This is a guest column by Dennis Sparks Emeritus Executive Director of the National Staff Development Council, now known as Learning Forward and author of many publications about education, including his outstanding book Leading for Results: Transforming Teaching, Learning, and Relationships in Schools.
In every highly-effective classroom we study, we find a teacher who, like any great leader rallies team members (in this case, students and their families) around an ambitious vision of success. . . . Without exception, these teachers define their role as doing whatever it takes to ensure their students’ success.
Sometimes it is the simple acts that are the most radical. That’s because their successful execution requires the most radical kind of learning — the development of new paradigms that affect how individuals view the world and the acquisition of understandings and skills that guide their actions in implementing the new paradigm. In this case, I’m thinking of teachers adopting a conceptual frame in which they view themselves as leaders of teams of students and their families and developing the knowledge and skills required to be successful team leaders.
In this new paradigm, teachers see themselves as leaders of cooperative student teams rather than as instructors of individual students who compete with one another for grades and their teacher’s attention. In such classrooms, all students and their families feel responsible for the success of every student and do everything in their power to ensure it. Teachers design meaningful, engaging academic work for student teams and explicitly teach their students essential interpersonal skills, including those of peer mediation and other group-based processes to settle disputes and address classroom discipline issues.
This radically different view of teaching requires that school leaders interact with teachers in new ways. Teacher performance evaluation would be less about a teacher’s “moves” and more about the quality of the academic work that teachers design for student teams and the strength of the teamwork displayed within their classrooms. Leaders would have frequent conversations with teachers about the features of meaningful, engaging academic work and the attributes of high-functioning teams. Formal professional learning would also address the understandings and skills required to design such student work and to lead classroom and family teams, among other topics.
In addition, if teachers are to be successful leaders of classroom teams, it is essential, I believe, that they themselves are active participants in strong, school-based collegial teams that have as their purpose the continuous improvement of teaching and learning. Through their own experiences with team-based learning teachers will better understand the challenges and benefits of meaningful teamwork and be motivated to ensure that those benefits are available to all members of the school community.
Viewing teachers as leaders responsible for the development of high-functioning classroom teams will in many schools be a radical departure from the traditional “sage on the stage” paradigm. It will require extensive learning by doing and sustained, substantive professional conversations within teacher teams and between teachers and their leaders. Such an approach—deeply embedded within the culture of schools—is in my view an example of “radical learning” at its best.