Reflections on Teaching: Building Teacher Efficacy and Professional Capital

 Jim Parsons, PhD
Professor, Department of Secondary Education, University of Alberta

Jean Stiles
Principal, Jasper Place High School, Edmonton, Alberta


This article is in three parts. The first reviews the recent book by Andrew Hargreaves and Michael Fullan - Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School (New York: Teachers College Press). The second looks at recent Alberta evidence and research which looks at the conditions of practice of a significant group of teachers. The final section explores the implications of the first two sections for practice.


Part One: A Review of Hargreaves and Fullan’s Professional capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School New York, NY: Teachers College Press. 

In this introductory article to our second edition of The Canadian Journal for Teacher Research, we hope to set the context for our focus on teacher efficacy. In 2012, Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan wrote an insightful book about the professional capital of teachers. Their book suggested that teachers, as professionals, possessed certain kinds of capital. Here we wish to explicate their ideas, and then link them to teacher research completed in Alberta. Finally, because we believe teacher professional capital impacts teacher efficacy, we will synthesize the research we have engaged (either reading or doing) during the past decade to suggest how teachers can collectively build their own professional capital. Our goal is to re-enchant teaching by helping teachers engage in efficacious practice.

 First, what does it mean to engage the concept of professional capital when we talk of teachers? Investing in teacher professional capital recognizes that the collective work of teachers is to develop human capital (in self and others) from early childhood to adulthood. The end goal of education in Canada is to promote learning, but also to build citizenship, economic productivity, and social cohesion in our next generation.

 Hargreaves and Fullan’s (2012) work is motivated by the question: “How do we understand a ‘return’ on public education?” They note that business answers differ greatly from educational answers. In business, a “return on investment” suggests a return on public education that is fiscal – and Alberta’s provincial government seems quite willing to see education as such an economic enterprise. Thus, getting a return on investment includes reducing the costs of employing teachers, any educational system’s largest expense. As Jim noted in his recent article in the ATA Magazine, large reductions of teaching costs are currently occurring in the United States. Why pay big money for non-professional technicians? From this business capital vantage, teaching is simply technique that requires no rigorous training, no university education, and no extensive school practice. In business terms, teaching is easy.

 But Hargreaves and Fullan’s point is that teaching is not a business; it is a profession. They believe the concept of professional capital is a starting point for better understanding teaching. From the viewpoint of professional capital, teaching is complex. Teachers must, as they work with children, come to learn both professional and craft knowledge: what are the signs of Tourette’s Syndrome; how should we best differentiate instruction so all children may engage knowledge; how should we build community with parents, so they may understand their children’s learning; and, what must we know to manage classrooms? Such professional knowledge requires technical knowledge, but also high levels of education, learning from practice, continuous collaborative professional discussions, and the development of wise judgment.

 Hargreaves and Fullan spell out three kinds of professional capital teachers must employ: (1) human capital (growing one’s own talent as an individual); (2) social capital (growing the collaborative power of teachers as a collective professional group); and, (3) decisional capital (the wisdom and expertise to make sound judgments about learners that are cultivated by considered experience – a kind of capital that is both human and social).

 As an example of how human and social capital work, they cite Leana’s (2011) study of 130 New York City elementary schools. First, Leana looked at human capital — the qualities of individuals, their personal qualifications, and their competencies. She then measured the social capital of a school by asking: To what extent do teachers in this school work in trusting, collaborative ways? To what extent do teachers in this school focus on learning to engage and improve student achievement? Finally, she measured what she found about human and social capital against math achievement scores as indicators of teacher impact.

 Leana’s findings tell us much about the interplay between human and social capital. She found that schools with high social capital, collaboration, showed positive achievement outcomes. Schools with strong social and strong human capital together did even better. Most interestingly, teachers with low human capital, individual qualifications, and talent who worked in schools with high social capital got better outcomes than those who worked in schools with lower social capital. In other words, professional community builds both individual and social efficacy.

 Here’s what we can surmise from Leana’s work. Being in a school with others who are working effectively impacts us as teachers. Both human and social capital are important. However human capital (individual’s talent) is less influential than social capital (the collaborative power of professionals) as a way to promote student learning. To enact change, the power of teachers acting together trumps the power of individuals acting alone. Leana found that working in groups changes both individuals and groups. Specifically, her research suggests that, to promote student learning, we should build teams of teachers who identify and respond to student needs. For those of us who have taught in Alberta for the past two decades, this finding is no surprise. We have seen this idea work within the framework of the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement (AISI).

 How should teacher professional capital be built? Hargreaves and Fullan suggest three steps in building professional capital.

 Step one: We must attract good people into teaching. As a principal and a teacher educator, we believe this is happening. The young people Jim teaches in his undergraduate courses and the young teachers Jean hires in her school are caring, committed, and engaged. Although their values can differ from our own – young teachers seem to demonstrate better work-life balance than older teachers - because they refuse to give up their health and families to “the job, something we had a hard time doing – we cannot fault them on their personal character or their commitment to teaching. They care, and they aspire to become good teachers.

 Step two: We must help young teachers become established in their role as quickly as we can. We need to be judicious supporters of our new teachers and protect the new ideas they bring with them. It can be daunting to bring fresh ideas and new practices into well-established, traditional teaching departments.

 Step three: We must create and engage professional development that helps teachers become more effective. We already know that continuous professional learning matters. Professional learning that is job-embedded, ongoing, and relevant to a teacher’s day-to-day world is key.

Here’s what Hargreaves and Fullan’s work tells us. First, the best way to support and motivate teachers is to create conditions of practice where teachers can effectively work together. Our recent study of teacher professional learning and teacher efficacy (Klassen, Beauchamp, Parsons, Durkson, & Taylor, 2014) corroborates Hargreaves and Fullan’s ideas. Second, to encourage teacher efficacy, social capital works best. Collaboration helps teachers make positive educational changes and fosters teacher professional learning. For example: (a) in Finland, teachers build curriculum together; (b) in Singapore, teachers share their best ideas; and, (c) in Alberta, when AISI was alive, teachers and schools collaborated on Action Research projects and mid-level leadership emerged. Many Alberta schools still work together on Action Research projects. In these schools, action research is part of the culture and no longer depends upon financial resources. The “high school redesign” projects across Alberta are excellent examples of schools engaging in action research to transform high schools to meet the needs of our current student groups.

 Hargreaves and Fullan note three ways to work to change a system. Basically, leadership can push, pull, or nudge. Push asserts for more professional capital and assumes resistance to that push. But, one can become too pushy and, for all sorts of good intentions, school leaders can force compliance. Push can also become a habit because, in the face of push, people capitulate; thus, well-intentioned leadership becomes top-down. On the other hand, pull draws people into the work, the vision, or the creation. Pull opens spaces for innovation and risk-taking. Interestingly, early adopters are always “pulled” into the work. Nudge helps people make choices, but assumes guidance towards making those choices. Some ways to nudge include building shared language about what is important; adopting workable tools [what we have come to call hard-shell outsides, soft-gooey insides), and using critical friends to promote deep discussion.

 Viewing teacher response to high school redesign projects might help illustrate how push, pull, and nudge plays out. Transforming our high schools opens many contested spaces for teachers. Teachers who value school as “it has been” see the notion of redesign as being pushed to conform to new ways of thinking about teaching and learning. These new ideas might not resonate with their beliefs about education. Teachers who believe that we do “need to change” our classrooms and schools to meet the needs of the contemporary learner see high school redesign as an invitation and are pulled into the work. Finally, teachers who are unsure they know “how to change” the high school classroom or “what they might need to change” appreciate a gentle “nudge” into the work. These teachers are typically willing to embrace the nudge when they see concrete examples of what the “work” might look like and what it will entail. During the sharing of the action research projects of high school redesign, leaders have attested that push, pull, and nudge have been present whilst working inside the contested arena of school transformation.

 As Hargreaves and Fullan note, good instructional leadership is a mixture of push, pull, and nudge. Good leadership is good practice. Good leadership is non-judgmental, accepts people where they are, and works to move forward. Good leadership does not insist and is sensitive to career issues and different starting points. Finally, good leadership pulls when it can; pushes when it must; and nudges all the time.


Part Two: Alberta's Research 

In this section, we compare Hargreaves and Fullan’s writing with recent research completed in Alberta and in other places. In general, a body of research points to a growing gap between government policy that claims to support teacher autonomy, professionalism, and leadership and the experiences of teachers who increasingly live as “professional employees.” Teachers live in managerial models of school governance and are forced to comply with narrow, inappropriate performance measures that do not build capacity or trust.

 A 2014 study of teacher workload in Alberta (Reflections on Teaching: Teacher Efficacy and the Professional Capital of Alberta Teachers) explored the question: “What factors affect teachers’ sense of efficacy and ability to achieve a work–life balance during the school year?” In this study, teachers’ highs and lows were reported in four categories: Personal, Pupil, Practice, and Policy: (1) Personal related to their lives outside school, such as family support, personal relationships and health-related issues; (2) Pupil related to factors associated with pupils, such as pupil-intake characteristics, pupil attitudes and motivations, pupil behavior, and teacher–pupil relationships; (3) Practice related to factors embedded in teachers’ workplaces, support from management and staff, teachers’ additional roles and responsibilities, promotion, workload, and the quality of professional development opportunities; and, (4) Policy related to external policy agendas, such as educational policies, and government initiatives and changes.

 Under the Personal category, “health” was a frequently cited factor. On the positive side, participants reported that having time to go to the gym, sleep, and maintain a regular fitness routine helped them remain energetic and capable of handling workload challenges. On the negative side, being exhausted or burned out, neglecting health routines, and staying up late to catch up on work resulted in a loss of energy, difficulty in managing workloads and meeting students’ needs effectively, and an inability to meet obligations at home. Participants who were ill or injured due to factors unrelated to workload still felt the pressure to carry out their responsibilities at school.

 In the Pupil category, participants cited student achievement, student engagement, and positive interactions with students as sub-factors that most influenced their high points. Conversely, participants reported their low points were influenced by such sub-factors as lack of student achievement, student disengagement, student misbehavior, poor student attendance, and negative teacher–student interactions.

 With respect to Practice, sub-factors frequently associated with high points were “time for teamwork and collaboration” and “time for collegial interactions.” The sub-factors most frequently associated with low points in this same category were “lack of time” and “having too much to do on one’s own.”

 Alberta teachers spent little time discussing Policy as a contributing factor in their efficacy. This is surprising, because Alberta teachers have experienced many recent policy changes. Policies designed to reorganize curriculum, assessment and high school funding, and the end of AISI funds are but a few policy changes and initiatives we have had to navigate. Teachers are concerned with doing the best job they possibly can and generally see no role in influencing policy. Thus policy becomes a moot point that has little impact on their sense of efficacy.

 Teachers cite teamwork and collaboration as most important to their sense of efficacy. By teamwork and collaboration, participants meant: (1) having positive relationships with and receiving support from colleagues; (2) working as a team with the administration, other teachers and educational assistants; (3) feeling welcomed into the school; and, (4) having the opportunity to share knowledge with colleagues by participating in collaborative professional development.

 Under teamwork and collaboration, teachers clearly wished to engage in course development and innovation. They desired: (1) support from colleagues in trying new approaches to teaching and assessment and (2) allotted time to revise or develop new course materials, either in collaboration with a colleague or alone. These findings speak to the type of professional environment teachers need to be effective. They need a school climate where risk-taking is embraced and supported. They need flexibility to meet with colleagues to confer about promising practices. They need space to develop processes, protocols and materials to meet the needs of the students in their charge.

 For Alberta teachers, work intensification is real. The teacher workload study’s findings suggested classroom composition is changing and teachers do not feel supported or feel they have little flexibility or control. These overarching shifts are shown to have negative impacts on teachers’ well-being and sense of efficacy.

 Specific findings of note suggest that almost 50% of Alberta’s teachers do not feel the public values or respects the teaching profession. Generally teachers feel they lack control and autonomy, specifically in professional development. About 60 % of Alberta’s teachers are dissatisfied with their workload and hours. Almost half (45 %) of Alberta’s teachers have missed a day of work as a result of fatigue. To make accepted and beneficial changes to teaching and learning conditions, teachers must be involved in change. However, communication and trust must be reestablished before true collaboration can occur. Only 50 % of Alberta’s teachers said teaching brings them satisfaction (down 14% since 2011), while more than 33% would change professions for similar pay and benefits.


Part Three: Building Ideas for Changing the System and Building Professional Capital

 If one accepts these statistics as just the way things are and will always be, they paint a bleak picture of teaching as a profession. However, our point here is that, if we can increase teacher efficacy, we can also change our profession from the ground up. Our research done with teachers over the last 15 years (what we have seen, heard, and found) leads us to believe that Hargreaves and Fullan are onto something: it is possible that teachers, building upon their own capital, can also build an efficacious profession. However, the task of becoming an efficacious profession cannot be taken lightly. In the United States, teacher efficacy is eroding. Canada differs, but we cannot rest upon that difference. Current conditions in Alberta demand that we pay closer attention to teacher efficacy and support and protect it at all costs. We believe teachers must work together to build the profession from the ground up. But how?

In this section, we will propose seven ways to shape the system to build the professional capital of teachers. These seven ways include: (1) Work towards a shared vision. (2) Work in partnership – collaborate. (3) Share leadership. (4) Work to build a common language. (5) Work in iterative and adaptive ways. (6) Make work simple and transparent. And, (7) Keep work rigorous – make work about something.

#1: Work towards a shared vision

How do teachers build shared vision? First, they think to change the largely isolating and individualistic culture of teaching by building collaborative groups and inviting everyone to become active members. Second, teachers need to talk more to each other as a way to gain shared understanding. Third, the good ideas teachers have must be collected and shared with others. Such expertise already lives amongst teachers, now the task is to garner and shape it into something useful. Ideas must be considered; common goals must be identified and articulated. We must work towards a clear understanding of our common purposes and the different ways we might seek them. Finally, when teachers talk, they should focus upon foundational goals – students at the center, success for all, equity as primary.

 #2: Work in partnership – collaborate.

Teachers should think to create safe, conversational spaces. As we have found in our own research, because people respond more to pull than to push, whenever possible, discuss only the positive and simply ignore the negative. Talking about the negative aspects of schooling – of which there can be many – simply seems to push teachers towards cynicism. Thus, talk about what works – not what doesn’t. Part of what works is to plan that things will work: in short, willfully accept that plans will work: then, work towards the collective vision of what such success looks like. Finally, teachers should celebrate little victories; and, realize that there are many little victories. Celebrations of small wins must be planned and pointed out consistently throughout the school year.

#3: Share leadership

 Our previous research on instructional leadership (Parsons & Beauchamp, 2013) suggests that the principal is the most important person in the school. How the principal works really does impact everyone else. Thus, we ask principals to build leadership that articulates a collective improvement vision. With leadership comes being a role model who engages, mobilizes, supports, and sustains – who does not give up. Leadership exhibits good behavior. Leadership identifies roles and tasks and builds resource capacity. Leadership makes sure best practices are shared and lessons learned are leveraged. Finally, leadership organizes and hosts celebrations.

 #4: Work to build a common language

 Because language is value, building a shared language encourages understanding, recognition, and focus. A shared language engages and mobilizes. Shared language lands on the right message — and announces that message locally and widely. Shared language builds stories about progress, and creates myth and ethos.

 #5: Work in iterative and adaptive ways

 With the success of AISI in Alberta, we found action research to be a worthwhile focus for teacher collaboration. Action research plans, tries, talks, and re-engages tasks. It is iterative and adaptive; it builds upon what was learned. Action research engages an iterative cycle that improves how things are done. An iterative cycle builds collective knowledge of what works. An iterative cycle is rigorous. An iterative cycle learns to focus clearly on the process, the people, the change, the results, and the values. And, finally, an iterative cycle creates and uses it own evidence to build models, create ownership, and foster engagement. These descriptions of iterative cycles build a framework for measuring the adaptive capacity of a school.

 #6: Make work simple and transparent

 Simplicity and transparency keep objectives and processes visual, so benefits and issues remain clear. Simplicity and transparency help keep things on time, effective, and understood. Simplicity and transparency help shape goals. Simplicity and transparency keep the path clear and promote honesty.

 #7: Keep work rigorous – about something.

 Rigorous work is transparentas it seeks and measures improvement. Rigorous work focuses on accountability. Rigorous work identifies meaningful and discernible outcomes. Rigorous work asks what difference have we made and tells us how we know.

 Finally, as a profession, we leave the reader with one message. Our research and experience leave us with the single belief that the best way to build teacher efficacy is to together create conditions where teachers can be work together effectively.


If you have thoughts about this essay and wish to share, please email jim.parsons@ualberta.ca or jean.stiles@epsb.ca .

 Articles are always welcome at the Canadian Journal for Teacher Research. Please send them to jim.parsons@ualberta.ca

 See Andy Hargreaves, Dustin Bajer and Jean Stiles discuss some of these issues at http://www.teacherresearch.ca/video/watch/5NQMx0cf8MPmyGE45lr6pd



 Alberta Teachers Association (2014). Reflections on Teaching: Teacher Efficacy and the Professional Capital of Alberta Teachers. Edmonton, Alta: ATA. Also available at www.teachers.ab.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/ ATA/Publications/Research/

 Hargreaves, A. & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

 Klassen, R., Parsons, J. Beauchamp, L., Durksen, T.; & Taylor, L. (2014) Exploring the Development of Teacher Efficacy Through Professional Learning Experiences. ATA: Edmonton, AB.

 Leana, C. R. (2011). The missing link in school reform. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 9(4), 30-35.