Could Teaching Become A Team Sport?

By rights teaching ought to have become a team sport years ago, because the majority of school superintendents have been drawn from the ranks of coaches for as long as I can remember. Who better than to inculcate team values than ex-jocks turned coaches turned school leaders? But it didn’t happen under their leadership.

Shouldn’t it be a team sport now? After all, our current Secretary of Education knows about the importance of teamwork. Arne Duncan was co-captain of Harvard’s basketball team and later a pro player in Australia. He’s still pretty darn good at the game, as he showed during NBA All Star Weekend. Hasn’t happened–we’re even more focused on judging individual teachers according to their students’ test scores, the antithesis of team competition.

Lots of people are now talking–often with passion and intensity–about teaching as a “team sport,” but wishing won’t make it so. As the old English saying goes, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” Those who would like teaching to be recognized as a team effort have some work to do.

Teaching has been a solo job from its earliest days. Most of our first public schools were one-room schoolhouses, with, of course, just one teacher. When systems developed, they were what Deborah Ball of Michigan calls ‘cellular structures,’ set up so that any individual teacher could leave and be replaced without disrupting the whole system. Systems were, she said, designed for high turnover.

At the same time, the view took hold that teaching was essentially ‘learned on the job,’ not in colleges of education that passed along codified professional knowledge of the art and skill of teaching. Even today, according to Dr. Ball, most classroom teachers will say that their professional education wasn’t worth much. Their disrespect for their own training feeds the public view that teaching is not a serious profession like medicine, law or nursing.

(Or, to go back to my sports analogy, teaching in the United States is not only not a team sport; it’s also the minor leagues. That can and must change–more about that in a minute.)

I attended Dr. Ball’s informative presentation at “Teaching and Learning 2014” in Washington on Friday. This 2-day conference, sponsored by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, is the direct descendant of the “Celebration of Teaching and Learning” sponsored by WNET when Ron Thorpe was Channel 13’s Director of Education. When he took over NBPTS, he brought the concept to Washington, but he has redesigned it to make it less of a celebration and more of an intellectually stimulating exercise. As a reporter, I had intended to jump from session to session but got hooked by Dr. Ball’s presentation.

The conference {{1}}, which attracted many National Board Certified Teachers{{2}} and about 3,000 attendees in all, was a veritable cornucopia of riches, with at least half a dozen sessions going on simultaneously most of the time.

There were also several plenary sessions, two of which I attended. The session with Bill Gates was disappointing. He delivered a pedestrian speech about the Common Core State Standards that seemed to have come off a shelf at the Gates Foundation. His audience included our country’s most qualified and dedicated teachers, but he did not reach out to them. After his talk, he was joined on stage by celebrity interviewer George Stephanopolous of ABC for a Q&A session that was even less impressive. Although Mr. Stephanopolous had access to questions submitted by the audience of teachers, he asked instead about ‘flipped classrooms’ and his own children’s use of mobile devices. That meant that Mr. Gates was not pressed about his Foundation’s role in developing the CCSS or Race to the Top (when the Foundation gave states substantial assistance in preparing their applications), the wisdom of using test scores to evaluate teachers, or any other issues on the minds of teachers.

Arne Duncan’s plenary session was a revelation. The Secretary’s speech was aimed at his audience. He acknowledged their suspicions and concerns and said that he strongly supported teacher leadership as an important vehicle going forward. “Our aim is to encourage schools, districts, and even states all across the country to provide more opportunities for authentic, genuine teacher leadership that doesn’t require them to leave their daily role in classrooms,” Duncan said. “We’ll convene a group of teachers, principals, teachers’ groups, and district leaders. They will take the steps necessary not to create some white paper that will decorate shelves, but to create real commitments around new opportunities.” Immediately after his speech, he submitted to questioning by five classroom teachers, a lively back-and-forth that must have pleased many in the audience.

One day before the conference, Mr. Thorpe arranged for several dozen Board-certified teachers to meet with 16 of the medical doctors now serving in Congress, all of them Board-certified physicians. From all reports, the session was an eye-opener for doctors and teachers alike. The doctors were shocked to learn that not even 4% of America’s teachers have earned Board certification, because at least 85% of doctors are Board-certified. Teachers were reminded of how far their profession has to travel.

Can teaching become a team sport, and a major league one at that? “Teaching & Learning 2014” might point the way to big-league status. Mr. Thorpe has created a ‘big tent’ with room for Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, both teacher union presidents, and critics of test-based accountability like Pasi Sahlberg. Not under the tent this year were Diane Ravitch or Wendy Kopp, perhaps because their very different messages are seen as overly familiar and/or not helpful to raising the profession’s status.

Raising the bar for teachers–particularly for entry into the profession–is an essential step. But, as Dr. Ball noted, tougher admission standards admission for schools of education won’t be enough. What happens next matters more. The training must be challenging, stimulating and useful, she said, a message that Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford has also been preaching. Graduates of schools of education must believe that their professional training was valuable preparation for the actual work of teaching.

More skilled teachers must apply for Board-certification and the rigorous process that earning that status entails. States and districts must reward Board-certified teachers.

We also need to address the myth of the ‘born teacher,’ the ‘natural teacher.’ That myth contradicts the meaning of professionalism. While some personalities are better suited to classrooms (and some clearly don’t belong with children), most intelligent and hard-working individuals can learn the skills required to be an effective teacher. {{3}}

Don’t forget that a team sport requires teamwork–teammates having each other’s back. In teaching that means sharing ideas and curriculum; it means having the time to watch each other teach; it means setting aside time for the educational equivalent of medicine’s ‘grand rounds,’ a time when teachers who teach the same students share their observations about those kids.

These steps could bring teaching into the major leagues of professions.

At the same time, we need to explore the meaning of ‘team sport.’ To be precise, how does one keep score? By what measures do we determine who wins? What do we mean by ‘winning’? Winning is easy to figure out in basketball–the team with more points wins the game, and that appealing simplicity may explain why education relies on test scores, which are, after all, points. But the team sport of teaching has to be scored more like ice dancing, or dressage in horseback riding–it’s complex, partially systematic but also partially subjective.

That’s because the object of the team sport of teaching is not higher test scores. The goal is to help grow adults. And all three words matter. “Help” conveys the key concept of a team sport (parents are part of the team, of course). “Grow” indicates that teaching is a process that will inevitably involve setbacks, one that cannot be captured by a single snapshot. “Adults” is the outcome, not a test score, and that means that society has to have serious conversations about what we want our young people to be, and be able to do.

For teaching to become a team sport, we must reverse course and take a stand against test-based accountability, which is antithetical to teamwork. Of course, teachers must be held accountable, but that complex evaluation system must be developed by teachers, administrators and the general public. Could that be the ‘teacher leadership’ that the Secretary of Education says he supports?

Time to find out…..

[[1]]1. Teaching and Learning 2014 is a welcome addition to education meetings, despite being held in Washington’s disastrous Convention Center, a cavernous space with poor signage where every hallway and corridor look nearly identical.[[1]]
[[2]]2. According to the organization, “There are now more than 100,000 National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) advancing student learning and achievement in all 50 states. These NBCTs have been certified in at least one of the 25 certificate areas, which span 16 content areas and four student developmental levels. Even though NBCTs are only a small percentage of the nation’s teachers, they represent the largest group of accomplished teachers as recognized by the profession. NBCTs have had a disproportionate impact on improving education. Nationwide, nearly 50 percent of NBCTs work in high-poverty schools. They are also among the nation’s leaders in math and science. Since 2008, more than 30 percent of all winners of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching are NBCTs. NBCTs are already informing educational policies and practices at the local, state and national levels with their expertise and experience.”[[2]]
[[3]]3. Elizabeth Green addresses this in her forthcoming book, “Building a Better Teacher,” coming out this spring from Norton; I’ve just started reading an advance copy and had trouble putting it down to finish this blog post.[[3]]

15 thoughts on “Could Teaching Become A Team Sport?

  1. Thanks for the analysis, John. I was unable to attend myself, so I’ve been looking closely at what those who were there thought about it. [Disclosure: I am a NBPTS Board of Directors member]. I am especially glad that you focused on Deborah Ball’s session, and yes, teaching should be more of a team sport–but that will come as we become more of a true profession.

    As for Gates and Duncan’s speeches, well….I trust teachers to come to their own conclusions. That’s why these airings and venues are important.


  2. I am exiting the profession after 10 wonderful years as a teacher. People keep asking me why I am leaving, and I have been unable to put it into words. This post helped me clarify my nebulous thoughts. I knew it wasn’t about money or difficult students or the politics of schools, but I could never fully explain why I wanted out. Then I clicked on your post. I find it difficult to feel like a professional as a classroom teacher and there are few outlets for an ambitious person who is not interested in administration. Even though I am sad to leave, I need new challenges in a field where I can earn respect and respect those with whom I work.


  3. Exploited and Impoverished Adjunct, I feel your pain. I have been in a similar situation recently and am still struggling to get any kind of FT work. Since my husband is permanently disabled, it makes putting food on the table very tough. I’ve written about this in website link. It is a disturbing trend that more and more higher ed instructors are making so little they’re on food stamps, going to food banks, homeless, etc… Newshour did do a report on the topic a few weeks ago.

    I appreciate your thoughtful post as usual, John. I would love to see teaching become more of a collaborative effort. Teachers used to have collaboration time, but that has largely been cut to focus on test score assessments. I know that my credential program did not prepare me very well, but I student taught my own class from start to finish with a fabulous mentor teacher, too. I felt better prepared than many and always had positive feedback. I was very dedicated to teaching and had plenty of content knowledge, but I was laid off after my 2nd year. I did a lot of extra work as an AVID instructor (like being a study skills teacher and guidance counselor to students) as well as a Social Studies teacher. It was very strange because I had been praised and begged not to leave a year earlier. I can only imagine budget cuts were the real reason (I had grad units so I cost more than other new teachers). I was never able to get another FT teaching position after being laid off after 2 years of looking throughout Calif, sending 100’s of apps, and having about 30 interviews (sometimes being the 2nd choice). There were literally 100’s of applicants for each position I applied to.

    So the question I have for the powers that be, is do you really think your teacher evaluation system is working? Even those that aren’t solely based on stu test scores (which mine weren’t)? I know for a fact I was a much better teacher than some I know that taught for decades. So are we letting the right people go? I think we often aren’t. And I don’t think it’s solely down to teacher training programs (though those do need changes) or lack of content knowledge. I’m afraid that what continues to influence the decisions is cronyism, money, and politics. They did when I was a student-I had some nightmarish teachers, which is partly why I wanted to become a teacher myself. That’s the only way to explain why many bad teachers are not let go, while other capable, dedicated teachers (including some with tenure) are let go. At this point, I have to move on and am actually trying to break into journalism. I know you did that transition a long time ago, John, but any advice? Thanks in advance.


  4. Teaching as a team sport? What surprises me in your piece is the lack of doubt or counterbalance. I expected a touch of irony or qualification.

    Teaching is by nature both collaborative and solitary. It is necessary for teachers, schools, districts to work together up to a point. But teaching is nothing without the steeping in the material, the evenings of thought and reading, the slightly eccentric lesson.

    The solitude and collaboration complement each other–and to neglect the solitary part is to drain teaching of its richer matter.

    Nothing would drive me out of the profession faster than a mantra of teamwork. There is the team, and then there is the individual mind. Often the two do not coincide, nor should they,but both are essential to education.

    Poor kids who hear “team, team, team” all day long! When I was in school–not an ideal time by any stretch–there were teams, but there was also recognition of solitude, aloneness, and independent thought. Yes, you were considered a nerd if you spent time in the library, but the library was there, for teachers and students alike.

    In addition, not all of us have a jock mentality. For some, teaching may be more like geometry than like a team sport. I have a feeling the geometer-teachers are needed too–even if their minds are on theorems and shapes and not on the victory of the team.

    I say this with sadness, because I find the team dogma so limiting and loud. Please rethink the metaphor a bit.


    • Your points are well made, well taken. My point was too blunt: it’s not a solo effort and shouldn’t be judged as such. Every team member must make individual contributions, work alone on his/her skills, et cetera. Some members of a team are stronger than others, some have specific skills that others can help bring out, to the greater glory of all concerned. And team members hold each other accountable.
      The days of simply closing your classroom door and doing your own thing (or not) are over, in my view and metaphor. But that’s not to be replaced by group-think, which is what I gather you fear.
      Thanks for the thoughtful dissent and expansion of the idea


  5. John,

    This past December I visited a school in Jerusalem in which Arab and Jewish children learn together. The children get along beautifully. Every classroom has two teachers: an Arab teacher and a Jewish teacher. Both Arabic and Hebrew are spoken equally during learning. So much can be done when teaching is a team sport.

    I have written more about this school here:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s