What Will School Look Like this Fall? How to Support Your Teacher Community

By Shira Loewenstein and Shira Horowitz

As coaches who support teacher leaders in the Teacher Leader Fellowship program at Brandeis University we like the rest of the world, have had to think of new ways to support these teacher leaders through the sudden closure of schools, shift to distance learning, and required social distancing. Our experience working with dozens of Jewish day schools has highlighted the importance of intentional teacher communities. These communities where teachers take time to learn together, share their practice, and problem solve mirror the best practices of classroom communities, with norms and structures that allow for open communication and trust. 

We have seen a wide range of responses to teaching through unprecedented times. Some teachers have been  able to take this new platform and create meaningful learning experiences for their students, using a new toolbox that they have had to acquire without preparation. Others have struggled  to maintain the level of learning that their students are accustomed to and still others have struggled to even connect. So too is the case with teaching communities. We have seen adult learning communities thrive into places of true support where teachers work together in a collaborative (although distant) fashion, we have seen communities emerge from sheer need for connection, and we have seen communities fade away from a lack of communication. Maintaining the community of adults is vital to the success of teachers in their classrooms.  

Picture this: A teacher who’s never used Zoom in her life needs to pivot to on-line learning overnight. After years of experience she knows how to teach “with her eyes closed,” but suddenly her prepared lessons and units seem useless and her teaching instincts seem irrelevant. One of her students who has always been cheerful and engaged in class “disappears” on-line, and she wonders how to connect with her. Another child bursts into tears and she has no way to understand what is really going on outside of his screen. She can mute her students and keep them quiet, but silence is not really what she values. As she heads back into school this fall, she is questioning all that she knows and wonders what will be relevant in her new classroom.

Where does this teacher turn for support? What kind of pre-existing culture in a school makes it more likely that teachers can admit vulnerability and reach out to colleagues and coaches for support? How can administrators, teacher leaders, coaches and mentors support teachers in school communities that do not already have this culture?

Over the past few months, we have seen teaching communities fall into a few different categories. In the chaos of 2020, where we often have no idea what day or month it is, we have chosen to use the famous Passover metaphor of the four children to help us categorize them.

The Wise Teaching Community

“Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.”
Pirkei Avot

A wise teaching community is one where teachers are vulnerable with one another, willing to share successes and failures. These teachers are interested in asking questions about how to improve their practice. They listen and learn from their peers and try new things. To foster this community teachers need to have a common goal, a focus and a direction. A school must develop a shared space with norms, goals for measurable improvement and a focus to help teachers develop a community where they can truly learn with and from one another.

The value of creating a community of learners amongst a faculty has proven important during this time when teachers are not physically in the same space. 

If you have already worked to create this kind of community, then the challenge right now is how to maintain it. Teachers have been under tremendous stress in their personal as well as their professional lives, and when school resumes in the fall there will be new pressures. It is easy to forget how vital it is to maintain a teacher community. Teachers need one another to continue to improve their practice and reflect on the needs of their students. Members of these teaching communities can benefit from asking themselves “how”: How did we do this before, and how will we keep up our goals moving forward? How will we create systems that continue to push us to do our best in this current reality? 

The Wicked Teaching Community

“Keep far from an evil neighbor, do not befriend a wicked person.”
Pirkei Avot

While we don’t believe there are truly wicked teaching communities there is definite evidence of toxic ones. Here, teachers use their time together to complain, gripe, bemoan their situation and students. These conversations have famously taken place at the copying machine, lunch room or in the hallways where teachers informally congregate to complain. In a time where adult interaction is limited either these conversations are not happening at all, or teachers are using their limited time to lament about their new normal.

Waiting for someone to help or some external factor to change is the hallmark of this teaching community. These teachers know that there are problems  but they are looking for the ‘other’ to come and fix it. “If only this student wasn’t in my class,” they think. “If only I had more prep time,” or “if only the platform was free from glitches,” everything would be better. The blame is always elsewhere and surrounding oneself with similar minded teachers only creates a loop of despair.

If your teaching community is stuck in this cycle there is still hope. Something needs to break this cycle and help the community members understand that they can act together to improve their own situation. Members of these teaching communities can benefit from asking themselves: “What can I do to improve my own situation? With teamwork, a shared vision for what they want to be true and a little grit, a wicked community can be transformed into a productive one. As a leader, your role here might be to provide a new structure for the time teachers spend together, one that deliberately guides teachers towards a more productive conversation.

The Simple Teaching Community

“How good and pleasant it is for people to sit together.”
Psalm 133

The simple teaching community is one where teachers share no more than the surface level. They might share a resource, give some advice but their collaboration does not extend any further. These are communities based on learning but they are simple and unidimensional. These teaching communities might meet regularly, they are helping teachers to connect, but they have the potential to be so much more and so much deeper. 

A simple teaching community has the basis to transform into a wise one. They have willing participants and probably have time set aside to collaborate. To enhance the level of discourse, simple communities might start by asking themselves ‘why.’ “This new platform really worked well for my students, I wonder why.” This will elevate the conversations from just the practical into something more meaningful.

Your teachers can observe one another or share student work using a structured protocol. You can provide the opportunity for teachers to delve into these deeper conversations as they share their expertise and focus their discourse on student learning.

The community who does not know how to ask

“Someone who studies on one’s own cannot be compared to the one who learns from a teacher.”
Ketubot 111a

The teaching communities who do not know how to ask are teaching communities that don’t exist. In these schools, teachers work alone.  These teachers might be friendly and congenial but they do not know how to speak to one another as colleagues. In a time where there aren’t even accidental conversations, these teachers are truly operating as independent individuals. This leads to teacher isolation, repetition of hard work, and missed learning and collaboration.

In a school where teachers do not know how to ask, the first step is to make sure there is a consistent opportunity for teacher interaction. It can be simply gathering in a (virtual) room to build community and might evolve into a regular meeting to share resources and highlight what is working. You can provide teachers the space to interact with one another which will slowly lead them to collaboration.

In the passover haggadah each of these children are seen as lone categories or prototypes. Here the parallel to teaching communities ends. We know that the categories of teaching communities are not so stark and are rather fluid. No single teaching community is a perfect model of any of these children, since each one has  elements of wisdom, wickedness, and simpleness as well as silence. Wherever your teaching community is now, it can move to a place that is more productive and conducive to teacher learning and support with a little more intentionality and planning.

So now after living through a pandemic, switching everything onto zoom and planning to reopen with a different model in the fall we return to what we have always believed: a strong school community is not only something we build for students, but also for teachers. Teachers who are accustomed to being in a learning community together will be able to support each other as they work to improve their instruction under any circumstances. Creating communities where teachers truly learn together requires trust and boundaries in a culture where inquiry and questions are valued above having all the answers. We know all of this is true for our students – as teachers we live and breathe it every day – but we must remember that it is equally true for the teachers who need one another to continue to learn and improve their own practice.

Right now, resources are tight and time is short. It would be easy to think that a teaching community is a bonus that can wait until we get more essential “basics” in place. We are all treading water, and fostering teacher collaboration may not feel like a priority. But keeping the teacher community afloat is essential to creating successful learning environments for our children.

As you plan for the upcoming school year, what structures will you set up to foster and support your teacher community?

Shira Loewenstein and Shira Horowitz are both coaches for the Teacher Leader Fellowship program at Brandeis University. Shira and Shira have worked together teaching children and teachers, in person and online, for almost two decades. Despite their physical distance, they work together regularly to help Jewish day schools improve.