Trust is key. Relational trust.

The professional respect that it fosters enables colleagues to question, and be questioned, and it is this questioning, and the reflection that it stimulates, which drives teacher development and improved student learning outcomes.

Effective education no longer happens in isolation, whether you find yourself in the classroom, or in leadership. Working alone, and without the input of colleagues, results in our impact being significantly diminished. There is an old saying, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’, and when you sit this beside another, ‘two heads are better than one’ then we are compelled to consider the imperative of educational teams, and the trust that underpins them, in our pursuit of sustained and improved learning outcomes for all.

When we talk of effective teams, we are talking about teams that exist at all levels across a school, teams that focus their attention on the impact their actions have on student learning and the innovations to teaching, and leading, that result in learning success.

The end game has always been student learning; more specifically, sustained and improved student learning outcomes. In a team environment, teachers are supported as they seek to find that pedagogical edge which will mean every student grows, achieving valued learning outcomes. So, how do we promote and sustain teacher collaboration so that it impacts learners?

As part of his ongoing meta-analysis into student achievement Hattie identified the teaching construct of collective teacher efficacy (Visible teaching, 2009). This sees teachers and leaders developing and committing to a shared aspiration, and expectation, that every child can succeed. Collective teacher efficacy has the greatest impact on student achievement and growth than any other action teachers, leaders or schools can take with an effect size of 1.57. This effect size is statistically significant, the equivalent of almost four years learning growth in one year.

The task ahead seems clear. Get teachers working together in teams that collaboratively reflect on the effectiveness of their practice and then use this knowledge to inform their next teaching step. For those of us who have spent any time in schools, or as part of any organisation for that matter, we know that this simple three-word phrase; collective teacher efficacy, is more easily said than done. Fortunately, there is a lot we now know about this high leverage influence on student learning success.

Once a school commits to developing collective teacher efficacy the first step is to consider the construct of an effective team. Questions worth asking include: What makes an effective team? What teams are already in place? What are teachers’ attitudes towards teams? How open are teachers to professional respectful, yet challenging, feedback from peers and leaders? What mindset do teachers currently have towards regarding the concept that all students can to attain valued outcomes? What structures are already in place that enable teachers to collectively reflect on the effectiveness of their teaching on student learning? What level of relational trust exists across the intended teams and the broader school?

When we talk about collective teacher efficacy, we are essentially talking about teams. The development of teams is no small thing, nor is it to be rushed. It requires careful planning and in its early phase, whole school dialogue that is designed to build understanding of the intent behind teacher teams and the benefits that teams can bring to teachers, as well as learners. This dialogue is time well spent, as commitment to the team’s concept is vital if it is to influence how teachers teach, and how effectively learners learn.

What makes a great team?

Whether we are talking about the educational sector, private business, the sporting sphere, all of which rely on the contribution of many to achieve a shared goal, trust is key, relational trust. The professional respect that it fosters enables colleagues to question, and be questioned, and it is this questioning, and the reflection that it stimulates, which drives teacher development and improved student learning outcomes.

An early milestone when developing teams is reaching agreement that no one knows everything, there is always something new to learn. The combined experience and knowledge that exists within a deep learning team, once relational trust is established, provides opportunity for ongoing teacher growth. Professional learning innovations are collectively supported as they transition from theory to practice, becoming a part of daily practice and teacher DNA. This teacher growth is based on the trialling of new strategies in a supportive environment where mistakes are accepted as part of any genuine learning cycle.

This collaborative inquiry into teaching effectiveness gives rise to evidence informed decision making as to the best pedagogical approach that will meet the identified needs of learners. This type of collaborative decision making is informative, and ultimately leads to increased teacher effectiveness. Through the development and effective engagement of teachers as part of deep learning teams, schools soon find themselves becoming true learning organisations where the identification of impact becomes the school’s operational default. In such an environment, educational conversations that are informed by evidence of student learning are out in the open and shared.

In Unfolding leadership through self-knowledge (2011) Oestreich defines the process of developing relational trust as the work before the work, necessary to build effective communication and relationships. Without it, we find team efficiency and effectiveness compromised. Trust can be a sensitive and emotional topic which is built slowly but can be eroded rapidly. However, in a team environment, it is trust that makes dialogue safer and more productive. Put simply, without trust there is no team, just a collection of individuals, a dominating voice or two, growing resentment due to time lost and little change in practice.

There are several aspects that must be remembered, and considered, when thinking relational trust:

  • It is feedback which lets people know where they fit and how they are going within their community. That feedback can be either deliberate and of positive intent, undermining and detrimental or inferred. Either way, feedback abounds as do individuals’ unique interpretations of them.
  • In teams where trust is high and feedback is commonplace among members, people feel connected, grounded, and engaged.
  • When people are open with one another, revealing themselves and some of their vulnerabilities, others can offer meaningful help. When trust is high, people can share honestly where they know they need to grow.
  • High trust groups use their differences to develop innovative approaches and create sound solutions to shared problems. Oestreich (2011)

For trust to develop, and for teachers to operate as a collective who view the learning success of all as a shared responsibility, every opportunity must be given to develop individual’s self-awareness of their behaviour, and contribution, as a member within their community. High trust levels cannot be forced. They are a matter of choice, invitation, and inspiration.

In Part 2 of the series, Towards collective teacher efficacy, we look more closely at what research has identified as the keys to effective teacher teams.

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