What are some ways in which principals can foster teacher collaboration?

Empirical research on principals’ roles in teacher collaboration is somewhat limited. But the research thus far suggests that principals and district leaders play essential roles in creating the conditions for meaningful collaboration among teachers—or in stymieing collaboration. (For more on these topics, see the section on making time for collaboration.) District leaders, school principals and teachers in leadership roles can all make a difference in the presence and scale of collaboration in a school system. The National Association of Secondary School Principals has published a framework that provides further detail on how principals in particular can foster collaboration.124

Principals can model norms and behaviors that foster more collaborative teacher workplaces.

Findings from a multiyear study of hundreds of elementary schools in Chicago by researchers from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research led by Anthony Bryk support the claim that leadership is a significant facilitating factor for collaboration. The researchers examined leadership as one of a set of five “essential supports,” or organizational features, associated with improvements in student achievement—the others being a coherent instructional guidance system, “professional capacity” (for more on this, see the subsection on student achievement), strong parent-community-school ties and a student-centered learning climate. Based on their analyses, Bryk and colleagues assert that principals can change school climates by challenging norms of teacher isolation, but that teacher buy-in is necessary in order to do so.125 Bryk and colleagues maintain that principals must take the lead, using their authority “to reform the school community through professional norms” and trusting that teachers will eventually begin to perpetuate those shifts in school climate.126

Principals can change school climates by challenging norms of teacher isolation, but teacher buy-in is also necessary.

Among the conclusions of this research team’s analysis of survey data from nearly 6,000 Chicago elementary school teachers is that principals can nurture “a normative climate in which innovative professional activity is supported and encouraged.”127 They found that schools where teachers indicated their principals had regular contact with them were more likely to have a “professional community” among teachers—defined by six measures, including staff collegiality and collaboration, teacher sharing of information and a focus on student learning. Schools where teachers said their principals exhibited inclusive leadership and encouraged innovation and risk taking were even more likely to have a professional community.128 (For more on this topic, see the subsection on professional communities.) By contrast, teachers in a smaller survey study pointed to a perceived lack of support or lack of prioritization of collaboration from administrators as a barrier to collaboration.129

Modeling teamwork is one of the ways in which principals can support teacher collaboration.130 According to researcher David Piercey’s perspective on what the literature has shown, teachers may know how to collaborate, but they often don’t do so.131 He expresses the opinion that teachers generally do not collaborate because their leaders won’t do so or can’t model collaboration.132

Principals are not necessarily trained to work collaboratively or to model collaboration.

But principals are not necessarily trained to work collaboratively or to model collaboration. They may not value collaboration. In-depth interviews with principals suggest that even those who do value shared governance can struggle with stepping back, with facilitating rather than directing and with feeling less needed by teachers.133 This suggests that principals as well as teachers may need training and support if they wish to make schools more collaborative for teachers.

Ideally, principals can set aside time and allocate resources that better enable teachers to work collaboratively.

Principals and other administrators are responsible for many resource allocation decisions that can affect the feasibility of collaborative practices among teachers.134 In particular, they are involved in setting schedules that can create time for teachers to collaborate (for more on this, see the section on making time for collaboration).135

Principals are also involved in decisions about hiring new teachers and other administrators. Hiring decisions can be crucial to the development of shared goals among teachers and between teachers and administration.136

Principals can make a range of other decisions that create the conditions for teachers to develop their crafts and that may influence turnover, including whether and how to institute initiatives such as teacher teams, mentoring, coaching or induction.137 However, many public school systems have faced budget cuts and shifting reform agendas that constrain principals’ and other administrators’ capacity to set aside time and resources for teachers to work collaboratively.

As instructional leaders, principals can provide teachers with mentoring and feedback to help them develop their skills.

Instructional leadership refers to a broad range of activities by principals, including creating a vision for a school, supervising teachers, offering feedback and advice and managing curricula. When principals act as instructional leaders, they are meant to assist teachers at developing their skills and at helping students learn.138 Joseph Blase and Jo Blase’s study of principals’ instructional leadership found that teachers appreciated having both formal and informal “instructional conferences” with principals as well as getting concrete, results-driven feedback.139

One study—based on surveys of teachers and students’ math and reading achievement scores—found that in schools at which principals provided shared instructional leadership, teachers collaborated more often. And in schools where teachers collaborated more often, students’ achievement was higher in math and reading.140 This suggests a relationship between principals’ instructional leadership, how teachers work together and how students learn. But the study was not designed to provide details about what exactly principals did as instructional leaders.

Yet principals or other school leaders may enact policies or changes that preclude or roll back collaboration.

Research suggests that when state and federal policies induce or require significant reform, specifically high-stakes accountability reforms, principals and other school leaders have a critical role to play in mediating how those reforms are implemented and their effects on teaching, collaboration and teacher learning.141 In some cases, this mediation can stymie teachers’ efforts to collaborate.

In Na’ilah Suad Nasir and colleagues’ extensive, in-depth studies of math teachers’ collaboratively developed and nationally renowned equity pedagogy at one urban California high school, “Railside”* (for more on this study, see the section on student achievement), a change in school leadership that occurred simultaneously with new district policies and budget cuts led to the dismantling of the department’s professional community.142 A new superintendent was hired in 2007, per the No Child Left Behind policy for schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress. Responding to budget cuts, the superintendent instituted several changes over the next few years, such as changing the school day schedule, increasing class sizes and firing teachers. These changes had adverse effects on collaboration. The group of math teachers who continued at the school reported a significant drop in the frequency of collaboration as a result of the changes, from an average of once per week in the school years from 2000 to 2005, to once or twice per semester in the 2009–10 school year or even never for four of the 10 teachers in that time period.143

Decision making by the new leadership upended decades of work that had gone into building collaboration and creating the equity pedagogy. This highlights the level of influence that school leaders such as principals have over the shift to or success of collaborative models within or across schools. As Nasir and colleagues noted, “Teachers reported that their style of teaching—emphasizing collaboration, intellectual risk-taking, student exploration, and deep mathematical connections—was extremely difficult to maintain under the circumstances created by changes in district policies.”144

Some researchers argue that administration-mandated collaboration is less valuable than spontaneous collaboration initiated by teachers themselves.

Andy Hargreaves has criticized “contrived collegiality,” in which teachers follow a mandate from administrators or go through the motions of working together without a shared vision and without truly engaging one another.145 He and others argue that this type of administration-mandated collaboration has little benefit. He distinguishes it from more spontaneous forms of collaboration in which teachers come together to share “new ideas, creative energy, and moral support.”146 In one study that analyzed survey responses from 118 elementary school teachers across six schools about their collaborative practices, researchers found that teachers sharing educational goals and values with fellow teachers was related to their participation in spontaneous (“informal”) collaboration, but not to their participation in administration-mandated (“formal”) collaboration.147 The researchers posit that this might indicate teachers are more likely to simply “go through the motions” when administrators mandate collaboration, and therefore they do not benefit in the sense of developing or discovering shared goals with their colleagues.148

However, at least one study has shown that “contrived collegiality” can evolve into “true” collaboration. In case studies of two districts in Texas and California, Amanda Datnow concluded that what began as “contrived” administration-mandated meetings to discuss data “evolved into spaces for more genuine collaborative activity wherein teachers challenged each other, raised questions, and shared ideas for teaching.”149 This administration-mandated collaboration succeeded because it took place in schools and districts that already had high capacities for change—where cultures, structures and leadership were already in place to support continuous improvement.


*Railside is a pseudonym given to the high school by the authors.

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