead.

At Guilmette Middle School, grade-level teams adopted different models to meet their students’ strengths and needs, while at Guilmette Elementary School, teams decided whether teachers at each grade level would instruct only their own students or co-teach classes. Every decision brought unexpected challenges to consider, such as how teachers could ensure that students’ ­comments could be heard easily by ­classmates within the classroom and at home.

Steps for Building Strong Teams

I wasn’t surprised to learn how important teacher teams were, both to these schools’ rapid recovery after sudden shutdown and to their steady improvement. In earlier studies of schools that successfully educate students from low-income communities, I found each school had a robust system of grade-level and subject-based teams where teachers collaborated regularly. Effective teams engaged everyone in the school, drawing on teachers’ best ideas and making them better. School culture grew stronger as teams adopted shared practices, learned from one another, and developed professional norms about “the way we do things here.”

But effective teacher teams don’t emerge or flourish spontaneously. Their success depends on principals who believe that their school can respond well to any challenge when teachers—who know the students best—have a meaningful say in decisions. Effective teams also need teachers themselves to step up and contribute their best ideas and effort. Retreating to one’s classroom is no longer an option.

Leadership Takeaway

Effective teacher teams don’t emerge spontaneously. They grow steadily, with the encouragement and expertise of school leaders.

Not all principals have the autonomy to choose the path for their school’s development that school leaders in Lawrence do. But this district’s experience highlights actions any school leader can take to solicit teachers’ leadership and build strong teams:

  • Build a schedule with common planning time so teachers in the same grade level or subject area can meet at least weekly. Then doggedly protect that time so that teachers can count on it.

  • Identify meaningful decisions teams can make, given the authority your school has. These might include what curriculum to use, how to group students, or how to solicit parents’ participation and suggestions.

  • Help teams define clear roles for participants, and provide support and supervision for those who facilitate meetings.

  • Develop a process for keeping other ­educators in the school informed about the teams’ deliberations and ­decisions.

Meeting the Demands of the Future

This fall, schools will continue to contend with an uncertain and dynamic environment, and strong teams can help them chart a path forward. Teachers will have to judge what’s working or not working with scheduling, safety measures, classroom-community building, and technology. Stark differences among returning students’ interests, knowledge, well-being, and skills will require educators to review the curriculum and assessments they have long relied on. Schools may face a shortage of teachers and support staff. A new COVID variant might periodically force schools to return to remote instruction.

But, as Kathleen Smith observed, the silver lining of COVID may be that many schools are stronger because teams of teachers learned to face tough, new challenges together. She is confident that her school’s collaborative structures can meet the demands of the future. When I asked her about facing the 2021–2022 year, she simply said “We’ll have teams going forward. We’re all about teams here.”

End Notes

1Schueler, B. E., & Bleiberg, J. (2021, May). Evaluating educational governance: Does state takeover of school districts affect student achievement? Annenberg EdWorkingPaper No. 21-411.

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