Current Teaming Practices Used by Teachers

Today many schools and districts encourage teachers to work collaboratively as a way to improve their teaching expertise. Teacher collaboration, in fact, represents a central feature of recent standards for the professional practice of educators as well as many initiatives to help teachers refine and expand their skill-set of effective practices. As well as those that are discussed in more detail below, some of these initiatives are: peer coaching, cognitive coaching, Japanese lesson study, critical friends groups, and interdisciplinary teaming.

Co-teaching

One type of teacher collaboration has been popularized in recent years as a way for general educators and special educators to work together in the same general education classrooms (Friend & Cook, 2013). Co-teaching strategies are applicable for other purposes as well. For example, some teacher education programs now treat the student teaching experience as an opportunity for co-teaching (e.g., University of Virginia, 2013). 

Among co-teaching models, the one developed by Friend and Cook offers a set of five strategies that co-teaching teams might use. Described below, these strategies offer a range of co-teaching possibilities. 

  • One Teach/One Observe: This method involves one teacher providing full instruction, while the other teacher walks around taking notes about student engagement, interaction, difficulties, behaviors, and so on. This method helps teachers collect data about students’ performance. Teachers who use this approach should do so sparingly and also trade off roles from time to time so that students do not erroneously conclude that the teacher who is observing is not the “real” teacher.
  • Station Teaching: This method involves a set of learning activities organized in “stations” around the room. Students rotate from station to station at timed intervals, while each teacher monitors one or more of the stations and provides guidance and support as needed.
  • Parallel Teaching: This method involves two more or less equal-sized groups of students, each independently instructed by one co-teacher. At timed intervals, the groups may merge for discussion, enrichment, or product-creation; or they may remain separate for most of the class period. This method has the benefits of promoting what Friend and Cook term “instructional intensity:” a high level of engagement coupled with more personalized instruction. 
  • Alternative Teaching: With this method, both teachers work together to provide whole-group instruction. At particular points during instruction, one or the other of the teachers might take aside a small group to work on remediation, review, or enrichment. 
  • Teaming: This method also enables both teachers to work with a whole group at the same time. It enables {ip Differentiation::The practice of creating various instructional methods to teach the same content to students whose learning characteristics predispose them to learn best through different types of materials and/or activities.}differentiation{/tip} to occur seamlessly because each teacher can be responsible for presenting a concept using a different approach. For example, one teacher might present the concept through a mini-lecture while the other teacher draws a diagram of the concept on the board and subsequently explains the concept by describing what the diagram represents. Teachers should be careful not to allow this approach to devolve into “turn-teaching”—an approach whereby teachers take turns assuming responsibility for teaching. Effective teaming involves the continuous engagement of both teachers at once.

Professional Learning Communities

Professional learning communities (PLCs) offer another approach to teacher collaboration. Despite his strong support for professional learning communities, Richard DuFour cautions:

The idea of improving schools by developing professional learning communities is currently in vogue. People use this term to describe every imaginable combination of individuals with an interest in education—a grade-level teaching team, a school committee, a high school department, an entire school district, a state department of education, a national professional organization, and so on. In fact, the term has been used so ubiquitously that it is in danger of losing all meaning. (2004, p. 6)

For DuFour, however, this approach is effective when it directs attention to learning, makes productive use of collaborative processes, and focuses on results. In other words, not all assemblages of professional educators constitute “learning communities.” Sometimes, for example, they convene as decision-making bodies, support networks, or task forces. Although functions other than the improvement of students’ learning may be important to schooling overall, these functions (and the collaborative efforts of educators that perform them) may not have a direct impact on students’ learning.

Data Teams

Data teams are professional learning communities that focus most of their attention on making instructional changes in response to relevant data. Recent studies, moreover, show that school-wide improvements in achievement are associated with the work of PLCs that use systematic processes to examine learning and instruction (e.g., Seashore Louis, Leithwood, Wahlstrom, & Anderson, 2010). As Lieberman and Miller (2011) note, productive data teams direct attention both to teachers’ learning and to students’ learning. 

Nevertheless, recent studies also show that the work of data teams can backfire if they focus only on high-stakes data, allow data to obscure the human side of the educational process, fail to examine data for all learners, or lack important forms of support (e.g., Sharratt & Fullan, 2013; Wood, 2007). As numerous studies suggest, the productive use of data by PLCs depends on the alignment of a set of dispositions and practices. Sharratt and Fullan (2013, p. 45) provide a list of 14 supportive conditions that lead to high achievement in schools and districts. Of these, 10 implicate teacher teams. Table 2 reorganizes these 10 conditions into sets of dispositions and practices and provides a brief explanation of each.

TABLE 2

Effective Team Functioning

When Teacher Teams Work

Not surprisingly in light of what is known about team-building and teamwork in general, teacher teams function effectively only under certain circumstances. Even as early as 1990, evidence about teacher teams prompted Judith Little to identify conditions that, on the one hand, enabled and, on the other, constrained teams’ ability to support teachers’ professional growth. According to Little, the norms governing the work of teams had a lot to do with their relative effectiveness.

In the years following Little’s pioneering work, additional information about team work in schools has characterized norms that sustain functional teams—norms relating to trust, willingness to share, openness to critique, creation of psychological safety, and investment in group cohesion. Functionality alone is not enough, however, to enable teacher teams to work toward school improvement. In fact, functional teams are better able than dysfunctional ones to perpetuate harmful beliefs and sustain harmful practices. What guides functional teams to improve education for all students—to perpetuate inclusive beliefs and to sustain equitable and effective practices—is their commitment to ensuring that all students receive a high-quality education. 

What Roles Can Team Members Play to Promote Effective Team Functioning?

Several researchers have identified the roles that team members often play when they are working together to solve problems (e.g., Belbin, 1993, 2010; Schutz, 1958). In the typical scenario, different team members assume different roles based in large part on their personality characteristics. 

According to Belbin, team members take on one or more of nine possible roles. From his perspective, teams function most effectively when different members assume different, but nevertheless compatible roles. Most empirical studies are less definitive in their claims than Belbin himself about the impact of role-balance on teams’ effectiveness (see e.g., Batenburg, van Walbeek, & Maur, 2013).

Nevertheless, awareness of the roles that team members can play and avoidance of potentially incompatible behaviors associated with those roles can help Teacher-based Teams set the stage for productive collaboration. Table 3 below presents Belbin’s nine roles, provides brief descriptions of what the roles entail in general, and then illustrates each role with an example that connects to the work of TBTs.

TABLE 3

Another way of thinking about the roles and functions of teacher teams comes from the work of McNulty and Besser (2011). Table 4 provides brief descriptions of the roles that all TBT members play and specific roles—like TBT chair and TBT timekeeper— that different team members assume. On some teacher teams, teachers assume these roles on a rotating basis, perhaps changing roles for each team meeting. On other teacher teams, these roles are assigned for longer periods of time.

TABLE 4

What Intervention Specialists Should Know About TBTs

Some Variations in the Structure of Teacher Teams

Schools differ from one another considerably in terms of size, locale, organizational features, and even purpose. As a result, teacher teams cannot look the same in all schools. For example, in a small high school with one or two teachers for each academic subject, organizing subject-matter teams would be impossible. And in a very large elementary school with 10 or more third-grade classrooms, review of data and instructional decision-making would become too cumbersome if there were just one third-grade team. 

Nevertheless, some structural arrangements are more common than others. For example, elementary schools often organize teachers into grade-level teams, whereas high schools often organize them into subject-matter or department teams. How teams are organized will likely influence their functionality and effectiveness, so educational leaders need to make wise choices about the type of team structure that might work best in a particular school or district.

A recently employed teacher will want to ask his or her principal or mentor teacher about the team structure and procedures at his or her new school. Of course, in a school with functional and effective teams, the principal or mentor teacher is likely to volunteer that information! 

The Role of Intervention Specialists on TBTs

According to Blanton and Perez (2011) among others, intervention specialists benefit from their participation in professional learning communities, such as Ohio’s Teacher-based Teams. Team participation allows these special educators to base their work on the same focused goals that guide school and district improvement across general education classrooms. Involvement with TBTs also creates strong professional alliances, enabling intervention specialists to learn from their general-education colleagues and get support from them. Furthermore, intervention specialists bring skills to the team that general educators may lack. The list below describes some of the specialized skills and knowledge that intervention specialists often bring:

  • Collaboration skills. Preparation programs for special educators typically include a course focusing on strategies for collaborating with other adults—parents, others teachers, and professionals in human service agencies.
  • Assessment skills. Special education candidates usually complete one or more courses on assessment during their preparation programs. In these courses they learn about norm- and criterion-referenced tests, methods of direct observation, and various types of behavioral assessment.
  • Data analysis skills. Many teacher preparation programs require special education candidates to analyze student data from individual standardized tests, criterion-referenced assessments, and other sources.
  • Knowledge of how to differentiate instruction. Much of what special educators learn in their preparation programs targets instructional modifications and supports that enable students with disabilities to make significant academic progress. These modifications and supports are useful with many students who encounter problems.
  • Knowledge about other service providers. Because students with disabilities often need assistance from various types of service providers, such as medical practitioners, occupational and physical therapists, family counselors, and social service agencies—special educators often know more than general educators about the support these professionals offer as well as how to access their services.

Handout 1 provides a checklist that helps you identify which of these skills you currently possess and which you may want to acquire in the near future

HANDOUT 1

Systemic Linkages

How TBTs Support the Ohio Improvement Process

At the heart of the Ohio Improvement Process (OIP) is a cycle of data analysis, planning, and monitoring that matches closely with the steps typically included in models of action research. To see how closely these processes are aligned, first look at Figure 3, which presents a generic model of the cycle of activities required for conducting action research, and then look at Figure 4, which provides an Ohio Department of Education schematic showing the five steps guiding the work of TBTs.

FIGURE 3

 FIGURE 4

Note that in both illustrations, the process is cyclical. If the results show that an intervention is working effectively, continual monitoring may still be important but probably not as critical as moving forward to investigate another problem. If the results show that the intervention is not working, however, then the failure of the intervention itself becomes the problem. In that case, additional data may or may not be helpful, but a second intervention is probably required. Small Group Activity 1 in this module provides a simulation of the data-analysis and instructional decision-making processes used by TBTs, and Small Group Activity 2 provides an opportunity to design an action-research project such as one that might be undertaken by a TBT.

Small Group Activities

SMALL GROUP ACTIVITY 1

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How Experienced Teachers Can Help Newly Employed Teacher

How Experienced Teachers Can Help Newly Employed Teacher

For newly employed teachers, there’s a lot to learn and a large number of practices, relating, for example, to instruction, paperwork, school routines, and interaction with colleagues, to coordinate. Support from experienced co-workers can make induction into a first teaching job (or a new teaching job in a different school or district) much smoother than it might otherwise be.

A logical place for a new teacher to look for experienced colleagues who might help is the Teacher-based Team at the grade level or within the department where he or she is assigned. In some schools the team structure is more obvious than in others, so it’s important to ask the principal about the school’s team structure and how membership on teams is determined. Often, of course, experienced teachers will take the initiative to provide guidance to newly employed teachers within their grade levels, interdisciplinary units, or departments.

Some research (e.g., Glazerman, et al., 2010) introduces a note of caution about formal induction programs. This research shows that teacher induction efforts may have limited impact unless they provide support for two or more years. Restricting eligibility as a mentor to only those teachers with demonstrated expertise also seems like a useful caveat.

The focus of some of the formal programs that have been studied provides a useful list of topics for mentor teachers and their mentees to discuss. One illustrative list comes from the Glazerman and associates study mentioned above:

  1. Planning instruction and designing learning experiences 
  2. Creating/maintaining effective learning environments
  3. Understanding/organizing subject matter
  4. Development as a professional educator 
  5. Engaging/supporting all students in learning 
  6. Assessing student learning (p. 49)

In Ohio, where the improvement process depends on the effective functioning of interlocking data teams, induction for teachers might also include discussions about teamwork and data collection and use. 

Handout 2 in this module provides a list of questions that mentor teachers might use to help their recently employed colleagues adjust to their new jobs and perform effectively. 

HANDOUT 2


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