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Team Teaching: A Boost to Teacher Retention

Giving teachers more control over their collaboration with peers may boost the effectiveness of teacher teams and encourage educators to stay in the classroom.

For example, at Westwood High School in Mesa, Ariz., special education teacher Kelly Owen and four colleagues organize freshman students’ schedules, lessons, and grouping for four of the six class periods each day as part of the Next Education Workforce program.

“Before I came to Westwood, I deeply undervalued the need to work on the team, to focus on things like psychological safety, good processes for running meetings, clear expectations, good communication, even radical candor,” Owen said. “Teachers are not trained like that.”

Early results of an ongoing study of the NEW program, developed at Arizona State University, in the Mesa public schools suggest the team-teaching model gives educators flexibility to play to their strengths.

In the NEW model, groups of 100 students are assigned to teams of four to five teachers, who work together to cover core-subject areas as well as social-emotional learning. The 80,000-student Mesa district, the largest in Arizona, has expanded the teaching teams to the majority of its schools, and NEW has also expanded to schools in California and Texas.

Mary Laski, the study author and principal researcher for the Center for Reinventing Public Education at Arizona State University, found that after controlling for experience and demographics, the Mesa teachers working in teams were 9 percentage points more likely to say they planned to stay in teaching for the next five years than solo teachers. Teamed teachers were also significantly more likely than their solo peers to recommend teaching to a friend.

To put that in perspective, little more than 1 in 5 teachers said they would recommend a career in teaching in EdWeek’s The State of Teaching survey, a nationally representative poll of nearly 1,500 teachers conducted in October.

“If you join the profession as a member of a team, sharing this roster of students and having interdependency … being a first-year teacher in that model might be wildly better… and therefore increase our retention,” said Brent Maddin, the executive director of Next Education Workforce initiatives in Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, but who was not a researcher on the study.

Protected time and collaboration critical

Collaboration can be one of the most effective instructional strategies, but studies find teachers often don’t have enough planning time or control over their schedules and pacing to make the model work.

“If your problem is working conditions—teachers feeling isolated or teachers seeking more collaboration and support—I think this could be an exciting way to think about it,” Laski said. “It does require some big-picture changes of how we think about what teaching looks like.”

The NEW teams don’t just meet to plan lessons and then separate into their own classrooms; from day to day, they may co-teach all together, take small groups in individual classes, or other instructional configurations. Protected, unstructured planning and collaboration time has been key to making the team teaching work.

“It’s truly the five of us in a room for 110 minutes, five days per week,” Owen said. “We spend a lot of time working on psychological safety [and] vulnerability. How do we create an atmosphere so that all five of us feel brave enough to say, ‘I need another co-teacher,’ ‘I wanna try something and I need some help doing it,’ or ‘I don’t feel comfortable doing this.’”

The teams also have significant instructional autonomy. For example, this year, the team’s math teacher moved to another school. “We went out and found [a replacement] math teacher, and our principals let us do it. It was a person who was in the building and we were like, look, she fits the vibe. She’s the person who’s gonna work well with us,” Owen said. “They had her slotted to go somewhere else and they trusted that we are building a cohesive group of adults who will be more powerful for kids.”

Laski found that team-based educators in Mesa also received higher average effectiveness ratings from their principals than solo teachers, particularly when early in their careers.

Owen agreed. While she is now in her third year teaching special education at Westwood, following a decade teaching at the college level, the team includes a nine-year veteran and others who just finished their second and third years of teaching.

“We get to bounce ideas off of each other. We all co-plan. So the amount of feedback that we’re getting on a regular basis is really increasing [teachers’] efficacy and … skill set,” she said. Her early-career colleagues “are developing huge levels of confidence, and I see them taking on leadership that second year and third year [that] teachers just simply don’t take on,” such as developing demonstration lessons and serving as model teachers.

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