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Growth of an Interdisciplinary Teaching Team
Growth of an Interdisciplinary Teaching Team
Bruce King
Bruce King

Teaching teams offer many benefits. Teams can strengthen teachers' work by breaking down isolation and encouraging collaboration. Teams can engender relations among teachers that foster a shared understanding of pedagogy and collective responsibility for student achievement. In teams, teachers can reach consensus on significant issues of teaching and learning.

In recent research on teachers' professional communities, WCER researcher Bruce King and teacher-researcher John Gunn found that the work of high school teaching teams is complex and often contradictory. Even in the best teams, hierarchies can emerge, tendencies toward individualism can persist, and genuine agreement can be elusive. The concern for pedagogy and student achievement can easily be thwarted by issues of control and micro-political struggles for status and authority. Consistent with other research, they found that relations of power and influence at the school level have dramatic effects on the nature of teacher collaboration, professional inquiry, and curricular and pedagogical innovation.

Gunn and King explored critical dilemmas in the development of a high school interdisciplinary humanities teaching team in an urban high school over a 10 year period. Gunn was a teacher and member of the team during this period. He joined the team in 1989, the third year of its existence, when it was composed of four teachers and a team leader. Initially, Gunn began this project as action research that was supported by a study of school reform in which the school participated. Gunn had written reflections on his experiences with the team from 1989, and as part of the action research, he received feedback on his observations from team members. Discussions between King and Gunn evolved into an analysis of Gunn's reflections and documentation and, ultimately, a paper based on them. To guide their analysis they used a framework that focused on the micro-politics of teachers' relationships as well as the research base related to professional community. As they defined it, a strong, schoolwide professional community consists of

  1. a clear, shared purpose for student learning;
  2. collective understanding of, and responsibility for, instructional practice to achieve learning goals;
  3. professional inquiry by staff members to address the challenges they face; and
  4. opportunities for staff members to influence the school's activities and policies.

Growth in phases

During this time period, the team experienced three phases in its development. The first phase was one of consolidated power in which curriculum, pedagogy, and the discourse within team meetings were fairly well controlled. Team leaders and senior members of the team placed a priority on keeping pace with the scheduled curriculum and directed discussion away from issues emerging in teachers' classes. In the context of this pressure to keep pace, teachers became reluctant to raise issues for fear of being seen as struggling. The top-down structure of authority also conveyed the message that staff members were not expected to initiate inquiry regarding their classes or pedagogical issues. In failing to redefine the authority structure of the school, teachers acquiesced in a culture that limited their voice in the school, creating cynicism about their work and about leadership.

In phase two, the exercise of power became much more decentralized but teachers reverted to a form of individualism. They differed on how they structured reading assignments, the degree to which they allowed students freedom to interpret literature, their requirements for student exhibitions, the way they taught student writing, the way they provided feedback to students on their writing, and the standards they used to evaluate student work. These individual choices were influenced by different pedagogical orientations that, for the most part, continued to go unaddressed by the team.

In phase three, the team was much more successful in generating consensus on important issues through shared power. Importantly, new staff had joined the team. Because they had not been involved with earlier patterns and conflicts on the team, or perhaps because of their own dispositions, the new members encouraged a shift in the ways teachers related to each other and facilitated significant gains in the team's collaborative work. Common assessments, a framework for student essays and evaluations of them, and critical feedback among members on implementing the curriculum were some of the accomplishments of the team during this period.

It takes time

From the experience of the teaching team during this 10-year period, Gunn and King derived the following five lessons:

  1. It is immensely difficult, if not impossible to separate issues of interpersonal relations from substantive issues. In particular power, recognition, and leadership could not be separated from staff discourse about teaching and learning.
  2. The creation of teaching teams implies the recognition of teachers' potential to engender effective school improvement. This empowerment is important. If society wants to help students grow into independent and knowledgeable thinkers who are capable of democratic deliberation, society must expect teachers to be similarly capable--and seen as such by students. To create an effective culture of democratic professionalism, school leaders must expect and model professional discourse, including the establishment of norms of critical feedback and collegiality.
  3. Teachers must clarify their models of and expectations for teaching and learning. For some time, teacher teaming in this study was bedeviled by the team's inability to address certain pedagogical issues, such as the degree of disciplinary knowledge students should be taught and the ways in which writing should be used in the development of students' thinking.
  4. The evolution of effective teacher teams takes time. Teams need time to work through their differences and establish trust. To the extent possible, membership in teaching teams should be considered a long-term commitment. Teams that are able to develop collective authority and accountability seem to further teacher professionalism and morale.
  5. Teacher teams offer an alternative model for school governance to the one currently in ascendance, which emphasizes centralized control through national or state curriculum standards, testing, and accountability requirements. Professional cultures and learning communities that exhibit collaboration, democratic deliberation, inquiry, trust, and risk taking among teachers may be key to a school's capacity for instructional changes that lead to high and equitable student learning.

For more information, King can be reached at mbking1@wisc.edu

Material in this article was originally published in different form in Urban Education, vol. 38, no. 2 (March 2003), pp. 173-195.