Will Powerful Teamwork Transform Your School This Year?

It’s back-to-school time! Educators at every level are contemplating the upcoming year and how they can best serve the children in their care. As we move forward through a strong school opening, I hope collective efficacy will be on everyone’s mind.

In a nutshell, collective efficacy is the belief among a team of teachers that by working and planning together they can effectively reach all of their students. It’s a concept embedded deep in the core of everything we do at the Alabama Best Practices Center.

Our professional learning networks for school and district leaders (The Key Leaders Network) and for school teams across the state (the Powerful Conversations Network) are organized around our conviction that the learning is in the room.

Collectively, educators have the knowledge and skills to excel in their professional work. It is the job of the ABPC facilitators to create an environment that fosters that deep learning process — both by greater exposure to key education issues, research and proven practices, and by promoting discussions among colleagues both inside and outside their schools and districts.

Listening to colleagues from another school share breakthrough moments with students helps build the climate for collective efficacy. As teams of teachers learn new strategies and hear success stories from others who have implemented them, their collective efficacy grows.

Instructional Round in Pike Road

To ensure these types of conversations, we hold Instructional Rounds across the state in “case study” schools where teachers work closely together and students excel. As visiting educators spend time in classrooms and talk with students and teachers, they see for themselves the effectiveness of the strategies in place.

More about Collective Efficacy

Research shows that it is collective efficacy, not individual efficacy, that has the most sustained impact on effective teaching and powerful learning. A single isolated but committed teacher may reach most of her particular students. But the ongoing efforts of a committed team of teachers who are determined to discover what works best pulse throughout the whole school.

The free Summer “online-only” issue of Education Leadership – High-Powered Teams – offers a collection of articles with some powerful insights about why collective efficacy is so important and what teachers and leaders can do to cultivate it.

Harlan Elementary principal Dr. Thomas Casteel meets with 2nd grade team.

First, let’s make sure that my previous description of collective efficacy aligns with education research. An EL article by school leadership expert Peter DeWitt quotes Tschannen-Moran and Barr (2004) who define it as the “collective self-perception that teachers in a given school make an educational difference to their students over and above the educational impact of their homes and communities.”

One of my favorite education thought leaders, Richard Elmore, in this video, provides a more robust explanation of why collective efficacy has a larger effect than the social-economic status of a school’s students.

So, you may be wondering: If collective efficacy has such a huge impact on student learning, why isn’t it in place in most schools? DeWitt explains:

…collective efficacy doesn’t just happen, especially in schools that are beset by low morale and top-down mandates. It requires a great deal of trust, which must be built over time, and an intentional effort by educators to buck the status quo.

Here’s How We Get There

In the same EL issue, Jenni Donohoo and co-author Steven Katz, paint a picture of the type of intentional teamwork needed to drive collective efficacy:

Collective efficacy is strengthened when increases in student achievement are realized based on the sustained efforts of high-powered teams within schools. This process—which we call quality implementation—involves a critical mass of people doing their best to apply and experiment with evidence-based strategies, learning whether and why the strategies worked (or didn’t) within their respective contexts, and then making the necessary modifications.  

You know you have quality implementation when teams make what’s supposed to work actually work in their schools and classrooms.

Mill Creek Elementary in Madison City has six “houses” supported by teams.

These teams do more than welcome new instructional practices into the mix. They tolerate the discomfort felt throughout the change process and work to take control, invest in their work, and shape experiences based on high expectations. Highly effective teams do not let constraints get in their way. They rally to get a critical mass behind decisions, doing the right thing, for the right reason, at the right time, while assessing the impact of their actions.

(These school teams) find ways to bring theory and practice together to produce positive outcomes for students—regardless of other circumstances. They go outside their comfort zones, use focused, goal-driven inquiry to improve an area of weakness, and make changes based on feedback.

The authors suggest four specific actions teachers can take to build the belief that together they can reach all students AND learn to use the most effective practices to make them successful. If you’re involved in our ABPC networks, you’ll notice how these actions connect to our professional learning design.

Learning Together. “When high-powered teams come together, they focus their time on identifying and collaboratively solving the problems that are rooted in the learning needs of their students.” At ABPC, we’ve learned that joint work is fostered by intentionally planning and structuring adult learning so that educators have time to understand (or deepen their understanding) or a key concept and identify needed next steps.

Cause-and-Effect Relationships. Collectively and individually, teachers need to examine their actions against student results. Donohoo and Katz share a powerful example of the importance of cause-and-effect when describing the insights of an Ontario high school teacher who didn’t initially believe that students in one of her classes could learn at higher levels, but nonetheless decided to teach the lesson planned by her team.

The class being observed was identified as challenging because it was offered at the end of the day and contained only boys—many of whom were identified as at-risk. Most of the teachers on the team taught these students in different classes throughout the day and were skeptical that the strategy could make a difference.

As the lesson played out, however, students raised their hands, offered insightful comments, took risks, made predictions and inferences, and revised their thinking aloud as they worked their way through the text. Every student contributed.

When the class emptied out at the end of the day, one teacher sat for a long time deep in thought. Finally, she said, “I feel horrible. I always thought these students weren’t capable. The insight they had was astounding! It sickens me that I thought they couldn’t infer from texts. These strategies really worked!

(Our ABPC Instructional Rounds offer a good example of teachers examining cause-and-effect relationships. Host schools identify a “problem of practice,” which the school is addressing and asks participants to gather evidence of that practice in place in the classrooms visited.)

McBride Elementary School, Muscle Shoals City.

Goal-Directed Behavior. This strategy involves teachers discussing and setting goals and strategies for all students to reach mastery. Each professional learning session offered by the ABPC begins with identified learning outcomes, and teams are given time to plan next action steps throughout the day.

Powerful Practice. A group of teachers sets a measurable goal, develops a plan to reach that goal, and then monitors their progress toward the goal. To ensure progress, the authors note that feedback (particularly student feedback) is critical to keeping this type of practice on track.

One of the trademarks of our network meetings is the structured sharing fostered at each session. Learning protocols help participants share successes with colleagues from other districts and also seek help and ideas for improvement. This feedback cycle is energizing and often revelatory!

Teacher team at Hibbett MS in Florence City shares what they know about each of their students.

Wish You Had a Super Power to Help Your Students? You Do!

As you plan for student success in your school or district this year, remember this — Purposeful teamwork that builds collective efficacy is a power-filled strategy that can pay huge dividends for both your colleagues and, most important, your students.

In 2019-20, stay focused on the research-proven understanding that it is the collective work of a faculty, not the heroic work of a few, that will make it possible for us to reach all students.

If you are not yet part of one of our learning networks, consider joining! As leadership expert Ken Blanchard pointed out long ago: “None of us is as smart as all of us.”