Schools have garnered a lot of attention of late. What to say to students, what not to say to students, the choice of textbooks, and school violence are just a few of the topics that educators see each day on social media feeds and in the news. While each issue is compelling, teachers may be left feeling overwhelmed, powerless, or wondering what to do next. Since most of us aren’t in positions to make policies, the question becomes…
What can teachers do to maintain focus on teaching and learning?
Teachers can start by bolstering their own sense of efficacy. We can focus on what’s occurring within our own classrooms, which reinforces our beliefs that we can positively impact student learning and well-being. This is self-efficacy. However, self-efficacy is the first step in a process that results in high levels of achievement for every student in the school.
Ensuring a school environment where socioeconomic status, current performance levels, or family background do not predict students’ outcomes requires us to take our views of teaching and learning a step farther. There is a need to widen the aperture such that the focus includes the beliefs in one’s individual abilities (self-efficacy) and extends to the pooled abilities that emerge when we operate as a collective. This is collective teacher efficacy.
Basically, collective teacher efficacy is a teacher team’s shared belief that by working together, they foster high student achievement across a school in ways that individuals cannot. It’s been well-documented that teams with a high sense of collective teacher efficacy have a strong likelihood of positively impacting student learning. In fact, collective teacher efficacy is the #1 influence on student learning (Hattie, n.d).
Collective teacher efficacy doesn’t just happen. Rather, it occurs when particular conditions are established by teams of educators who set, collaborate towards, and attain shared goals related to teaching and learning. During this process, the team’s sense of empowerment increases and stronger social cohesion between team members elicits a sense of collective teacher efficacy.
Understanding the definition of collective teacher efficacy is one thing, but educators often wonder how to make this happen with their teams, given the range of individuals we work with in schools. Collective efficacy doesn’t just exist in education: it’s everywhere. Think about your own family system: your extended family gathers for a 4th of July celebration at your house. There’s planning so that people know what to bring, whether it’s the sides, drinks, and dessert, because you’re going provide the hamburgers and hot dogs. However, people don’t come to your house on the 4th of July for the meal; they come for the experience. They come seeking deeper connections with each other. Enjoying burgers together is a bonus. What people remember will remain long after that day, and why they’ll continue to gather, is because of the feelings they have while they’re together.
It’s the same way with our school teams, but often we don’t plan for success. We may meet and discuss how our students did on a recent assessment, but we don’t plan to deeply engage with each other to identify and address underlying issues and barriers that impede learning. In other words, it’s like everyone shows up on the 4th of July with a pasta salad. Instead of being proactive with planning and communication, we leave that experience to chance and react in the moment (often by running to the grocery store and being irritated by the long lines). The quality of our experience is impacted by our failure to plan and communicate.
Instead, we can make our time in PLC’s more productive and efficient by planning for success. By being proactive, we enjoy the meeting experience more deeply and are more motivated to engage in the next one. And when we plan to identify and address student learning needs as a team, everyone has a better learning experience at school. A Collective Efficacy Cycle is one way educator teams can plan for success.
A Collective Efficacy Cycle is a process for addressing student learning needs that typically lasts 6-8 weeks. By engaging in this process, PLC+ Question #4: What Did We Learn Today? is addressed. The Cycle is composed of the following 5 steps:
Step 1: Identify a Common Challenge
The PLC+ team reviews student learning data, such as a pre-assessment, and determines a common challenge. The common challenge is the one mutual need that each teacher on the team commits to addressing throughout the cycle. This is powerful for two reasons: 1). teachers act right away by implementing a new strategy with students; and 2) they have something in common to discuss at each PLC+ meeting. These provide focus and direction for the PLC+ team.
Step 2: Build Knowledge and Skills
Based upon the common challenge, the PLC+ team builds their knowledge and skills as a collective. This means that in addition to discussing the common challenge, teachers also learn about and discuss the mutual strategy being implemented to address students’ needs. Teams may read, watch a video, and/or think-aloud about an evidence-based strategy during their PLC+ time. Professional learning, such as this, is often more beneficial for teachers than a “one and done” PD event that feels removed from teachers’ realities.
Step 3: Safe Practice
During the Safe Practice phase, PLC+ teams implement the mutually selected strategy in their classrooms multiple times. This gives each teacher several opportunities to practice the strategy, adjusting as necessary to ensure student learning. This phase is called Safe Practice so teachers can practice without fear that they’ll be observed by an administrator or other colleagues. Teachers need many opportunities to practice because we don’t get good at something by just trying it once or twice. Safe Practice typically lasts for two weeks and offers time for teachers to get comfortable implementing the strategy.
Step 4: Opening Up Practice
The next phase of the Collective Efficacy Cycle is called Opening Up Practice because we open our doors to teacher colleagues to observe the strategy in action. Observations are scheduled in advance so that the teacher being observed determines when the observation will occur and what feedback they’re looking for. Importantly, we ‘open up practice’ with intention. During this phase, each teacher on the PLC+ team observes a colleague and is observed by a colleague. Again, when we proactively plan for success, we’re more likely to ensure a good experience.
Step 5: Monitor, Measure and Modify
Throughout the Collective Efficacy Cycle, teachers monitor students’ learning and actively remove barriers that hinder progress. In so doing, students and teachers feel successful. As the Cycle ends, teacher teams reflect upon their students’ learning, as well as their own learning as individuals and as a team. A critical aspect of the Cycle that shouldn’t be missed are the acknowledgements and celebrations of learning—at all levels. Teachers want to know that they’ve make a difference in the lives of their students—throughout the year, not just on Teacher Appreciation Day. By engaging in this process, we can link teachers’ efforts to students’ learning all year long.
We’re not advocating for teachers to work harder, because we believe we already work hard. Instead, we advocate for teachers to work smarter by planning for success. By proactively creating the conditions for efficient and effective PLC+ meetings, teacher teams increase the chances that collective teacher efficacy will emerge. The Collective Efficacy Cycle offers one way for teachers and schools to shift from isolated professional development events to creating cultures where professional learning is expected, received, and valued. In so doing, students benefit, and teams are able to answer PLC+ Question #4: What Did We Learn Today? By planning for success, students and teachers succeed.