Deep insights into making teacher teams work

The move from teachers working alone in the classroom to developing and assessing their practice in collaborative teams amounts to a revolution in recent decades. But running a team is not as easy as it might sound. A new book offers good advice on how to do it.

July 03, 2018 | Meghan Lockwood

For children to have the best possible chance to learn in our ever-changing world, the adults who work with them need to never stop learning as well. At Learning First, the type of teacher learning we focus on most is collaborative, conducted in teacher teams.

That approach does not discount all the other ways teachers can learn – from professional conferences to Twitter – yet it is only through collaboration that schools can become the rich and coherent learning environments that students need and deserve.

What does it matter that teachers work together, rather than just developing their teaching practice individually? Well, say I’m a student, and my teachers don’t work together. They may be incredibly talented, but even so I will likely end up wasting a lot of time and energy trying to understand what Teacher A and Teacher B mean when each tells me to write a ‘concluding paragraph’ — if they have different ideas about what that should look like. Especially in primary school and in core subject areas in high school, where students will learn the same subjects from different teachers over years, teachers must have opportunities to coordinate and improve instruction together.

We know that when teachers work together and focus their work on student learning, they can effect remarkable growth in students’ achievement.[1] The collaborative inquiry cycles that teacher teams use in high performing systems, described in Learning First’s 2016 report, Beyond PD, are particularly impressive.

But sometimes school and system leaders are so eager to organise teachers into teams in order to start improving teaching and learning that they forget just how much work needs to happen to make teams work. Teacher team experts Kitty Boles and Vivian Troen call this phenomenon, ‘Poof, you’re a team!’[2]

I’ve just read The Art of Coaching Teams, by U.S.-based consultant and writer Elena Aguilar[3], which had been on my to-read list since it was suggested to me by the Boston Public Schools Data Inquiry Team, an incredibly thoughtful group of coaches. I recommend it highly to any coach or teacher leader looking to build a team of teachers that really learns and improves together.

Aguilar points out that it might actually be harder to create trusting learning communities for adults than for children. Adults have more prior experiences – and more baggage – that they bring to the work of learning. We should take no less care, therefore, setting up learning environments for adults than setting them up for students.

Aguilar starts with a primer on the human brain, explaining the physiology behind our response to stressful situations. She emphasises the importance of a team leader’s emotional intelligence, and offers suggestions for building the emotional intelligence of a team. She discusses creating agendas for meetings that feel purposeful, but not overwhelming, and designing an arc of learning for the year so that team members are clear how each meeting connects to the last.

Aguilar’s chapter on navigating conflict gave me a lot to think about, and made me wish I had acted differently in education leadership roles I’ve had. She advises leaders that in a difficult situation it’s vital to try to understand the emotions of team members. Then, instead of thinking, ‘Why is this person resisting?’ think, ‘What is this person afraid of?’ She offers examples of what to say in the moment, and how to follow up with the individual outside the meeting.

Without establishing the types of norms and organisational processes that Aguilar recommends, teams can either erupt into conflict or default to spending their time on tasks such as planning excursions and organising special events that will not make a meaningful difference to teaching and learning. Such planning is important, but if the primary purpose of a teacher team is to learn, that should be the focus of all the team’s meetings.

As adults, part of learning is acknowledging what we do not know and what we are not currently doing effectively. Learning, therefore, can be quite confronting. Teachers and school leaders who are charged with leading learning in teacher teams need to be prepared to manage the emotional elements of that work. The Art of Coaching Teams is a great resource to help them do just that.

Dr Meghan Lockwood is a Manager at Learning First, where she focuses on designing and evaluating teacher professional learning programs. A former teacher, she is a certified coach in Harvard’s Data Wise Improvement Process.


Aguilar, E. (2016) The art of coaching teams: building resilient communities that transform schools (First edition.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Boudett, K. P., & Steele, J. L. (Eds.) (2007) Data Wise in Action Stories of Schools Using Data to Improve Teaching and Learning. Harvard Education Press. Retrieved from

Troen, V., & Boles, K. (2012) The power of teacher teams: with cases, analyses, and strategies for success. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Corwin Press.


[1] See, for example, Boudett & Steele, 2007; Troen & Boles, 2012

[2] Troen & Boles, 2012

[3] Aguilar, 2016

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