Teachers shouldn’t have to work alone—and now they don’t have to

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Jun 6, 2018

With the rise of online learning in schools—what educators call blended learning—what teachers do daily is changing in big and small ways.

A central question is what will teaching look like in the future, as online learning can increasingly help students learn knowledge personalized to their specific learning need. Recent research even suggests that learning from an online video—a modality that is not terribly active—may be superior for engagement and retention than learning from a live lecture.

In our most recent book, Blended: The Workbook, Heather Staker and I concluded that teachers will remain critical to the success of learning environments in the future, but that their jobs will shift in profound ways:

In the good blended-learning programs we have observed, although the teacher role shifts in profound ways— teachers may no longer be doing lesson planning for, and leading an entire class on, the same activity—they are still engaged and working with students even more actively. In the bad blended-learning programs that we have observed, the teacher feels replaced and often sits in the back of the room, disgruntled and disengaged from the students, who in turn tend not to learn nearly as much as they might with an engaged, enthusiastic teacher.

We hypothesized that teachers would move beyond lockstep instruction and spend far more time filling the mentoring and coaching gaps that exist in students’ lives.

Teachers might also specialize in a variety of novel ways. For example, some teachers might work as content experts who focus on developing and posting curriculum. Others might serve as small-group leaders who provide direct instruction as part of a Station or Lab 
Rotation. Still others would shift to designing projects to supplement online learning with hands-on application. Many, if not most, would act as mentors providing wisdom, social capital, and guidance. And some might shift to evaluators to whom other educators can give the responsibility of grading assignments and, in some cases, designing assessments or as data experts. These teachers could often specialize within teams, not in the solitary confinement of their own classroom away from other adults.

Despite this speculation, there has been a paucity of research chronicling these shifts to innovative staffing models to personalize learning.

Enter a new research paper titled “Innovative Staffing to Personalize Learning: How new teaching roles and blended learning help students succeed” from Public Impact and the Clayton Christensen Institute.

The researchers examined eight schools and school networks that achieved better-than-typical student learning and provided students with more personalized experiences while using new staffing models and blended learning.

These sites varied widely, but had some commonalities in why they adopted innovative staffing models with blended learning.  They were trying to serve struggling students and those with diverse learning needs, as well as bolster teacher capacity in situations where they had a shortage of great teachers in certain subjects—like math, science, and special education—or with certain areas of expertise critical to personalizing learning, like data analysis.

Blended learning gave these schools the flexibility to play with new staffing models that provided teachers with more time to plan and collaborate. That meant creating brand-new roles for teachers.

Some schools created teacher-leaders. Teacher-leaders plan and direct their team’s instruction, determine others’ roles, model good teaching, observe and coach others on their team, and analyze student-outcomes data. These positions are often the most selective and based on the quality of past instruction.

Other schools created what the paper calls “collaborating teachers,” who are certified teachers on the team; support staff, who are non-certified and support teachers with tutoring and mentoring to build deep relationships with students and help them develop habits of success and social-emotional skills; and teachers-in-training, who are newly or not-yet certified.

What can this look like in practice?

As described in the paper, Okema Owen Simpson, a teacher-leader at Ranson IB Middle School in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, said that the teacher-leaders at her school plan the lessons. “The idea is that we are the expert teacher, so we have the content knowledge, as well as knowledge around pedagogy and best practices, in order for… [the teachers we lead] to deliver a sound lesson to our students,” Simpson said. Ranson, along with three public schools in Clark County, Nevada and a charter school in Chicago, “assign responsibility for student data analysis to certain roles within their teams. Those team members then advise teachers on instructional strategies based on that data. ‘Being able to spot learning issues for both an entire grade and for individual students to take back to teachers has helped lessen the load on them,’ said Stephanie Bugash, a growth analyst at one of the Clark County schools.

The paper also notes that one key in team teaching seems to be keeping the teacher teams small so that there is ample time for communication and the intensive work the team members must tackle together. For example, the schools with these innovative models often had cultures of intensive coaching, where there were weekly or even daily observations of and feedback for the teachers. Schedules supported these observation and feedback opportunities so that they could be routines, not superhuman acts in the teaching day.

And that’s perhaps the biggest takeaway from the paper. Today’s traditional teaching role asks a lot of teachers. It creates a job that is not that supportive of teachers or their practice. In the future though, there are ample opportunities to leverage blended learning and change the status quo to create more sustainable teaching jobs that also better serve students.

This post originally appeared in Forbes.

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.