Editor’s Note: TESOL International Association has defined a core set of principles for the exemplary teaching and learning of English as a new language. The 6 Principles for Exemplary Teaching of English Learners are foundational, universal guidelines drawn from decades of research. They are for all educators who work with English learners, and should undergird any program of English language instruction.
In this post, Linda New Levine, a member of The 6 Principles writing team, discusses how teachers can implement Principle 6: Engage and Collaborate Within a Community of Practice. Visit www.the6principles.org to learn more about The 6 Principles.
Principle 6 calls on teachers to “engage and collaborate within a community of practice.” Teacher professional development is one way to promote such engagement and collaboration, and it can occur in a variety of ways. As a teacher I was involved in graduate courses, fly-in consultant workshops, and ongoing summer curriculum and textbook review, but none of them helped me develop and grow professionally as much as my collaboration with Mona.
Mona was the other elementary ESL teacher in my school district, and we brought different strengths to our collaborative pairing. She had trained and worked as an elementary teacher in the past. I had trained and worked at the middle school level. She preferred to learn in a social environment and consider big-picture topics. I worked incrementally, individually, and in sequential order.
Despite these differences, we were fast friends from the start. I had been in the district longer, and I welcomed the addition of new staff to handle the needs of our growing population of English learners. I shared everything with Mona to help her get started: school information, lesson plans, strategies, and materials. That first year, we even shared a classroom—a long narrow room where she taught at one end and I taught at the other. Our classes were scheduled during the same periods, so we had opportunities to observe each other teaching.
By watching and listening to each other’s lessons, we saw that we shared the same philosophy and, more importantly, had a great deal to learn from each other. We developed mutual respect and trust that proved to be the most essential elements in our long collaboration that followed.
We planned in the morning or after school, sharing strategies and asking for suggestions when problems arose. Because we taught in the same space, we often met in the center of the room after a class to celebrate a small success or talk about what we would do differently next time. Those miniconferences filled me with excitement.
Later I realized that the excitement arose from the shared experimentation Mona and I were conducting in terms of student learning. As the months passed, we developed the theory and practice necessary for English learners to succeed in our classes. Reading about theory in a graduate course or hearing about it from a consultant had never engaged me as profoundly as the experimentation I shared with Mona in our classroom.
Mona and I eventually moved into separate classrooms, and our student population grew. Later, she was assigned to a neighboring school, but our collaboration continued as we held monthly meetings to share teaching units and strategies. As a result of that continued collaboration, we applied for and received a grant to create our own ESL curriculum for the school district. Another grant enabled us to spend a month in Mexico improving our Spanish language skills. We also presented at the TESOL convention, sharing our curriculum and ideas about thematic teaching with other teachers.
As our district’s ESL staff grew, Mona and I modeled the kind of collaborative partnering that helped other ESL teachers adopt our form of professional development. This type of collegiality became the culture of our ESL department, and we all thrived on it.
My interest in professional development through teacher collaboration stems from a very personal experience, but my reading and research into this topic support everything I learned instinctively through my collaboration with Mona. I learned that true collaborative interdependence is rare among teachers (Little, 1990). We are often thought of as the “egg carton” profession because of the separation that exists in our professional experiences. Teachers work behind closed doors, rarely interacting with other professionals in their schools. This isolation is counterproductive to the development of a strong school culture and to the continuing professional development of teachers (Lacina, Levine, & Sowa, 2006).
But collaborations such as Mona’s and mine do not develop spontaneously. For strong, interdependent, collaborative bonds to develop, internal and external forces may be responsible. Mona and I were strongly motivated by the need to develop better programs for beginning readers in a competitive school climate where standardized testing was utilized for student placement and retention. Our internal motivations evolved from a shared dedication to students and a desire to see civil justice and academic success prevail for them and their families.
I also learned that interdependent collaborative teams operate under a different structure from traditional groups. Successful teams have increased frequency and intensity in their interactions and a higher probability for mutual influence. Collective judgments and decision making are the norm. These attributes were certainly characteristic of my first heady years of collaboration.
Successful collaborative groups have commonalities that promote reflective inquiry. Teachers in these groups develop norms for group work and communication skills that help “establish and maintain a safe and trusting environment and encourage group members to reexamine, clarify, and transform their thinking so they can help students succeed” (Langer, Colton, & Goff, 2003, p. 14).
The development of mutual trust and respect created a base that propelled Mona’s and my future learning and collaboration. How would we have developed that respect if we had never seen each other teach? How would we have developed trust if we had never shared our problems and asked each other for help? In the current challenging educational environment, we need the help and collective intelligences of our colleagues to ensure academic success for all learners.
Lacina, J., Levine, L. N., & Sowa, P. (2006). Helping English language learners succeed in pre-k–elementary schools. Alexandria, VA: TESOL.
Langer, G. M., Colton, A. B., & Goff, L. S. (2003). Collaborative analysis of student work. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Little, J. W. (1990). The persistence of privacy: Autonomy and initiative in teachers’ professional relations. Teachers College Record, 91, 508–536.
Rosenholtz, S. J. (1991). Teachers’ workplace: The social organization of schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.