By Steve Cantrell
Every teacher has strengths and weaknesses—so what happens when teachers who are weak in some areas pair with teachers who are strong in those areas to share their skills? Findings from an initiative developed by the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) suggest that when teachers work together, everybody wins—and grows.
Researchers from Brown University and Harvard University worked with Tennessee’s Jackson-Madison County School System to study the state’s Instructional Partnership Initiative, which partners teachers in pairs to work together and improve. In half of the district’s schools, TDOE and the researchers identified teachers who scored below 3 (on a scale of 1 to 5) in a certain skill area (or areas) on their previous year’s evaluation and matched each of them with another teacher who scored a 4 or above on that skill. The principals were given this information, finalized the matches, and introduced the partners.
The teachers were given the choice to participate in the program, and many did. “I thought I would get great feedback and great ideas to help my classroom,” said one participant. Other teachers saw the program as an opportunity to build their leadership skills: “I chose to participate in the program to gain experience… and to dig deeper into the evaluation process to help me prepare for a future coach or administrative position.”
At the beginning of the school year, the paired teachers set goals for their partnership and created their own plans for how they would work together. “They could collaborate when it was comfortable for them,” explained one principal. “Instead of giving them a schedule, they worked it out among themselves [when] to go into each other’s classrooms.”
This flexible, teacher-driven model helped the pairs take ownership over their collaborative process and made it more authentic for the teachers. “I like that we’re paired with co-workers rather than supervisors. It makes people more receptive to ideas,” reported one teacher. “I’ve built a relationship with a colleague I haven’t known before and have learned some new things too,” said another.
In addition to the positive feedback on the program, researchers found that it seemed to strengthen the lower-performing teachers’ practice. Students taught by the teachers who partnered with a more-skilled peer scored higher than the average student taught by less-skilled teachers in the control schools.
And many of the more-skilled teachers benefited from the program, too. “I think some of the teachers that were maybe struggling in some areas found that they were able to offer things back,” said one principal. “So it became what it was designed to be: a partnership, and not a top-down kind of administrative thing.” And in the words of a teacher: “My partner and I both have different strengths. We can both learn more from each other.
Learning from one another is what this experiment is all about—and it could be the key to supporting teachers’ professional growth. “This program is an example of a low-cost intervention that drives what teachers are doing and how we can make them more effective,” said Dr. John Papay, one of the researchers who led the study.
As the state continues to develop the program, it also is aiming to pinpoint what makes it effective. “What we’re doing with this program over the next couple of years is trying it in different places and trying to learn when it works,” said Nate Schwartz, Chief Research and Strategy Officer for the Tennessee Department of Education. “We want to learn about teacher collaboration, specifically around the evaluation process, and how we can help support the conditions where this actually leads to genuine classroom improvement.”
As the program grows and more teachers pair up around the state, the words of one principal ring truer than ever: “Teaching is an art, not a science. All of my teachers have natural ability, and I want them to figure out the best way to utilize that.”