A school culture of collaborative learning and teaching is key to the successful induction of new teachers, and grows the capacity of all teachers.
It’s time to ensure a paradigm shift for beginning teachers from “it feels like I am on my own” to “it feels like I am working with you and we are learning together.”
Recently, we witnessed first-hand how a new teacher’s confidence can be strengthened through collaboration with her more experienced colleagues. A team of primary teachers were engaged in a professional learning community with the goal of strengthening teaching and learning in mathematics. The teachers engaged in a variety of learning activities, including crafting learning intentions and success criteria that were in turn shared with their students. They also co-created lessons and volunteered to take turns teaching and observing. During one of their debriefing meetings, a first-year teacher revealed the following to her colleagues:
Our common planning and then observations have made me feel more confident in challenging my students. At the beginning of the year, when you all shared what you had your students doing – in my head I thought ‘my kids can’t do that’ but through our work together, I’ve seen otherwise.
This beginning teacher’s mathematics instruction was informed and adjusted based on classroom observation of her colleagues. Her increased knowledge about their practice helped to create a shift in her expectations for her students. She attributed successes (indicated by increases in students’ understanding) to the fact that “we had the opportunity to talk and eat lunch together” and that their collaboration and classroom observations “made us explain and question what we do.” In relation to an outcome resulting from the team’s collaborative efforts, she commented:
I am confident now that I have a role and that I can come in and contribute to the ‘build and explore’ (an aspect of the 3-part lesson plan) rather than just listen to you guys do it.
Understanding the lived experiences of beginning teachers is important if we are to provide appropriate supports which lay the groundwork for a thriving career.
Beginning teacher challenges
With a first contract in their hands, new teachers no doubt look forward to the responsibility and autonomy of having their own class and spend countless hours preparing their rooms, bulletin boards, and unit plans. However, as with any new challenge, and especially in environments where teachers tend to work in isolation, anxieties surface. Training and pre-service experiences, while valuable, are not the same as being totally responsible for a classroom of one’s own students. Research has confirmed that significant numbers of beginning teachers do not feel properly prepared in terms of classroom practice. A recent OECD report indicated that many new teachers felt more comfortable with their subject content than with actual practice and issues of implementation.2 When confidence wanes, it impacts our sense of well-being, our resilience, and our ability to take risks.
Beginning teachers, as Bryan Goodwin1 points out and practice substantiates, often have several foundational areas that shake their confidence, including classroom management and behavioural issues, assessment practices, and instructional planning. Assessment and instructional issues are intertwined, as a young teacher recently pointed out, because assessment “is not clear cut.” Assessment includes tracking student progress and understanding how to use anecdotal information for reporting and planning purposes. Purposefully selecting impactful instructional strategies and knowing how and when to provide modifications and accommodations come with experience and are not necessarily part of a new teachers’ repertoire.
If not addressed and supported, these areas also become reasons why teachers leave the profession. In particular, as our conversations with new teachers have illuminated, classroom management difficulties can greatly impact a teacher’s sense of competence and prompt some to quickly abandon dreams of being innovative in their delivery of daily lessons. Instead, they fall back on more traditional methods to simply cope on a day-to-day basis. It becomes an issue of feeling in control and is compounded if a teacher feels they must mask or hide their feelings or if they feel they are alone in trying to solve classroom issues.
It is important to add to the discussion the current shift in pedagogy for all teachers: the importance of incorporating an inquiry stance that utilizes key learning questions or ideas as the basis for student collaboration and learning. A 2016 mixed-methods study on the struggle of first-year teachers to implement inquiry instruction was telling. The study’s major finding was a consistent pattern among the first-year teachers’ perceptions of self-efficacy for inquiry instruction, and how they understood inquiry as a concept and actual classroom practice. Teachers with a high sense of self-efficacy were more likely to try to new strategies, adjust current ones, and persevere in the face of challenges.3 Teachers with a low sense of self-efficacy were unlikely to plan activities beyond their perceived capabilities or to scaffold for students who were having difficulties. This latter group of teachers identified a lack of time, materials, and the negative reactions of students as barriers to more innovative approaches and, not surprisingly, found it difficult to persevere in using an inquiry approach.
We must recognize that experiencing the inquiry process is a key underpinning to being able to effectively use inquiry as a learning design for students. Teacher inquiry as a collaborative learning design has become an increasingly powerful vehicle for professional learning, through its opportunities for reflective conversation, co-work and supported practice. However, it’s not common place to see this professional learning approach as part of a new teacher induction program. Collective efficacy can be a powerful outcome of this kind of learning when teachers have the structural supports to engage in co-learning efforts.4
The good news is that teacher confidence, feelings of preparedness, and skills can be increased through a variety of supports. A coach, mentor, peer as a co-learner, or principal who will not judge inexperience can be a pivotal person in making a difference for a beginning teacher who is feeling somewhat overwhelmed. Following, we highlight three strategic supports to teachers that go beyond initial induction training to professional learning through collaboration: mentoring, co-learning through collaborative inquiry, and coaching.
New teacher induction or support programs are a tangible key to success for many teachers. As a 2017 longitudinal study on the New Teacher Induction Program (NTIP) by Christine Frank & Associates for the Ontario Ministry of Education recently highlighted,5 teachers who were new to the profession identified a key support that was particularly helpful: mentoring from colleagues. To be clear, mentorship experiences appear to be on a continuum of effectiveness as highlighted in this report, but when teachers and mentors were a good match, the impact was significant. The report outlined important conditions for a successful mentoring relationship for new teachers such as:
- Having a mentor or colleague willing to share information, advice and resources that were relevant and helpful
- Co-creating new ideas for classroom program delivery
- Receiving support and encouragement
- Feeling safe to make mistakes and ask questions
- Collaborative work and problem solving.
As one fortunate participant in the study was reported to say: “Having a mentor in the same subject area, we work a lot together, co-planning and co-teaching, she helps me go further in my planning and teaching. I feel very lucky.”6
Personal support from the principal is also vitally important. Ongoing feedback and encouragement from the principal was seen as integral to growth in the NTIP program during its recent year one report in Ontario. The principals’ ability to be present, to listen attentively, to be intuitive to the needs of new staff and to provide tangible support such as an appropriate mentor and/or coach speaks to core administrative and leadership knowledge.
In a parallel process to inquiry teaching and co-learning with students, developing a co-learning culture where novice and experienced teachers take on supporting each other and where the principal is him- or herself a co-learner now represents the next level of leadership behaviour needed.7 Realistically, structural and organizational issues such as time to co-reflect have to be addressed to grow co-learning efforts. In recent research,8 the following views on how school leaders can build a collaborative learning culture were expressed:
- Creating a culture of safety and risk-taking
- Maintaining a clear focus
- Modelling co-learning
- Empowering others to lead and share decision making
- Demonstrating strong facilitation skills.
In a highly developed co-learning environment, beginning teachers have the opportunity to co-assess, co-plan, co-teach and co-debrief lesson impact with a variety of other educators. These could be teaching peers, a coach and/or a cross-school network. Admittedly, time constraints restrict co-learning opportunities, but according to longitudinal research from 2012-2015 completed for the Ontario Ministry of Education, there is a strong correlation between classroom observation and peer debriefing as part of a lesson design, and growth in instructional practice. Learning together is a powerful construct for adults as well as students.
At its core, a co-learning culture models what we know about high-quality professional development. It should be focused around challenges of practice and learning in the classroom. In co-learning, student work can be the impetus for collaborative conversations about what students understand and what next steps for instruction might be. Co-assessment of student learning, co-planning of subsequent lessons, co-analysis of student work and co-reflection on student learning fuels deeper learning and builds a sense of individual and collective efficacy. We know that a scaffolded approach is beneficial for students. Why would it not be beneficial for new professionals as well?
Using an inquiry approach to co-learning allows experienced and new teachers to contribute to problem solving with equitable voice while relationships, trust, and safety are nurtured and reinforced. Leaders (administrators and teacher leaders) who take the time to be co-learners with others build learning relationships in their schools more easily. Leaders who model their own vulnerabilities as learners encourage others to take risks and share learning experiences. Co-learning benefits from the underpinning of skillful facilitation,9 which can be taught as a leadership skill.
Until policy allows, not all teachers are in a position to co-assess, co-plan, co-teach and co-reflect, even though many express this is what they would really like to experience. In small schools without common preparation times, timetabling is a barrier that often stands in the way of the development of a co-learning culture. System leaders need to advocate for professional co-learning time to allow collaborative learning designs to take root.
Taking the time to provide some purposeful coaching to staff who need specific assistance also helps to build cultures where professionalism is perceived as highly valued. Coaches may be teachers or school leaders and can provide feedback, ask questions to probe further thinking, and model practices that may be new to some. Acting in the role of a knowledgeable other or instructional resource as well as a partner in learning, coaches bring a depth of understanding about appropriate assessment and instructional responses to the interaction with beginning teachers. Jim Knight10 describes a coach as a thinking partner for teachers, and coaching as a meeting of the minds.
WORKING TOGETHER, these three areas of support – mentoring, co-learning through inquiry and coaching – move the notion of “collaborative professionalism” forward. This term, as used by Fullan and Hargreaves,11 is premised on the understanding that teaching has become an interdependent profession that requires structural adaptations, like time-table flexibility and opportunities for sustainable professional learning, to be integrated into system thinking.
Co-learning using an inquiry design is a process that recognizes and values teachers as drivers of school improvement, as opposed to being targets for improvement. System and school leaders must be the cultivators of vibrant co-learning cultures. System thinking about teacher induction must evolve from being a support during a defined time frame to induction into a collaborative community of learners where growing one’s capacity is encouraged at all stages of a teaching career.
2 B. Goodwin, “Research Says/New teachers face three common challenges,” Educational Leadership 69, no. 8 (May 2012): 84-85.
3 T. Chichekian, B. M. Shore, and D. Tabatabai, “First-year Teachers’ Uphill Struggle to Implement Inquiry Instruction: Exploring the interplay among self-efficacy, conceptualizations, and classroom observations of inquiry enactment,” SAGE Open (April/May 2016): 1-19. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2158244016649011
4 R. Goddard, Y. Goddard, E. Kim and R. Miller, “A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis of the Roles of Instructional Leadership, Teacher Collaboration, and Collective Efficacy Beliefs in Support of Student Learning,” American Journal of Education 121 (2015): 501-530; J. Donohoo, Collective Efficacy: How educator beliefs impact student learning (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2017).
5 Christine Frank & Associates/Cathexis Consulting Inc., BTLJ Longitudinal Study: Year 1 (Ontario Ministry of Education, April 2017).
6 Ibid., 6.
7 L. Sharratt and B. Planche, Leading Collaborative Learning: Empowering excellence (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2016); J. Donohoo and M. Velasco,(2016). The Transformative Power of Collaborative Inquiry: Realizing change in schools and classrooms (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2016).
8 Sharratt and Planche, Leading Collaborative Learning.
9 B. Planche, Blog Posting: Deepening your Leadership Skills by Refining your Leadership Skills (April 17, 2017). https://thelearningexchange.ca/deepen-classroom-collaboration-refining-leadership-skills
10 J. Knight, “What Good Coaches Do,” Educational Leadership (ASCD, October 2011): 18-22.
11 M. Fullan and A. Hargreaves, Bringing the Professional Back In: A call to action (Oxford, OH: Learning Forward, 2016). https://learningforward.org/docs/default-source/pdf/bringing-the-profession-back-in.pdf