Teacher collaboration in challenging learning environments

Three teachers in office with papers discussing. They look happy.

By Aakriti Kalra

Consultant, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

The coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis saw traditional teaching rulebooks thrown out the window – classrooms were shut and remote, online teaching became almost universal in many countries. It fell on teachers to adapt their methods to the new context, reinforcing the importance of teacher collaboration.

Teachers collaborate in a multitude of ways when they interact with their colleagues to exchange ideas and resources, discuss student learning, team up for joint activities and knowledge creation. It is in these ways that teachers can co-create and enhance their learning with a shared aim to provide quality learning experiences to their students. In addition to supporting the instructional role of teachers, collaboration plays a key role in building relationships among teachers so that they feel part of a professional community and derive personal fulfilment from their work.

The OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) identifies collaboration as one of the five pillars of teacher professionalism. By asking teachers about how often and in what ways they collaborate, TALIS helps to identify the prevalence of teacher collaboration in different parts of the world and what it means for the wider dimensions of teachers’ work.

Among lower secondary teachers, the most common ways in which they collaborate are simple exchanges and co-ordination between colleagues aimed directly at immediate student learning and support. For example, 61% of teachers say they engage in discussions about the learning development of specific students at least once a month and almost half (47%) of teachers say they exchange teaching materials with colleagues at least once a month. The less common collaborative activities across the OECD include those which require a deeper level of co-ordination among teachers such as teaching jointly in teams, and observing teachers and providing feedback.

However, in some cases, some of these collaborative activities may be used more often or remain limited for teachers working in challenging schools such as those that have a high share of students from disadvantaged homes. A key challenge for teachers working in these schools is to overcome the lower levels of student achievement that are usually observed in disadvantaged school contexts – a challenge that could be exacerbated by the effects of the coronavirus crisis on disadvantaged students and schools. TALIS signals that teachers may also struggle with interpersonal relationships in these schools with a high share of students from disadvantaged homes as less teachers say that they can rely on each other in these schools than teachers working in schools with a low share of students from disadvantaged homes. In addition, in at least seven countries and economies participating in TALIS, less teachers engage in regular exchange of teaching materials with colleagues in disadvantaged school contexts.

A loss of teacher collaboration during the coronavirus crisis can have severe implications for the quality of remote learning for students, especially in disadvantaged schools.

On a positive note, some collaborative practices are more common among teachers working in disadvantaged schools. In at least seven TALIS-participating countries and economies, teaching jointly in teams, observing teachers and providing feedback, participation in collaborative professional development, and engaging in joint activities across different classes and age groups were more common in challenging schools (those with a high share of students from socio-economically disadvantaged homes) than in schools with a low share of students from disadvantaged homes. These collaborative activities are usually structured and may be a part of the systemic requirements that condition teachers to engage in them. Such forms of collaboration may be particularly beneficial to teachers work as they require a deeper level of interdependence and co-ordination among teachers and can therefore facilitate long-term knowledge sharing and peer learning. Indeed, education systems across the world are implementing new programs to support inter-school and intra-school teacher collaboration especially in disadvantaged school contexts.

The importance of teacher collaboration was echoed by TALIS results showing that frequent collaboration is associated with use of innovative teaching practices and higher levels teachers’ self-efficacy and job-satisfaction. However, regular engagements in collaborative activities among teachers are at risk of disruption during the coronavirus crisis, even more so in disadvantaged school contexts. This can have severe implications for the quality of remote learning for students in these schools as teachers may lose opportunities to engage with their colleagues for discussing student progress, and giving each other feedback on teaching plans and pedagogies.

Despite these challenges, teachers need collegial support and interaction now more than ever as they face the ordeals of working in a new virtual environment. Conditions to support and continue collaborative practices that meet teachers’ needs in these times must be promoted so that teachers can find instructional support in their professional community of educators.

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