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05/11/92

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What makes a good teaching community?

"Strong professional communities of teachers, by themselves, are not always a good thing," according to Stanford University education Prof. Milbrey McLaughlin, director of the Center for Research on the Context of Secondary Teaching. In some cases, she warned, "shared beliefs can support shared delusions."

For example, one mathematics department was strong and collegial, McLaughlin said.

"But the teachers were absolutely united around one notion: Their kids are stupid," she said.

What makes the difference between a teaching community that will encourage student success and support strong teaching practices, and one that won't? McLaughlin outlined several guidelines to look for:

  • nVision. Developing a vision can "invigorate a department and lead not only to changed practices but to improved faculty relations," McLaughlin said. She cited a "vital English department that drew energy and focus from a collective concern for writing."
  • Capacity for reflection, feedback and problem-solving. It's important to avoid rigid classroom practices and a "one best way" mentality that resists change or serious reflection, said McLaughlin.
  • Problem-solving structures and norms. Teachers must have ways to address shared objectives together, McLaughlin said. For example, one dynamic social studies department meets weekly to review events, swap classroom stories or even present sample lessons. A science department encourages teachers to visit one another's classrooms frequently as observers or participants.
  • Democratic decision-making. "Teacher tracking" is avoided in highly collegial departments - for example, the toughest "basic" courses aren't assigned only to the newest teachers, and it's not just senior faculty who get to teach prestigious Advanced Placement courses. McLaughlin recalled one striking case where teachers said they would "kill" to avoid freshman social studies. As a result, the department made the freshman course the top department priority; together, the teachers created an outstanding curriculum that all of them would want to teach.
  • People first. Strong communities place a high priority on creating working environments that nurture human relationships and where teachers can share information about students. Such communities typically have "fewer rules and regulations defining roles and responsibilities." In turn, their teachers rely on their community for professional authority - "not on bureaucratic routines or disciplinary orthodoxies."

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