This post was originally published at the Harvard Education Press blog.
Both John and Jasmine are fifth-grade teachers. Jasmine has a lot of experience under her belt, has been recognized as an excellent educator and, as a content expert in math and science, her colleagues seek her out as a major resource at her school. John has been teaching math and science for two years. His job evaluations show room for improvement but he isn’t always sure how to get there. Due to life circumstances, they both switch schools the following year. John starts working at a school where faculty routinely work collaboratively, which is a rather new experience for him. In Jasmine’s new school, teachers are friendly but they work independently and don’t function as a learning community like in her old school.
After a year John’s practice has improved considerably; he attributes much of it to the culture of his new school, which is clearly oriented toward professional learning. Jasmine’s instruction continues to be strong but she misses her old school, being sought out by her colleagues for advice, and the mutual learning that she felt resulted from those frequent professional exchanges.
This story helps to illustrate the limitations of how teachers’ knowledge and skills are often viewed: as rather static and existing in a vacuum, unaffected by the contexts where teachers work. Increasing evidence suggests that understanding teaching and supporting its improvement requires a recognition that the context of teachers’ work, particularly its interpersonal dimension, matters a great deal. Teachers’ professional relations and interactions with colleagues and supervisors can constrain or support their learning and, consequently, that of their students.