Teacher Fellowship is the Best Kind of Professional Developmentby Becton Loveless
The importance to teacher fellow cannot be understated. Throughout the existing research literature, there is a constant emphasis on professional development as a means of improving teacher effectiveness. However, professional development can mean lots of things. For some, it may mean sitting in a lecture hall listening to a speech by the teacher of the year. For another, it may mean going to small group workshops.
Yet at the heart of all of these activities is fellowship. The basic ability to interact with other teachers is a form of professional development itself. It’s teacher fellowship that makes the small workshops and conferences enjoyable and more effective.
Sydney Chaffee, 2017 teacher of the year, pointed to the importance of fellowship in her discussion of what three factors were important to her development. In her writeup, she noted how important fellowship had been to her growth as an instructor. The relationships she formed with other instructors helped her to better understand how to teach about concepts like social justice and introduced her to new teaching methods, like gamification.
Chaffee indicated that fellowship was important not only because it helped improve exposure to various teaching concepts, but because of the fact that fellowship with other teachers reduced the loneliness that teachers often felt. The classroom can be a lonely place in which a teacher sometimes feels cut off from the rest of the school. Fellowship with others helps to improve camaraderie and morale with others.
Fellowship doesn’t have to occur in a formal setting, when teachers are asked to meet with one another in conferences and workshops. Instead, fellowships can be informal and a result of everyday friendships that people establish. Fellowship builds resilience, so that teachers are more capable of enduring the rigors of the classroom, and empowers them to be better instructors. So what form does fellowship take and how does it improve conditions for teachers?
More than three decades, researchers were pointing to social support as a way of reducing burnout among classroom teachers. Job related, stressful events are a part of every job. However, for teachers, these stressful events can be compounded by the nature of the classroom. Working with students can be difficult and teachers can end up feeling as if they’re on an island by themselves. Multiple studies have shown that while all jobs can be stressful, teaching is particularly stressful. Overcrowded classrooms can make both teachers and students frustrated, and teachers have to work long hours. After classes are over, they have to deal with student paperwork and work on developing their classroom lessons.
Younger teachers are often the most heavily affected. With less experience to draw upon and poorer understanding of available resources, younger teachers often report being under the most strain. What grade level teachers are teaching can also impact the strain an individual feels. In the end, different teachers are under different levels of strain, eventually leading to burnout.
Teacher burnout can lead to a lot of complications and difficulties for an individual. For instance, teachers experiencing burnout often suffer from physical symptoms, like headaches and stomach ulcers. They may have psychological symptoms, like depression or anger. In the end, long term burnout can lead to poor performance in the class. The quality of the teacher’s work might suffer, or they might be absent more often from the classes they’re supposed to be teaching.
From these outcomes, it should be clear that burnout can be a major problem for schools. It not only negatively affects teachers but also has an impact on students and across the entire organization. Teacher burnout is also considered the number one cause for otherwise competent teachers leaving their profession and entering other careers. For all these reasons, education organizations are always on the hunt for ways to reduce burnout.
This is where social support comes into play. Social support has often been found to be a key factor in whether an individual adequately copes with stress. Researchers believe that people with supportive social relationships are better able to fall back on others to help them during stressful times. Individuals without appropriate social support are more likely to be vulnerable to the worst effects of stress. Because people with social support are better able to deal with the worst effects of stress, they are also less likely to have the physical and psychological symptoms associated with stress.
For teachers, then, appropriate social support is incredibly important to helping make them more resilient in the classroom. With the right social support, they are less likely to feel sick or burnt out. They are more likely to be able to fall back on others when stress is high, and they’re less likely to leave their jobs out of frustration. An important part of professional development includes teaching teachers how to deal with the stress of the classroom, but just the act of having friends may be enough to improve how teachers navigate the stress of their profession.
While it is true that teachers can experience significant benefits from social support, there are also formal forms of fellowship that can positively impact how teachers practice their profession. An example of this is peer coaching, which gives teachers a chance to work with other teachers. Instead of putting teachers into a broad workshop or lecture, peer coaching is more personal. It puts teachers in contact with more experienced teachers in an attempt to pass on important skills, knowledge, and concepts that less experienced teachers can use in the classroom.
In a review of peer coaching since the 1980s, authors Beverly Showers and Bruce Joyce examined what practices were important for peer coaching. These authors noted the importance of creating shared goals between participants. Teachers who are learning from other teachers need to understand the importance of establishing overarching goals. Once these larger goals have been established, smaller objectives leading to them can be established. The act of collaborating and planning together was considered critical. Not only did it help divide the labor of planning for classes, but it helped less experienced teachers plan to make and reach goals.
There are many forms that peer shaping can take. It can at times be done one on one while at other times might involve teams. In either case, collaboration is always important. Collaboration helps all teachers feel as if they’re contributing. It gives everyone a chance to visualize how they want their course to unfold and what sort of progress they want to make.
The impact of peer coaching is clear. Teachers who work closely with their coaches help their students to achieve better academic scores than teachers who rely heavily on their administrators. Teachers who relied heavily on administrators were less likely to engage with their coaches. So, to some degree, it’s important for administrators to entrust the growth of younger teachers to a peer coach. Allowing that relationship to grow and flourish is important to helping less experienced teachers grow, which in the end makes them more effective in the classroom.
Peer coaching tends to be a formalized system in which people learn, but the truth is that teachers already learn socially, even in informal settings. In a paper released for Educational Media International, Celeste Meijs, Fleur R. Prinsen, and Maarten F. de Laat described the communities teachers created that helped them to learn more effectively. The researchers found that, generally, teachers are social learners. Teachers often are social learning minded and often learn from one another.
The researchers noted that this view of teachers as social learners stood in contrast to the typical professional development that teachers underwent. Staff training and professional development often approach teachers as passive learners who are expected to sit passively by while someone delivers a lecture or lesson.
The truth is that teachers reap positive benefits from networking together in professional communities and collaborative groups in which they actively engage with and learn from one another. Social learning is important not only because it allows for collaboration but because it gives more control over those who are involved in the learning process. When engaged in social learning with one another, teachers actively make choices about what they’re interested in and what they want to learn about.
Being able to make these kinds of choices helps teachers stay motivated about learning new concepts and ideas. This goes back to the idea that autonomy is important. Autonomy and control are defining characteristics of social learning, in which decisions fall to the learner. Almost all teachers studied indicated that to some degree or another that they were social minded learners.
Provided these facts, it’s important for teachers to form professional communities in which they can learn and grow. These communities can be organized by schools as formal communities. However, it’s just as likely that teachers will naturally gravitate into groups in which they can learn from one another. This shouldn’t be surprising, since collaboration helps teachers learn more about their field and helps them navigate the problems and difficulties of being a teacher.Learn about social learning theory.
Self-efficacy is the belief that teachers have in themselves to successfully complete certain tasks and goals. A teacher’s belief in his or herself is an important part of their success in the classroom. Self-efficacy beliefs have been linked to how well teachers perform in a number of ways, including the effort that teachers put into transferring what they’ve learned as a part of their profession into the classroom. So, while professional development is important, a teacher’s self-efficacy beliefs will largely impact whether what has been learned is then put into practice. Self-efficacy also impacts how much teachers experiment with their instructional methods and try to improve on their approaches. It should be clear that self-efficacy beliefs have a large impact on how teachers perform.
If self-efficacy is important to how teachers practice their profession, then social support is important to helping teachers improve their self-efficacy beliefs. During a study into social support, researchers Debra Korte and Jon Simonsen both indicated that social support was important to self-efficacy beliefs. Novice educators who perceived significant support demonstrated improved self-efficacy beliefs. However, the researchers noted that support could come from one of two sources. It was true that communities of teachers were important to increasing a teacher’s confidence. Students, though, could also act as a form of social support. These findings suggested that sometimes it was the mere perception of support that was important for self-efficacy beliefs.
The Negative Outcomes of No Social Support
The research indicates that social support is important to reducing stress and the chance of burnout. At the same time, social support is also important to improving self-efficacy beliefs. However, burnout itself predicts the degree to which a teacher feels as if they have social support. This forms a vicious cycle. Teachers who are burning out feel as if they have no social support and in turn become more prone to burning out. During the same process, their self-efficacy declines, and when self-efficacy declines, teachers become less likely to look for social support from other teachers. This cyclical process can leave teachers feeling trapped in an endless loop of burnout, declining self-efficacy, and declining efforts to find social support.
For all of these reasons, it may be important for education organizations to actively try and put together programs that encourage social interaction and support between teachers. Considering that burnout can be a downward spiral in which teachers find themselves becoming less confident and less likely to seek out help, schools can play an important role by putting together times for teachers to engage with one another. It’s been shown in studies that mentoring and coaching, for example, can be important times when teachers confide in others and seek out help. Programs that encourage coaching or group support may help prevent the downward spiral that teachers experience as stress becomes too much for them.
Professional development refers not only to passing along skills and knowledge about how to teach, but also refers to passing on techniques for handling the rigors of the classroom environment. However, professional development also often happens in a passive setting in which teachers learn in a lecture format. Teachers are social individuals, as are all people though, and they’re socially minded. They enjoy learning autonomously and without feeling too constrained.
The answer to the problem of isolation and burnout is provided social contexts in which teachers can learn from one another while retaining a sense of autonomy. Schools can help ensure burnout never begins by first creating an environment in which teachers can socialize with one another. This serves the purpose of helping teachers develop social support networks upon which they can depend on in times of stress.
However, those same networks are important resources from which they can learn. Teachers who learn from their professional communities go on to attempt to implement what they’ve learned in the classroom. Whether as a part of a mentoring relationship or as a part of a wider social group, teachers who have a chance to engage with their peers are provided opportunities in which to learn new teaching approaches and methods. Because social learning is so important to both the psychological and professional health of a teacher, it’s important to form socializing, professional communities from the start of the school year.