When I did my student teaching I was told both by university professors and by my mentor teachers that once I had my own classroom, I could close my door and basically do whatever I wanted. At most, they said, my class might be observed by the principal a couple times each year. This was true for me, and it was true for my mentor teachers who started in the profession decades before me. Unfortunately, despite great improvements in education today, it is still too much the case that teachers are on their own to develop their skills and meet student needs.
I am more confident than ever that we can change this aspect of the professional teaching culture because we have the practical and research bases needed for real change.
When teachers and administrators work together to improve student learning in a school building, they are building social capital, i.e. they are learning from one another and focusing their efforts in the same direction toward common goals. The benefits of social capital in schools have been well documented by Carrie Leana, a professor from the University of Pittsburg. Schools with teachers (however “great” they may be) who work in isolation (with their doors closed) are not as effective as teachers who work together toward common goals. Teachers in many other advanced nations have more time to work together than most American teachers who must spend much more time working directly with students. This, in part may explain the better education results in these other nations.
Over the last ten to fifteen years we have made some progress in developing social capital in teacher education and preparing teachers to work and learn together. In many preparation programs, including those at Portland State, our teacher candidates are enrolled in cohorts, in which students take all their classes and practicum experiences together and work jointly on projects. As much as we can, we also cluster small groups of four to eight student teachers in school buildings so they can create a learning team in the school along with their cooperating teachers. The clustering aspect of our program still needs a great deal of development, but we are making good progress.
Professional learning communities in schools, when run well, can profoundly enhance social capital and, thus student achievement. At PSU we are working with our P-12 school partners and other universities in the Metro area to find ways to build social capital among teacher candidates, P-12 teachers and administrators, and university faculty. Inertia (old ways of doing things) and lack of time and resources are among our challenges, but we believe we can find ways to use existing resources more efficiently and effectively to enable us to change the culture and build social capital in every school.
When I taught in elementary school I closed my door and did pretty much what I wanted. But, I often yearned for opportunities to learn from and work with my more experienced colleagues. I know I would have been a better teacher if the culture had promoted social capital and my students would have greatly benefitted.