This article-based thesis aims to better understand how teachers develop professionally in workplace collaboration
It includes extensive observations, interviews, and documents related to three common meeting routines: plenums dedicated to school development, collaborative professional development sessions, and weekly grade-level team meetings.
In research and policy, teacher collaboration is a widely advocated way to develop teacher professionalism from within its local contexts and extend opportunities for teacher agency. Often, it is opposed to development driven by policymakers and administrators aiming to compensate for lower than desired student achievement.
Although some research taking a macro-level perspective considers development from-above and from-within as opposite poles, other studies suggest that teacher collaboration can be a means to different ends and promote rather different ideals of professionalism. Indeed, from-above development does not necessarily restrict professional agency, nor can teachers’ local work cultures be considered explorative by default.
While there is extensive literature on factors that hinder explorative collaborative work, there has been little empirical investigation conducted across different collaborative routines, and conceptually, limited attention has been paid to problematising the sort of professionalism underpinning professional collaboration at school.
Norway is an interesting empirical setting in which to examine different interplays of development from-above and from-within. Here, teachers’ work can be seen as framed both by expectations of advanced professional knowledge and discretionary decision-making in addressing complex social problems and, at the same time, tolerance to increased administrative control.
To examine these interplays, I employ theoretical perspectives drawn from the sociology of professions and research on teachers and teachers’ work as well as such analytical tools as frame analysis, organisational routines, and boundary work.
The analysis indicates that although teachers’ meeting routines differed significantly in the extent to which external actors and school leaders defined objectives, how the routines were performed suggested a somewhat restricted form of professionalism, even when objectives were defined by teachers themselves.
More restricted professionalism can be seen as associated with teachers’ strong focus on the here-and-now of teaching and caring, on the one hand, and on the other, with the framing of collaborative work through a ‘what works’ question. However, the focus on here-and-now was not related merely to the practicalities of teaching, but rather to promoting student engagement and wellbeing in and outside the classroom. In fact, it was this particular focus that also opened opportunities for more extended professionalism.
Looking across meeting routines made it possible to trace an underlying pattern. A lack of routines in which the teachers engaged with abstract knowledge, such as theories and concepts, and examined normative dilemmas related to their social mandate seemed ultimately to reduce their agency in the here-and-now of planning lessons and talking about student development by limiting the scope of interpretive frames through which they ‘saw’ their practice.
Put otherwise, it was not simply that teacher agency was narrowed in its scope to day-to-day decision-making, while the direction of school development was decided externally. It was rather that teachers’ professionalism in day-to-day matters was somewhat restricted by a lack of more conceptually informed, principled discussions.
Extending earlier research, this thesis highlights the importance of conceptually informed discourse for the development of more extended professionalism. The data suggests that such discourse afforded more professional agency and legitimacy such as, for example, in decoupling organisational objectives of raising student achievement from more context-sensitive considerations regarding the wellbeing and development of specific students.
Furthermore, the thesis emphasises the significance of unpacking normative ambiguity related to the ideals of the social mandate. Although some earlier research highlights the power of a shared vision and consensus for the agency of teachers, this thesis indicates that a more articulate and critical perspective on the social mandate and approaches to realise its ideals can be equally important for extending their professional agency.
The conclusions point in two directions. First, I suggest that, at a school level, supporting the quality of teacher engagement with professional knowledge requires viewing collaborative routines as closely interrelated. On the one hand, it involves teachers assuming a more participatory role in defining the direction of school development and, on the other, closer connections to the broader professional knowledge, including theories, research, and data, in day-to-day work with the issues of student development and wellbeing. Second, I suggest that the quality of teacher engagement with professional knowledge may benefit from exposure to different normative logics at play in realising the ideals of the social mandate.