Starting off the School Year by Building and Strengthening Professional Collaboration

  • Starting off the School Year by Building and Strengthening Professional Collaboration

    August 2018

    At its July meeting, the NCTM Board of Directors approved a plan to make legislative visits to Capitol Hill prior to the start of each Board meeting starting next February. While previous NCTM Presidents and individual Board members have made such visits, this action puts into place a plan for sustained and long-term engagement with policymakers. NCTM can play an important role in the public policy process, and the NCTM Board of Directors represents the strength of its membership as an influential voice that will be listened to by policymakers. Research shows that it is the quality of the teacher in the classroom that is the largest factor in successful learning. Bringing this to the attention of policymakers so their decisions reflect this fact is why NCTM’s voice should be heard. It’s one reason that advocacy and collaboration play an important role in developing policies that support teacher quality and student outcomes.

    NCTM supports investing in teachers at every stage of their development and believes that mathematical literacy can be achieved through an increased emphasis from policymakers on early childhood education, rigorous and engaging pre-K-12 mathematics education, family engagement, high-quality standards and assessments, and the guarantee of appropriate conditions for learning for each and every student in all the country’s schools and classrooms (NCTM, 2018a).

    The NCTM Board of Directors is committed to collaborating with policymakers to advocate for high-quality mathematics teaching and learning for each and every student. Just as important are the local collaborative actions of teachers to advocate for the profession within their school sites, districts, and communities; as well as, building supportive communities for professional growth.

    I strongly believe that all teachers need access to supportive communities for their own professional growth and to foster students’ learning most effectively. Professional collaboration is an equity issue: it impacts the work of teachers and student outcomes. Teachers who collaborate with colleagues work together to support effective mathematics teaching, share collective responsibility for each and every student’s learning, and work to ensure equitable distribution of resources. Imagine colleagues in a team or a mathematics department who routinely collaborate to:

    •  unpack curriculum materials and improve lessons to provide high quality mathematical experiences for learners;
    •  take mathematical topics and think through how to build ideas based on learning trajectories and the resources that learners bring to the classroom;
    •  observe colleagues in their classrooms and provide feedback on ways learners react to teaching practices and identified strengths and areas for growth;
    •  analyze student work samples to understand students’ conceptions of mathematical ideas;
    •  engage in doing mathematics tasks to deepen their own mathematical understanding;
    •  advocate for equitable access to resources and students’ opportunities to learn mathematics;
    •  actively push back against policies that are unjust to the profession, students, and communities;
    •  support each other’s social and emotional well-being.

    Many teachers of mathematics do not have to imagine the kinds of collaborations described above because they are part of their professional culture. However, professional collaboration is an equity issue because there are too many teachers of mathematics for whom this is not part of their professional culture. Too often, teachers experience professional isolation and low self-efficacy, leading them to feel disempowered when it comes to advocating for changes to instruction, curriculum, and policies that exacerbate inequities in student learning. The feelings that “there is nothing I can do” and “that’s just the way things are” reflect the negative impact of professional isolation. Just as students need to feel respected and engaged as learners, so too do teachers need to feel respected and connected as professionals.

    Privacy norms are a byproduct of professional isolation that restrict teachers from moving into one another’s professional spaces to engage in professional learning and advocacy. Because of privacy norms, too many teachers plan lessons alone, teach behind closed doors, keep ideas and activities to themselves, infrequently observe colleagues’ teaching, and seldom seek feedback on their own teaching to grow as a professional. Isolation and privacy norms are allowing “good” and “bad” teaching to go unnoticed or noticed “silently.”

    The professionalism principle in Principles to Actions (2014) states:

    In an excellent mathematics program, educators hold themselves and their colleagues accountable for the mathematical success of every student and for personal and collective professional growth toward effective teaching and learning of mathematics (p. 99).

    An overarching aspect of the professionalism principle is that it is important that teachers build a culture of collaboration that is driven by a sense of interdependence and collective responsibility. Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics: Initiating Critical Conversations (2018b) recommends that collaboration is important for supporting equitable mathematics teaching. Collaboration requires building community, networks, and a common ground where teachers are engaged in efforts to improve mathematics teaching and learning, and are involved in professional advocacy. While challenges such as time and space have direct impact on professional collaboration among teachers, many educators are finding innovative ways to accomplish this goal. Engaging in social media networks, reading and writing interactive blogs, attending professional meetings, reading and engaging professional journals, and participating in mathematics teacher book clubs are just some of the ways professionals are collaborating.

    NCTM has many resources to support member engagement in professional collaboration and advocacy:

    •  Back to School Resources: There are many resources on this page to get off to a great start for the school year. There are resources that support collaborating with colleagues for high-quality teaching; as well as tips on becoming an advocate for mathematics.
    •  Research Briefs and Clips: Research Clips and Briefs provide the background on what research says about mathematics teaching and learning for practitioners to use when discussing issues with colleagues, supervisors, school boards, and parents.
    •  NCTM Position Statements: NCTM position statements define a particular problem, issue, or need and describe its relevance to mathematics education. They address important and timely policy issues relevant to mathematics education.
    •  Advocacy Toolkit: The NCTM Advocacy Toolkit provides basic tools to act on behalf of teachers on issues that affect you, your students, our schools, and mathematics education. The Toolkit includes an NCTM Communications Guide to help you get started. The Guide offers guidance on interacting with legislators and legislative staff.

    For meaningful collaboration to occur, some routine practices must shift and evolve. Teachers must stop working in isolation. Isolation restricts professional growth and does not allow educators to improve their teaching or continue their learning. School administrators have to provide time, support, and other resources that enable teachers to collaborate. Time for collaboration must be embedded in teachers’ daily work schedule. Schools and teachers must stop focusing only on what is expected to be taught but also include what strategies are effective and equitable for teaching and how they will know how well students have learned. Collaboration moves teaching from a solitary experience to a collective professional space where teachers engage in critical conversations about teaching and learning. To build professional collaboration consider the possibilities discussed at the beginning of this message as well as engaging with colleagues from around the world on, Twitter, and other social media spaces.

    I encourage you to find time and space for professional collaborations. Please share your successes and challenges on

    Robert Q. Berry III
    NCTM President


    NCTM. 2018 NCTM Legislative Platform. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2018a.

    NCTM. Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics: Initiating Critical Conversations. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2018b.

    NCTM Principles to Actions: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2014.