6Apr

From My Students to Our Students: Collective Responsibility of Students and Teacher Efficacy

Kurtis Hewson
University of Alberta
kphewson@ualberta.ca

 

Abstract

It has been widely documented and consistently reiterated that the individual teacher is the most important school factor in relation to student learning and achievement (Colvin & Johnson, 2007; Wright, Horn, & Sanders, 1997), as well as the overall effectiveness of schools (Marzano, 2007). Unfortunately, this research claim has been warped throughout the educational community in a way that further promotes and celebrates the paradigm of “teacher as individual.” Central to a teacher’s individual impact is a strong sense of efficacy, an unwavering belief or confidence in their abilities to positively impact student learning. Although initially defined and explored as primarily an individual construct, how teachers co-construct understandings of their efficacy collectively can have significant impact on overall beliefs about a teacher’s individual effectiveness (Takahashi, 2011).  If we truly wish to establish sustainable cultures of professional praxis that ensure high levels of individual and collective efficacy for teachers, our schools and districts require a shift, both symbolically and linguistically, from my students to our students.

I’m enamored with the representations of teachers in cinema.  Recently, my wife and I succumbed to a Friday night of escapism, surfing the channels before landing on the 2007 movie Freedom Writers.  Starring Hilary Swank as freshman teacher Erin Gruwell, the plot follows a storyline typically found in this category of dramatic film.   An educator battles all odds, often paradoxically put in place by colleagues and the greater bureaucratic “other,” to make a difference in the lives of a group of disenfranchised students. 

In this particular addition to the genre, a seemingly innocuous scene resonated.  Erin is in a tension filled meeting with her cantankerous department head and administrator.  Following an implicit accusation of her motives to threaten a traditional school structure, Erin provides a calm justification, concluding with, “I just want to stay with my kids next year”.

My kids.

It has been widely documented and consistently reiterated that the individual teacher is the most important school factor in relation to student learning and achievement (Colvin & Johnson, 2007; Wright, Horn, & Sanders, 1997), as well as the overall effectiveness of schools (Marzano, 2007). Unfortunately, this research claim has been warped throughout the educational community in a way that further promotes and celebrates the paradigm of “teacher as individual.”  Popular culture, through films such as Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, Dead Poets Society and the aforementioned Freedom Writers, reassures us that all students require to succeed is a passionate, larger-than-life teacher who believes in them and will work tirelessly as a lone pedagogical champion to ensure success for their class of their students.  Central to this solo teacher’s individual impact is a strong sense of efficacy, an unwavering belief or confidence in their abilities to positively impact student learning.  A teacher’s self-efficacy has been found to have significant influence on student achievement (Goddard & Skrla, 2006) and is a characteristic easily identifiable in these dramatic portrayals of educators.

Recognizing Individual and Collective Efficacy

A teacher’s sense of efficacy, the personal judgments made about their abilities to promote student learning, impacts teaching and learning (Hoy & Spero, 2005).  Although initially defined and explored as primarily an individual construct, how teachers co-construct understandings of their efficacy collectively can have significant impact on overall beliefs about a teacher’s individual effectiveness (Takahashi, 2011).  As a result, collective efficacy, “the perceptions of teachers in a school that the efforts of the faculty as a whole will have a positive effect on students” (Goddard, Hoy, & Hoy, 2000, p. 480), bears further exploration.  When approached from an individualistic pedagogical mindset, how can collective efficacy be supported, refined and sustained?  Although the idea of a solitary instructional superhero makes for outstanding cinematic drama, it does not acknowledge or seek to build the professional capital necessary for real improvements in schools and districts worldwide (Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012).  Furthermore, teachers’ self-efficacy is ultimately threatened when we consider the myriad of needs, challenges and intricacies that are present in their contemporary inclusive classrooms.  Classrooms are complex. Buffum, Mattos and Weber (2009) agree, alleging “no teacher can possibly possess all the knowledge, skills, time, and resources needed to ensure high levels of learning for all his or her students” (p. 51). It should therefore not come as a surprise that “no longer can one person meet the varied needs of students” (Shores & Chester, 2012, p. 50).  If we truly wish to establish sustainable cultures of professional praxis that ensure high levels of individual and collective efficacy, our schools and districts require a shift, both symbolically and linguistically, from my students to our students.

Isolated Islands of Excellence

Traditionally, schools have largely subscribed to the individual classroom model where each year teachers receive their class of students to take under their instructional wings. If students experience success in that classroom, credit to the teacher. If they experience failure, that responsibility also falls to the individual teacher. In this model, teachers work tirelessly to ensure learning and the overall success of their students but function within school organizations that lack the structure to effectively tap into the collective capacity of the adults in the building. If purposefully structured and planned for, collective capacity “enables ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things” (Fullan, 2010, p. 72) and strategically reinforces a team concept that shifts the conversations to “what are we doing for our kids.”

I have observed and taught in schools with exceptional teachers working as “isolated islands of excellence,” promoting what Sarason (1996) describes as “a culture of individuals…each concerned about himself or herself” (p. 367).  In this culture, we observe each teacher doing all they can individually for his or her class of students. However, we need to abandon this “old model of education where teachers literally or figuratively closed their doors and made all of their own decisions” (Stoehr, Banks, & Allen, 2011, p. 74), aspiring to establish school cultures where student success “is our joint responsibility, and when they succeed, it is to our joint credit and cumulative accomplishment” (Saphier, 2005, p. 28).

This shift to collective responsibility looks different in different schools. It can mean teachers at a grade-level taking collective ownership for all students in all classes at that particular grade. It can involve teachers in multiple grades working together to examine students at those grade levels as our kids. It can, particularly at a high school level, involve students being examined based on course focus or placed in pods for the purposes of creating a staff team working together that ensures their success and support. Whatever the structure, the key is that, when focusing on individual students, we “ensure everyone knows they are responsible or ‘own’ all students” (Sharratt & Fullan, 2012, p. 35). Although the classroom teacher is on the frontlines, that teacher is not a “one-man” army – rather, a team is keeping watch. Essentially, a child’s success is the responsibility of more than just a classroom teacher. It is the responsibility of a team of teachers and other school staff members who both care and who have learned to work together towards a single goal – that child’s success. 

Planning for Collective Ownership of Students

Although this level of systems-thinking makes sense, because obviously developing a team to support student learning would be preferable to leaving that responsibility to a single individual, Lieberman and Miller (1999) remind us, “This kind of thinking is not intuitive – especially for people who have been thinking in terms of my classroom and my kids for most of their professional lives” (p. 26). Shifting from sole to collective ownership, or transforming the collective conversation from my student to our student, involves intentionality in three distinct areas: collaborative structures, shifting the vernacular and time.

Collaborative Structures

School leaders cannot simply declare, “Student success is the responsibility of all of us” and then sit back to see the cultural shifts occur. Collaborative structures and processes need to be established. In best cases, these structures and processes allow staff members to come together to begin conversations about groups of students – conversations that may have only happened informally in the past or reserved for only the most at-risk or high-need students. In worst cases, these structures and processes will force staff members to come together to engage in conversations that have not traditionally happened in the solitary fiefdom model that has permeated our traditional educational systems.

Establishing the collaborative structures and then supporting staff in the conversations within these structures is critical. The establishment of Collaborative Team Meetings (Hewson & Adrian, 2013), where team members meet to discuss the strengths, needs and next steps for individual students, guided by a visual board documenting the level of support for all students that could potentially be discussed, is one such structure that can have an impact on shifting from individual to collective ownership of students.

Shifting the Vernacular

When first shifting schools from sole to collective responsibility, school leaders (specifically principals) need to be talking the language of collective ownership. Words such as “we,” “our,” “us” and “all” need to become terms that permeate conversations and are consistently repeated by leaders in team meetings and through participation in other collaborative structures. Leaders must make a concerted effort to model those shifts with statements and questions such as:

  • “What are we currently doing for this student in the classroom?”
  • “Let’s turn our attention to what is happening for this student at recess.”
  • “Can you please share with us what supports we have in place currently for this student?”
  • “At recess, we need to all observe this student to gain a better understanding of how we can respond.”

This modeling of language is a critical step in developing a collective responsibility for students over time.

Time

In the movie Field of Dreams, the phrase “If you build it, he will come” is the repeated mantra that calls Kevin Costner’s character to action. This mentality is not one that applies when establishing collaborative structures with the aim of reinforcing collective ownership for students. Although it is essential that school leaders build in time for collaboration and structures that require staff members to come together, “they” might not come initially. Just establishing the structures for collaboration will not equate to an instant shift in culture…initially. It takes time for this shift to occur. When operating in isolated models, adults working in schools do not develop elements of trust with their colleagues. However, trust is paramount to reach a point where we are all really talking about the needs of our students in our classrooms.

Trust takes time to develop. The first structured conversations that we have about students may be difficult. Little meaningful conversation may take place, with even less resulting action to support students. With time, these conversations will strengthen and, as trust and collaborative expertise is developed, the shift from sole to collective responsibility for students will begin to take shape. True collaborative efforts require time to evolve.

Impact on Efficacy

My first year of teaching was difficult.  So was my fifth, tenth and fifteenth! Developing an individual sense of efficacy for me was a fluctuating construct influenced by daily struggles and challenges.  Facing those challenges in isolation can significantly impact a teacher’s confidence in their teaching abilities, devoid of reassurance, support and collaborative dissonance.  By engaging in collaborative structures that ensure collective ownership of students, teachers can experience continuous growth in their personal sense of efficacy, consequently impacting collective efficacy, which in turn can have a positive, cyclical influence on personal teaching efficacy (Hoy, Sweetland, & Smith, 2002).  Shifting from sole to collective ownership of students does not only have a significant impact on student learning and achievement.  It also contributes to a teachers’ sense of efficacy, as professional collaboration and sharing is enhanced and teachers work together to achieve instructional effectiveness that is truly greater than the sum of the individual parts.

 References:

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Fullan, M. (2010). All systems go. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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