Opinion

opinion | Jessica Lander

Teaching should be a team sport

In elementary schools in Tokyo, high schools in Helsinki, and the MBA amphitheaters of the Harvard Business School, teaching styles differ sharply. But all have one thing in common: Teaching is a team sport. Yet, in many US public schools, teachers are largely on their own.

Doctors meet to discuss difficult cases, lawyers collaborate to write briefs, and architects team up with contractors and engineers to build a house.

Why then do we expect teachers to succeed solo?

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Around the world, great schools thrive on collaboration. Teachers have common planning time to design and troubleshoot lessons; young teachers pair up with master educators who provide regular feedback; teachers across disciplines work together to support students.

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Japanese teachers meet regularly to brainstorm how to effectively teach a concept — like mathematical reasoning — in a process called Lesson Study. Together teachers construct a lesson around proofs, testing it in front of students or fellow teachers, and with others taking notes. The teachers then revise the lesson based on the feedback.

In Finland collaboration is so essential that schools prioritize three hours weekly for teachers to create lessons together and discuss struggling students. In many schools, teachers are encouraged to observe and assist in each other’s classrooms.

Here in Boston, Harvard Business School professors teaching the required first-year course in, say, finance, meet for upwards of an hour a week to discuss the week’s case studies, sharing insights from previous years.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that teamwork among teachers measurably improved student test scores. Studies of Massachusetts and Chicago teachers suggest that collaborative communities correlate with less teacher turnover and higher job satisfaction.

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It is not enough to hire great teachers, says Boston College education professor Andy Hargreaves; schools must be vibrant places where not just students, but teachers are constantly learning with the support of peers. Both rookie and veteran teachers improve with collaboration.

With the school year upon us, how can we give teachers this opportunity?

Some schools around the nation have introduced a practice known as instructional rounds, based on hospital grand rounds. Master teachers and administrators visit a series of classrooms, identifying patterns in teaching practices. They then meet to brainstorm ideas for improving specific practices school-wide.

The nonprofit Center for Teaching Quality has created a vibrant virtual community of nearly 10,000 teachers who share strategies and ideas. The center also identifies yearly a cohort of “teacherprenurs,” exceptional teachers from over a dozen states, who split their time between the classroom and policy research, writing about education and developing local professional learning communities.

If collaboration is critical to students’ success, what will it take to create schools in Massachusetts that foster teamwork? It could start with a pilot program involving a limited number of schools that rethink three key factors: time, space, and culture.

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First, teachers would need a devoted two to three hours a week for common planning time. Schools would likely need to hire additional faculty to free up time in teachers’ schedules or perhaps have administrators run recess to allow teachers to meet while students play.

Second, schools would need dedicated spaces where teams of teachers can meet.

Finally, schools would need to recalibrate teacher evaluation metrics to encourage collaboration — so they reward not only the performance of a teacher’s own students, but also the shared growth of the entire grade or school.

Teamwork has been the mantra for New England’s most successful sports teams. Imagine the success Massachusetts schools could see if they adopted the same rallying cry.

Jessica Lander is a teacher and writer living in the Boston area.