Discussion 4

Some collaborative practices to consider

There are many ways for teachers to work collaboratively and many ways for schools to become more collaborative workplaces. In a school where teachers have had little experience of collaboration, a small group of faculty could start by setting up regular, informal conversations about lesson plans. In a school or district with an ambitious agenda to foster collaboration, administrators could reorganize schedules, reallocate staffing and devote other resources to supporting more effective collaboration. Educators could introduce elements of collaboration into their existing approaches to work, or they could embrace collaboration so that it transforms everything that teachers, principals and students do.

This discussion describes a number of collaborative practices. You don’t need to choose only one. These practices are often combined and used together.

A) Mentoring

In mentoring relationships, a teacher may work with another teacher whom he or she views as more experienced or knowledgeable in a particular area. Mentors may observe their mentees teaching and provide constructive feedback or invite the mentee to watch them teach to learn by example. Mentors and mentees could also co-plan lessons or units of study by designing with particular student learning needs in mind, such as those of English-language learners. Some schools make explicit roles for mentors among the ranks of their teachers, particularly for helping beginning teachers, guiding teachers who are new to the particular schools—possibly as part of an induction process—or assisting teachers who are adapting to new grade levels, content areas, pedagogies or instructional goals. Some schools make mentoring a routine practice for all teachers to help them develop skills and knowledge. Principals can play important roles in mentoring approaches and in creating an atmosphere where all teachers, new and continuing, are able to work with their colleagues.


  • Mentoring can be helpful for teachers who want to collaborate on a smaller scale.
  • Mentoring can be challenging if the faculty consists mostly of beginning teachers.
  • Mentoring requires teacher trust and administrator buy-in to be effective.
  • Mentoring need not be reserved only for teachers construed to be in need of help. It can be part of a routine, continuous improvement process for all teachers.
  • Evidence for the effectiveness of mentoring at improving student outcomes is mixed: One large experimental study found a mentoring program improved student outcomes under certain conditions, but another large experimental study found that two comprehensive mentoring programs did not improve student outcomes.17

Questions to ask:

  • Who at your school is already acting in a mentor role? What successes and challenges have you observed in mentoring relationships?
  • Can schedules be arranged so that teachers have common, regular time and space for mentoring during the school day?
  • Does the mentoring at your school take place as part of an induction process? If so, is it mainly at the beginning of the year or does it extend throughout the school year, or even beyond an initial year?

B) Teacher teams

The term “teams” is often used in K–12 education to refer to entire staffs of teachers, within grade levels or departments, for example. This term does not automatically imply that any collaborative activities take place. But if existing teams are leveraged, they can be obvious places to spur more collaborative work. Collaborative teacher teams can be organized and structured in a variety of ways, for a variety of purposes. Collaborative teams can be organized to bring together teachers within a department or grade level, or they can focus on specific issues such as improving reading across the curriculum.


  • Teamwork can require buy-in and support from other teachers, staff and principals whose work may be affected by the team’s work or may need to change in order for the team to reach its goals.
  • Teams can develop and use a combination of formal and informal assessment techniques to understand student learning and identify areas for growth.
  • Effective teamwork may require teachers to build their data literacy to understand how and how well students are learning.
  • Teams are made up of people with a variety of backgrounds and perspectives that affect how and how well they work together.18 Teams have purposes that can shift and processes that can improve over time.19
  • Alongside this task-oriented work, teams also have to manage the social and emotional needs of their members to ensure feelings of belonging and value to the group.

Questions to ask:

  • Some teams are more effective than others. How can you ensure that teachers use their teamwork time effectively?
  • Who will facilitate teams’ work, and how might that role conflict with the facilitators’ other responsibilities?
  • Can schedules be arranged so that teachers have common, regular time and space to work together during the school day or week?

C) Professional communities or professional learning communities

Professional communities, or professional learning communities (PLCs), are an approach to school improvement that includes teamwork but extends beyond teams. A professional community is usually understood to comprise a group of people across a school who are engaged in common work; share a set of values, norms and orientations toward teaching, students and schooling; and operate collaboratively with structures that foster interdependence. This approach to school improvement is undergirded by the ideas that teachers sharing knowledge and learning actively with one another will improve their instruction and their students’ achievements and that structure and support are required for these exchanges to occur at the frequency and depth that are necessary for them to be beneficial.


  • Professional communities can be implemented in different ways—some are more robust and effective than others.
  • Creating professional communities requires buy-in and support from teachers, principals and other staff in the school.
  • In professional communities, teachers take collective responsibility for improving the school as a whole, which means teachers focus not just on their own classrooms, but on their colleagues’ classrooms as well. This way of working could seem like a challenge to some teachers’ notions of autonomy.
  • Teacher leadership and teacher agency can help these communities succeed.
  • PLCs can be polarizing: A survey found substantial dissatisfaction among teachers with PLCs as a form of professional development in their schools but substantial support among educational leaders for devoting more resources to PLCs.20

Questions to ask:

  • How will professional communities maintain respect for diverse points of view and protect teachers’ autonomy while fostering collaboration that supports learning for all students?
  • Can schedules be arranged so that teachers have common, regular time to work together during the school day or week?
  • How will teachers work together effectively in a professional community?
  • Is there sufficient support from the principal or school leadership to help ensure that the professional community functions effectively?

What can research tell us about professional communities?

Based on their research on school organizational features and student achievement outcomes in Chicago public elementary schools, researchers from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research led by Anthony Bryk acknowledged that working a professional community represents a very new arrangement for teachers, one dependent on collaboration. It makes their work public to their colleagues, requires critical questions and relies on a shared commitment to student improvement.21 Yet in their study, schools characterized by a strong professional community were about four times as likely to see a substantial improvement in students’ reading and math scores than schools that had a weak professional community.22

Do you think your school could build a professional community? Why or why not?

D) Lesson study

In “lesson study,” teachers work together to design, teach, observe, analyze and revise lessons. First developed in Japan, lesson study has been called “classroom-based collaborative research ”that is designed and undertaken by teachers. The idea is for teachers to focus on a lesson—studying it closely and collaboratively, deliberating and sharing ideas about it. The process typically works as follows: A group of teachers reviews a curriculum and works together to identify goals for student learning and to co-design a lesson. They conduct a live classroom lesson led by one teacher and observed by the rest, who collect data and make observations on teaching and learning during the lesson. Teachers then meet to discuss and reflect on the data to evaluate the lesson on whether and how it achieved the student learning goals. In some cases, the group of teachers will then redesign the lesson and repeat the process. This process can be reiterated multiple times with the same lesson, and then it can be conducted with a new lesson. The practice is designed to lead to slow but steady change.


  • Implementing lesson study requires frequent learning opportunities for teachers to understand and become familiar with this practice and the theory behind it.
  • Japan saw sustained high levels of student achievement during the 20th century, and the institutionalized use of lesson study in Japanese schools suggests a relationship between lesson study and improvements in student achievement.
  • Lesson study has not been widely adopted in schools in the United States.23

Questions to ask:

  • Are there teacher leaders who can facilitate lesson study, or do you need to seek out outside help?


  • Are there any other practices that you ought to consider in addition to these four?
  • Which seems most promising as a way to work more collaboratively? Why?

Next: Discussion 5


17 Steven Glazerman, Eric Isenberg, Sarah Dolfin et al., "Impacts of Comprehensive Teacher Induction: Final Results from a Randomized Controlled Study,” NCEE 2010-4027 (Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, 2010); John P. Papay, Eric S. Taylor, John H. Tyler and Mary Laski, “Learning Job Skills from Colleagues at Work: Evidence from a Field Experiment Using Teacher Performance Data,” No. w21986 (Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2016), 3.

18 Steve W. J. Kozlowski and Bradford S. Bell, “Work Groups and Teams in Organizations,” in W. C. Borman, D. R. Ilgen, and R. J. Klimoski, eds., Handbook of Psychology, vol. 12: Industrial and Organizational Psychology (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2003), 344–46.

19 Ibid., 357–80.

20 Boston Consulting Group, “Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development,” (Seattle, Wash.: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2014), 5, https://s3.amazonaws.com/edtech-production/reports/Gates-PDMarketResearch-Dec5.pdf.

21 Anthony S. Bryk, Penny Bender Sebring, Elaine Allensworth, Stuart Luppescu et al., Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 56.

22 Ibid., 117.

23 Rebecca R. Perry and Catherine C. Lewis, "What Is Successful Adaptation of Lesson Study in the US?" Journal of Educational Change 10, no. 4 (2009): 365–91.