Teaching Together in Changing Times

Special Focus : Building an Efficient, Creative Teaching Force
Designing an Effective Training Program October 05, 2016

In a complex and rapidly changing world, our educational goals are becoming more sophisticated and demanding. Raising achievement scores in literacy and numeracy is not enough anymore. Economic prosperity and opportunity call for innovation and creativity. An international epidemic of mental health problems, violence and uncontained anger is making nation after nation, and more and more schools pay attention to the physical, emotional and mental wellbeing of young people. The greatest global refugee crisis since World War II brings more and more children into classrooms with little prior or no prior experience of schooling, significant challenges of language learning, and considerable problems with post-traumatic stress caused by violence, dislocation, bereavement and abuse. This means that schools and teachers are moving beyond preoccupations with measured achievement alone to addressing concerns with the wellbeing of the whole child, the engagement of every learner, and the identities of children and families who make up the increasingly diverse populations in our schools.

The bold directions that our schools are already taking in response to these issues are too sophisticated to be imposed from the top, through the sole control of leaders or small management teams, in prescriptive detail, over everyone below. But more autonomy for teachers and schools is not the answer either. This bottom up approach leaves each teacher and school on their own, with no capacity to move good ideas around so that they benefit many teachers and children, not just a few.

Learning has to be more challenging and complex now; and so does teaching. In the digital age, teachers will need both less authority and more authority. With more and more students having access to information instantly, the teacher at the front of the class can no longer be the expert on everything. The teacher needs to be able to know how to help students access ideas, interpret and critique them and put them in a context of foundational knowledge and understanding. Paradoxically, at the same time, the teacher in the digital age also needs to have more authority sometimes. Just because they cannot be experts on everything does not mean teachers should not be expert on something.

The future of education does not only rest in a hand-held device. Children, adults, all of us have always been moved by the power of wisdom, stories and narratives. This is how we have passed on knowledge through the generations. Everyone wants their own Ken Robinson or Robin Williams sometimes – and not just on YouTube. The inspiring teacher will not desert us just yet. But when they lecture on something, teachers had better not make it up as they go along. Their students will prove them wrong in an instant. We need many experts in teaching, not just a few. And these experts have to work together rather than expect a few brilliant teachers to know everything and do it all alone.

As a result, many schools and school systems such as those in Scotland, and Ontario, Canada, are beginning to adopt a new idea that is neither top-down nor bottom-up: leading from the middle. Leading from the Middle is a deceptively simple idea where teachers and schools work together to support each other, move good ideas around, give each other feedback and take collective responsibility for each other’s success. Leading from the Middle – whether it is a critical mass of teachers in a school, or a group of schools or school districts working together, is not just about Leading IN the Middle. It involves more than creating a layer of middle management, or a few specialist positions, or even a cluster or network of schools that implement the mandates of systems from the top.

Leading from the Middle, rather, is about many teachers and schools driving change together instead of being driven by other people’s changes. It is about taking initiative rather than implementing other people’s initiatives. It is about collective autonomy that entails teachers and schools having more autonomy from the bureaucracy but less autonomy from each other. It is about the collective efficacy of believing that we can make the difference together.

Since Dan Lortie’s brilliant book, Schoolteacher, in 1975, we have known that teaching is too easily organized as an individual activity, where busy teachers work alone with their own classes all day, with no access to the ideas of their colleagues, no moral support when a class or a day have gone badly, and no feedback or praise when things are going well. Since the late 1980s, a mountain of research, including my own, has shown that teachers who work together get better results than the ones who have to do it all alone – they get higher achievement, and feel they are more able to make a difference with all their students, no matter what families or backgrounds they come from.

On World Teachers Day, it is time to be reminded of the lasting importance of all our teachers. It is time to reassert that teachers are not only facilitators, but that they will still also sometimes be larger-than-life, inspiring, energizing and caring experts who have wisdom and authority and a gift of how to get it across. But in a complex, challenging and rapidly changing world, we must also acknowledge that the future of teaching is neither in more brilliant teachers working alone, nor in technologies that will do the work of teaching for them, but in teachers working and planning together – inspiring each other, learning from their colleagues’ expertise, acknowledging their complementary gifts, and supporting each other in the difficult but rewarding work to which they have given their lives.