Don't let isolation ruin your love of teaching
There are many ways for international schools to encourage the spark and innovation that comes through collaboration
Elementary teacher Samantha Sams describes isolation as "the disease that killed my love of teaching". With its roots in the industrial revolution, the teaching profession has long been a solitary endeavour.
A 2012 study in the USA by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation found that only about 3 percent of teacher time is spent collaborating with colleagues. The majority of teachers plan, teach and assess in isolation, leading to less inspiring student experiences, inconsistent curriculum implementation, reduced teacher commitment to the school, and a lack of innovation.
In this article, we consider how the broader research on teacher isolation may be applied to the international school community, and suggest five strategies to promote collaboration in international schools.
"Teacher isolation reduces teacher commitment and inhibits innovation."
Of the many negative impacts of teacher isolation, two stand out for us as having unique implications for international schools: reduced teacher commitment and inhibition of innovation.
International school teachers are at risk of magnified isolation when moving schools, as they transition simultaneously to a new cultural and professional context. This double impact is significant for international schools. Recruitment often comprises a major time and financial cost, and a high teacher turnover can affect a school’s productivity, reputation and morale.
As such, retention of teachers is often a priority. By supporting new teachers to integrate into the school community, international schools lay the foundation for new teachers to develop a substantive commitment to the school.
Teacher isolation has been shown to stifle innovation in schools: when individuals concentrate only on their own role, they lack awareness of what the organisation as a whole can potentially achieve.
"When trust is present, teacher teams are more likely to cooperate."
International schools are uniquely positioned to be global leaders in educational innovation, often unrestricted by the financial, political and organisational challenges faced by national schools. Yet the continuing isolation of teachers may be limiting international schools' ability to break free from conventional educational boundaries and become flexible, dynamic institutions.
The antidote to isolation is collaboration. When teachers engage in dialogue, they connect ideas, share problems and solutions, seek feedback, reflect and offer mutual moral support. This leads to professional learning and a sense of belonging. Below we present five strategies for promoting collaboration in international schools. These emerge from the doctoral research of one of the authors, Devin Pratt, who explored the nature of group learning of a collaborative teacher team at an international school in Asia.
Focus on Teaching Practice
Structure team meetings around the following questions:
What knowledge, skills and dispositions should every student acquire?
How will we know when each student has achieved the skills and dispositions?
How will we respond when a student does not learn?
How will we extend and enrich the learning of students who are already proficient?
These questions avoid housekeeping issues, and guide teams to practice-based collaboration, including curriculum articulation, creation of common assessments and a focus on individual student needs. They lead teachers towards the sharing of successes and challenges around student learning, allowing them to improve their current practice and explore new approaches.
Establish norms to promote mutual respect
When trust is present, teacher teams are more likely to cooperate, share ideas and develop collaborative relationships. Taking time as a team to create a set of norms or guiding principles will make meetings respectful, focused and a safe place to take appropriate risks. This is especially valuable when sharing student learning data, which requires a level of professional vulnerability, but can have a powerful impact on student learning outcomes when underpinned by the four questions above.
Promote shared leadership
Co-creation of norms provides another benefit: a sense of accountability to the team. When expectations and boundaries are clear, teachers can seek improvement by experimenting with new ideas. An example of this might be an agreement that every teacher in the team uses the same common assessment, but an individual teacher may trial a new instructional strategy to prepare students for the assessment and report back to the team. A balance of accountability and autonomy recognises that each teacher possesses expertise, and can both contribute to and benefit from being part of the team.
Create time for collaboration
Teacher teams need dedicated time to meet in the school day. How schools use their time speaks to what they find important: job-embedded collaborative time shows that school leaders value team sharing and the contribution that teachers make to the shared knowledge of the school. Ensuring teachers have the time they need to learn from one another pays dividends for the students, and facilitates the strategic renewal of the school.
Engage in and share professional learning
Professional development related to the taught subject or to pedagogy is needed to promote creativity and stimulate dialogue in a team. Team members should also engage in professional learning about the structure and purpose of collaborative teams, and schools should identify team leaders and offer professional development to support their role. This may include effective facilitation of meetings focused on practice and the development of leadership skills that engender trust.
International schools have the potential to be global leaders and innovators in education. To fulfil this role, school leaders must embrace collaborative learning by creating cultures and structures that support teacher dialogue focused on practice. At the foundation of successful collaboration is the relationship between teachers: mutual respect, shared norms and shared leadership are key to successful teamwork. A collaborative environment also facilitates effective onboarding of new teachers, bringing consistency to curriculum delivery and stability to the international school community.
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