Fix Schools, Not Teachers

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.

Teaching in Context (Harvard Education Press) was borne out of the realization that, as intuitive as these ideas seem and as the research supporting them grows, policies continue to focus primarily on training and identifying top talent rather than on bettering the organizations where a range of teachers (of diverse abilities) work and grow. The book addresses three barriers that seem responsible for the insufficient policy attention given to the interpersonal and organizational dimensions of educational improvement:

  • Dissemination. It is possible that this body of knowledge has not been disseminated as broadly as other scholarly work and that policy makers are simply not aware of this research.
  • Misperceptions. Some perceive the idea that relationships matter to be too “touchy-feely” and nonquantifiable. However, trusting relations have very little to do with being “buddies” with colleagues and supervisors and everything to do with structures that facilitate focused professional conversations. Trust and professional interactions can and are routinely measured by researchers in a variety of sophisticated and rigorous ways that allow us to connect the interpersonal aspects of teachers’ workplaces to crucial outcomes, such as teacher development and student learning.
  • Applicability. Policy makers may not perceive findings on the interpersonal dimensions of school improvement to be actionable. While changing the culture and norms that govern organizations such as schools isn’t easy or straightforward, the contributors to Teaching in Context provide specific ideas that are intended to spark and inform a serious policy conversation about the potential of this approach.

Providing “lessons” for policy and practice isn’t a job just for researchers. Ultimately, because the school improvement processes we are trying to influence are complex and dynamic, practitioners, policy makers, and academics need to figure out how to proceed together. Teaching in Context was conceived as a resource for these much-needed conversations.