Abstract In most countries, teachers work in isolation with few opportunities to interact with supervisors or colleagues. This isolation can reduce teachers’ motivation, commitment, and effectiveness. Professional isolation also means that teachers receive few opportunities to grow professionally. In this essay, we identify teacher networks as a potential solution to these problems. After presenting the experience of an international network of teachers and researchers that involved over 200 teachers in the Bogotá School District, we conclude with reflections related to the establishment and support of successful teacher networks.
Key words (5-6): teacher isolation, teacher professional growth, teacher networks, Colombia, international collaboration
Thomas F. Luschei (corresponding author)
School of Educational Studies
Claremont Graduate University
150 E. 10th St. | Claremont, CA 91711 | USA
+1 909 607 3325
Thomas F. Luschei is an associate professor in the School of Educational Studies, Claremont Graduate University, California. His research interests include international and comparative education, the economics of education, teacher labor markets and teacher quality, teacher-related policies in Latin America and the United States, and the global applications of Colombia’s Escuela Nueva rural school improvement model.
School of Educational Studies
Claremont Graduate University
150 E. 10th St. | Claremont, CA 91711 | USA
+1 909 607 3325
Giselle Navarro is a graduate student in the School of Educational Studies, Claremont Graduate University, California. Her research interests include international childcare, quality and access to early childhood care and education in the United States, parental and children’s funds of knowledge, and Latino families’ childcare choices.
Introduction-Why are teacher networks important?
In his groundbreaking sociological study of the teaching profession in the United States, Dan Lortie observed that teaching is one of the most isolating jobs of all. According to Lortie, this is particularly true for beginning teachers:
The cellular organization of schools constrains the amount and type of interchange possible; beginning teachers spend most of their time physically apart from colleagues. Beginners receive more supervisory attention from principals and others, but even where the school system can afford the best of such assistance, it rarely amounts to more than a few hours a month. Since the beginner spends so much of his time away from other adults, it falls upon him to discern problems, consider alternative solutions, make a selection, and after acting, assess the outcome (Lortie, 1977, p. 72).
Unfortunately, much of what Lortie wrote in the 1970s remains true today, in the United States and across the world. In most countries, teachers work all day by themselves in classrooms with children or adolescents and have very little interaction with adult colleagues or supervisors. This arrangement results in two distinct but related problems. First, teachers receive little support or encouragement from others and have few opportunities to learn from each other. This isolation can negatively affect teachers’ motivation and commitment, which may lead to reduced effectiveness and ultimately, teacher attrition. Second, professional isolation also means that teachers receive few opportunities to grow professionally and improve their practice.
A few countries offer promising exceptions to the common pattern of teacher isolation and limited professional growth. In Japan, the practice of “lesson study” addresses both of these problems by encouraging teachers to work together collaboratively to critically examine each other’s practice and to offer support and advice for improvement. Teachers’ professional growth is so firmly embedded in the Japanese education system that teachers spend a far greater percentage of their time engaged in professional development than teachers in many other education systems (Akiba & LeTendre, 2009).
Another promising practice in many education systems is the use of classroom action research, in which teachers engage in research activities to identify problems in their practice and design interventions to improve teaching and learning in their classrooms. Evidence suggests that participation in action research projects can help teachers to improve their practice and experience substantial professional growth. For example, Rock and Levin (2002) found that teachers in the US state of North Carolina who took part in action research reported having a greater appreciation for focused inquiry, analysis, reflection, and collaboration. In cases where research projects are collaborative—involving two or more teachers working on related teaching and learning problems—classroom action research can also ameliorate the problems of teacher isolation and low motivation.
Although lesson study and classroom action research provide important solutions to the problems of teacher isolation and professional growth, they both require commitment and resources from schools and districts to ensure their success. Lesson study in Japan requires that participating teachers receive release time to leave their own classrooms and observe their colleagues teaching. For the most part, action research also requires that time and other resources—especially research training and support—be provided by schools, districts, local universities, or other sources.
What about education systems where these types of support and resources are not available? In such situations, teachers can look to a third alternative to address their isolation and lack of professional growth opportunities: teacher networks. If planned and executed well, teacher networks can provide collegial support, advice, and rich opportunities for professional growth (Hargreaves et al., 2015; Pennell & Firestone, 1996). As Lieberman and McLaughlin (1992) observed:
Teachers choose to become active in collegial networks because they afford occasion for professional development and colleagueship and reward participants with a renewed sense of purpose and efficacy. Networks offer a way for teachers to experience growth in their careers through deepened and expanded classroom expertise and new leadership roles (p. 674).
In this essay, we describe the experience of an international network of teachers and researchers that involved over 200 teachers in the Bogotá School District and eight international educational scholars. This project was significant because it addressed both issues of teacher isolation and professional growth. Even more importantly, the formal culmination of the project led to an important initiative by participating teachers to develop an ongoing teacher network, the Red Distrital de Docentes Investigadores (RDDI). After describing the initial Bogotá project, successes, and lessons learned, we conclude with reflections related to the future work of RDDI and other teacher networks.
The Bogotá Advisory Project: Operation and Lessons Learned
The International Research-to-Practice Advisory Network (IRPAN) began at the end of 2013 through conversations between the Secretariat of Education of the District of Bogotá (SED Bogotá) and a visiting Fulbright scholar from the United States (the lead author of this article). The district had embarked on an ambitious project to train over 4,000 practicing public school teachers through the provision of scholarships to earn master’s degrees and doctorates in 16 of Bogotá’s top universities. The Secretariat envisioned that these scholarships would provide rich opportunities for the city’s teachers to learn the latest research in their areas of concentration, to develop knowledge and experience in relevant research practices, and to conduct research that led them to examine and improve their teaching practice. These scholarships were designed to lead to improvement in the skills and knowledge of Bogotá’s teachers, which would contribute directly to increased learning of children in Bogotá’s public schools.
Teachers pursing their master’s degrees with support from the Secretariat worked directly with advisors at their universities to develop research proposals and conduct research projects that they would develop into master’s theses. While each of the 16 universities had its own requirements and objectives for the master’s theses, the Secretariat’s objective was clear: to increase student learning through research-based improvement of teaching practice. Toward this end, the Secretariat established IRPAN to ensure that teachers’ research examined and improved their practice, using empirical examination of their teaching and relating it to student learning.
The design and operation of IRPAN involved collaboration across SED Bogotá, the Fundación Escuela Nueva Volvamos a la Gente (FEN), Claremont Graduate University, and eight international educational scholars from across North and South America. The objective of the project was to improve and make more relevant teacher research and to strengthen student-advisor relations through the support of international educational scholars. To accomplish this objective, IRPAN advisors provided initial guidelines to develop a research-based plan to translate teachers’ thesis research into classroom practice and advised teachers on the development and implementation of a 5-page “research-to-practice” memo that was required of all participating teachers.
The more than 200 Bogotá teachers participating in IRPAN represented a diverse set of schools, grades, classroom contexts, university training, and research topics. Teachers’ research related to, among many other topics, physical education, early childhood education, science and math education, citizenship education, gender in education, public policy, educational technology, language and literacy, and environmental education. However, the design of IRPAN required that each of these teachers be placed in an advisory group with one of only eight international advisors. Although advisors represented a diverse set of research expertise and experiences and offered substantial advice related to translating research into action, they could not offer expertise in each of the research areas pursued by the teachers. For this reason, the advice and support of the teachers’ university thesis supervisors was critical. The work of the IRPAN advisors was provided in parallel and to complement the advising given to teachers by their thesis supervisors.
In general, participating teachers found the IRPAN project to be important and valuable. Seventy-seven percent of teachers who successfully completed the project reported that they would recommend the experience to colleagues and 90% reported that they had a positive experience. However, teachers expressed a desire to have further support as they began implementing and evaluating changes in their practice. As a result, a group of teachers who had participated in IRPAN established a network to support their work going forward, the RDDI.
Reflections on Establishing and Supporting Teacher Networks
Although the IRPAN project faced several important challenges, evaluations by participating teachers made clear that the collaborative work they had engaged in with other teachers and international education scholars provided important opportunities for collegiality, support, and professional growth. The RDDI was established to continue the collegial nature of the project. As of the time of this writing, this network has over 500 practicing teachers representing a diverse group of subjects and teaching contexts. Working with the support of SED Bogotá and FEN, this network has embarked on important and groundbreaking work that will serve as an important example for teachers across the globe.
To be successful going forward, we recommend that RDDI members refer to lessons from their practical experience with IRPAN, as well as scholarly literature, for important guidance. In our opinion, the IRPAN experience provided two key lessons: first, there was a high degree of attrition from start to finish. While more than 200 teachers initially enrolled, fewer than 100 completed their final projects. This speaks to the many competing demands faced by classroom teachers, including work, school, and families. Leaders of teacher networks must recognize that teachers have challenging and complicated lives outside of their professional work, and they must identify ways to support the lives and work of teachers. Second, the RDDI emerged organically, from the initiative of the teachers themselves. This illustrates the tremendous power that teachers have as a collective, power that can help teachers to improve teaching and learning, as well as the educational and social conditions they find in their schools.
In terms of the scholarly literature, Lieberman and McClaughlin (1992) offer a set of common features of successful teacher networks: focus of activity, a variety of activities, creation of “discourse communities” that encourage intellectual exchange, and leadership opportunities for participating teachers. And although teacher networks provide a clear and powerful way to address the problems of teacher isolation and professional growth, Lieberman and McClaughlin point out that network members must be aware of problems that can weaken their success. These include the quality of related innovations, limited application to classroom practice, overextension into excessive objectives, weak ownership by teachers over goals and activities, rigid or hierarchical leadership, insufficient evaluation, and weakly articulated goals. Finally, and most importantly, Lieberman and McLaughlin point out that “the context in which educational change is pursued is everything” (p. 677). In other words, a teacher network in Bogotá will and should look very different from a teacher network in the United States or Japan. The members of the RDDI should look to their own teaching and learning contexts to generate organic and authentic solutions to ensure the best possible education for Bogotá’s youth. We wish them the best as they undertake this incredibly important work.
Akiba, M. & LeTendre, G. (2009). Improving teacher quality: The U.S. teaching force in global context. New York: Teachers College Press.
Hargreaves, A., Parsley, D., & Cox, E. K. (2015). Designing Rural School Improvement Networks: Aspirations and Actualities. Peabody Journal of Education, 90(2), 306-321.
Lieberman, A., & McLaughlin, M. W. (1992). Networks for educational change: Powerful and problematic. Phi Delta Kappan, 73(9), 673-677.
Lortie, D. C. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Pennell, J., & Firestone, W. (1996). Changing classroom practices through teacher networks: Matching program features with teacher characteristics and circumstances. The Teachers College Record, 98(1), 46-76.
Rock, T. C., & Levin, B. B. (2002). Collaborative action research projects: enhancing preservice teacher development in professional development schools. Teacher Education Quarterly, 29(1), 7-21.