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The Persistence of Privacy: Autonomy and Initiative in Teachers? Professional Relations

The Persistence of Privacy:
Autonomy and Initiative in
Teachers’ Professional Relations
California, Berkeley
The present enthusiasm for teacher collaboration has spawned a wide array
of practical experiments. These range from various forms of coaching and
consultation to shared decision making, interdisciplinary teams, subject dis-
cipline “collaboratives,” and more. It is precisely this plethora of specially
designed arrangements-the fact that they are so designated-that compels
attention. How central or peripheral are teachers’ relations with colleagues
to their success and satisfaction with students, their engagement in their
present work, and their commitment to a career in teaching? What is the
contribution that teachers’ collegial involvement makes to the quality of the
work force and the productivity of schools?
The term collegiality has remained conceptually amorphous and ideologi-
cally sanguine. Advocates have imbued it with a sense of virtue-the expec-
tation that any interaction that breaks the isolation of teachers will contribute
in some fashion to the knowledge, skill, judgment, or commitment that indi-
viduals bring to their work, and will enhance the collective capacity of groups
or institutions. Researchers have ascribed various benefits to teacher collab-
oration, among them student achievement in inner-city schools, teacher
morale in times of stress, support for innovation, and an easing of the “reality
shock” visited on beginning teachers.’
When I attend closely to the accounts of teachers’ professional relation-
ships that have accumulated over the past decade, however, I am confronted
by certain inescapable conclusions. A few schools stand out for the achieve-
ments wrought collectively by their faculties but much “that passes for col-
legiality does not add up to much.“’
Teachers’ collaborations sometimes
serve the purposes of well-conceived change, but the assumed link between
increased collegial contact and improvement-oriented change does not seem
to be warranted: Closely bound groups are instruments both for promoting
change and for conserving the present. Changes, indeed, may prove sub-
Teachers College Record
Volume 91, Number 4, Summer 1990
© by Teachers College, Columbia University
Teachers College Record
stantial or trivial. Finally, collaborations may arise naturally out of the prob-
lems and circumstances that teachers experience in common, but often they
appear contrived, inauthentic, grafted on, perched precariously (and often
temporarily) on the margins of real work.
A harder look is in order-at what might be meant by collaboration, at
the circumstances that foster or inhibit it, and at the individual and institu-
tional consequences that follow from it. This article attempts an analysis of
the accumulated literature on collegial relations with the intent of formulat-
ing a more robust conception, one that accounts for variation in teachers’ in-
volvements with one another, the circumstances that surround those involve-
ments, the meanings teachers and others attach to them, and the conse-
quences that flow from them.
Three bodies of literature inform my thinking. Studies of school culture
place teachers’ professional relations in the context of larger matters of school
purpose and organization. Prominent among the contributors to this line of
work are the detailed ethnographic and life-history studies of teachers and
teaching in British comprehensive schools and primary schools,3 and the
case-study tradition in the United States employing ethnographic and other
qualitative methods in the close investigation of “innovating” or “effective”
schools.4 These studies draw our attention to the school as a whole, and to
the way in which teachers’ involvement with one another as colleagues is fun-
damentally bound up-for good or ill-with their orientation toward their
work as classroom teachers. In doing so, such inquiries also attend to the
values that are expressed and the purposes that are pursued (or thwarted)
through teachers’ encounters with one another.
Studies of specific group or team arrangements detail the internal work-
ings of interdisciplinary teams, departments, and decision-making groups.
This literature has contributed to our ability to consider both the form and
content of actual collaborative arrangements by concentrating on certain in-
strumental aspects of success in equal-status work groups: the nature of the
task and task interdependence, the internal policies governing participation
on teams, access to resources, and the like.5 When informed by “micro-politi-
cal” or other intra-organizational perspectives, this literature has also drawn
attention to some of the political and organizational dimensions of teachers’
group affiliations. In sum, this line of work offers a productive orientation
toward the task and the group that is sometimes missing when schools are
treated as more homogeneous environments.
Finally, studies of one-to-one teacher interactions adopt a “colleagues up
close” orientation, often in the context of special initiatives to foster specific
collegial practices (for example, peer observation in classrooms) or special-
ized teacher roles (for example, teacher consultants or mentors) as elements
in teacher induction, professional development, or planned innovation.6
Such studies have focused on the conditions under which such practices and
Relations 511
roles emerge in the first place and on the interpersonal dynamics of teacher-
to-teacher work. Many of these developments signal departures from pre-
vailing professional norms among teachers; these studies, therefore, force us
to confront the boundaries of collaboration that are established (or mediated)
by traditions of classroom independence and equal status. Problems of au-
tonomy and initiative come to the fore.
Each of these separate lines of work provides partial but substantial
ground for a conception of collegiality that goes well beyond a loosely con-
structed sense of “getting along” and “working well together.” Each also con-
tains unexamined assumptions about the nature, extent, and import of those
interactions. In sum, the available research suggests that inquiry into teach-
ers’ professional relationships can be advanced by distinguishing “weak” from
“strong” ties among colleagues. To do so is not to make a judgment about
teachers’ competence or performance, but rather to examine the degree to
which colleagues constitute a relatively weak or strong source of influence on
teachers’ practice or commitments. In addition, inquiry is furthered by
attending seriously and in detail to the content of collegiality the beliefs,
ideas, and intentions that are collectively held and pursued-and to the way
in which such content shapes or is shaped by collegial intercourse. It is pre-
cisely such “content” that renders teachers’ collegial affinities consequential
for pupils. At issue in this closer examination of the form and content of
collegiality is the capacity of teachers’ collegial relations to accommodate the
intellectual, emotional, and social demands of teaching.
In this article, I distinguish among prominent forms of collegiality on the
basis of their prospects for altering the fundamental conditions of privacy in
teaching. I argue that the most common configurations of teacher-to-teacher
interaction may do more to bolster isolation than to diminish it; the culture
that Lortie described as individualistic, present-oriented, and conservative is
thus not altered but is indeed perpetuated by the most prevalent examples
of teacher collaboration or exchange.7
The organizational structure of teach-
ing work itself is central to this analysis: To what degree do schools structure
the tasks of teaching to require and reward interdependence among teachers?
Also central are occupational norms that stimulate or inhibit collective con-
ceptions of autonomy and teacher initiative on substantive matters of princi-
ple and practice.
Recent academic and professional literature subsumes a wide array of
teacher-to-teacher exchange under the broad terms
We encounter references to
story-swapping, sharing, helping, teaming,
and the
like. Such terms, I propose, constitute more than a simple inventory of ac-
tivities. They are phenomenologically discrete forms that vary from one
Teachers College Record
another in the degree to which they induce mutual obligation, expose the
work of each person to the scrutiny of others, and call for, tolerate, or reward
initiative in matters of curriculum and instruction. Four such conceptions,
prominent in the case-study and survey literature, serve as ideal types for
purposes of this discussion. I have arrayed them in Figure 1 to suggest their
probable relation to conditions of mutual independence or interdependence
among teachers.
The move from conditions of complete independence to thoroughgoing in-
terdependence entails changes in the frequency and intensity of teachers’
interactions, the prospects for conflict, and probability of mutual influence.
That is, with each successive shift, the warrant for autonomy shifts from
individual to collective judgment and preference. With each shift, the inheri-
ted traditions of noninterference and equal status are brought more into ten-
sion with the prospect of teacher-to-teacher initiative on matters of curricu-
and instruction. Figure 1 is provisional. I am quite confident that we
can and must distinguish forms of collegial relations in terms of their de-
mands on autonomy and initiative, because only in doing
do we begin to
account for the consequences felt in the classroom. I am reasonably confident
Increasing demands for collective autonomy
and teacher-to-teacher initiative
Figure 1. A provisional continuum of collegial relations.
Teachers’ Professional Relations
of certain basic distinctions that range from sporadic contacts and idiosyn-
cratic affiliations among peers to joint work of a more rigorous and enduring
sort. In this article, I begin to speculate about the relation these ideal types
bear to each other, to the underlying dimensions of autonomy and initiative,
and to teachers’ practice, identity, and commitment. The matter is made
more complex if we must retain a place in this conception for respected and
competent independent practice as well. Figure 1 is best treated for the mo-
ment as a heuristic, and the four conceptions as independent ideal types.
Storytelling and Scanning for
Under conditions of nearly complete independence, teachers satisfy the de-
mands of daily classroom life by occasional forays in search of specific ideas,
solutions, or reassurances; this is the image of the “tinkering artisan” or the
“independent entrepreneur.“’ Contacts among teachers are opportunistic.
Teachers gain information and assurance in the quick exchange of stories,
but the casual camaraderie of the staffroom and even enduring friendships
among teachers remain at some distance from the classroom. Friendships
may in fact suffer considerable strain when teachers attempt to carry funda-
mentally social relations into the classroom, the heart of the professional
This conception of collegial relations is consonant with portraits of teach-
ers’ work that have altered little over decades.” One cannot examine the
boundaries of teachers’ professional relations without taking account of this
pervasive “ordinary reality” of sporadic and informal exchange. A school’s
staff may be described as “close,” offering large doses of camaraderie, sym-
pathy, and moral support, but the texture of collegial relations is woven prin-
cipally of social and interpersonal interests. Teacher autonomy rests on free-
dom from scrutiny and the largely unexamined right to exercise personal
preference; teachers acknowledge and tolerate the individual preferences or
styles of others. Independent trial and error serves as the principal route to
competence. In all these ways, the modal conception of collegiality is both
characteristic and reinforcing of a culture of individualism, presentism, and
Observers (including teachers) tend to agree that classroom independence
punctuated by occasional contacts among colleagues is the modal reality, but
dispute its import. Critics have argued that teachers’ “idiosyncratic special-
ization” retards the ability of individuals and groups to make sense of teach-
ing and to improve it.”
Other observers are inclined to discount the negative
effects of isolation, especially among experienced teachers, and to weigh
carefully the public cost of investing greater resources in teachers’ time to-
gether. The teacher-student relation is at the heart of schooling. Deeply per-
Teachers College Record
sonal and emotionally dense relations between teachers and students rest
precisely on the special dispositions and talents of individual teachers.12 Even
acknowledging the limitations of isolated work, is it not possible that inde-
pendent artisanry as a model of the school is quite adequate to fulfill the ob-
ligations and engender the rewards of teaching? Schools are “essentially like
this” according to Michael Huberman: “The main sources of professional
self-esteem, competence and outside expertise are either private (in the
[classroom]) or external to the building.” Further, he argues, “for some
powerful functional and professionally normative reasons, they are unlikely
to become anything else. And . . .
we can make a go of this situation. . . .
We need to slightly increase the interdependencies . . . increase dramatically
the access of staff members to congenial, higher quality sources of informa-
tion and expertise in the surrounding environment.“13
The most prominent sources of “information and expertise in the sur-
rounding environment” presently reside in the performances that teachers
witness (even in mere glimpses through the classroom door) and in the stories
of teaching rendered by students and by teachers themselves. Where the or-
ganization of space, time, and task seriously constrain interactions, col-
leagues learn indirectly and informally about their own and others’ practice
through moment-by-moment exchanges. Yet we have scant knowledge of the
ways in which teachers’ work is affected by these glimpses of work in progress
and these stories told in passing. Some observers denigrate storytelling, hold-
ing it to be a weak substitute for more robust forms of deliberation about
practice. By this view,, teachers use stories to gain information indirectly
when they are confronted with powerful occupational norms that suppress
more instrumental forms of help-seeking.14
Such stories have been charac-
terized as offering only incomplete accounts of a complex and subtle per-
formance, thus exacerbating rather than relieving the endemic uncertainties
of the classroom. To the extent that stories comprise no more than a litany
of complaint, they may act to inhibit analysis and inventiveness,15 and by
placing a premium on the concrete details of daily classroom life, stories act
as a reinforcer of the exclusive “classroom warrant” that sustains a conserva-
tive and present-oriented perspective.”
It is conceivable, however, that stories of teaching may exert undetected
influence of quite another sort. The primacy that we as researchers place on
rational discourse may have led us to underestimate the cumulative and po-
tentially rich effect of staff-room stories on teachers’ conceptions of their
work. Despite paeans to teachers’ “practical knowledge,” organizers of struc-
tured collaborations typically work to supplant teachers’ own talk with a
“shared technical language”
derived from classroom research, learning
theory, or other sources external to teachers’ immediate experience. Yet even
a casual reading of the case-study literature reveals stories of vastly different
character- and perhaps vastly different consequence. Some stories reveal
Teachers’ Professional
Relations 515
more than others of teachers’ knowledge, intentions, and practice. Some
stories reveal faith in children, while others disparage them. Some are oft-
told stories, part of an oral tradition that captures the essential culture of the
school; most are anecdotes of the moment, but display a common tenor that
both marks and reproduces the ethos of the group or the institution. In the
staff-room exchanges described by Hammersly, stories serve to “defend
[teachers’] collective sense of competence in the face of potentially discredit-
ing evidence . . .
posed by the behaviour of pupils.“17 In other staff rooms,
among staff less committed to defending traditional modes of instruction
against pressures to change, stories exemplify and reinforce a culture of
Purpose, details, and tone are qualitatively different.
I am skeptical that brief stories told of (not in) classrooms could advance
teachers’ understanding and practice of teaching. Where the performances
of teaching themselves remain barely visible, stories do little to illuminate the
principles that underlie teachers’ planning or teaching-in-action. Under such
circumstances, storytelling as the dominant or exclusive mode of teacher in-
teraction probably serves to sustain rather than to alter patterns of inde-
pendent practice. Nonetheless, this is skepticism grounded in meager evi-
dence. Certainly we know little of the contribution that teachers’ stories make
when embedded in a wider pattern of professional interaction. In school en-
vironments where norms of privacy have been supplanted by norms of mu-
tual support, teachers continue to engage in storytelling even while they
pursue other modes of professional interaction.19 Nias argues that in col-
laborative school cultures, teachers are able to exploit the advantages of brief
moments- every exchange is “densely coded.“20 Anthropologists have
opened yet a different window on storytelling, showing how it both consoli-
dates group identity and accomplishes collective instruction or mutual prob-
lem solving.21 In any event, by failing to attend to the patently variable na-
ture of the stories that are told and the circumstances of their telling, we
remain unable to grasp the significance of this omnipresent feature of
teachers’ work lives.
A second conception equates collegiality with the ready availability of mutual
aid or helping. This is a conception that dominates studies of one-to-one in-
teractions among peers, as well as studies of teacher induction and some
studies of innovation and professional development.
Perhaps the single most pervasive expectation among teachers is that col-
leagues will give one another help and advice when asked. Nonetheless,
teachers carefully preserve the boundary between offering advice when asked
and interfering in unwarranted ways in another teacher’s work. Most teach-
ers expect to supply advice when asked-and only when asked; a teacher in
one study went so far as to declare that other teachers are “none of my busi-
Teachers College Record
ness.” Teachers with many years’ experience, armed with well-formulated
and well-grounded views on effective teaching, nonetheless refrain from ad-
vocating specific approaches even to beginning teachers.22
A central tactic by which teachers initiate professional discussion about
teaching (“just ask”) thus turns out to be one with powerful implications for
professional status and for the possibility of meaningful scrutiny of teachers’
practices. The principal limitation is that questions asked by one teacher of
another are interpreted as requests for help. Questions stimulated by a more
general curiosity about the business of teaching are reportedly and observed-
ly more rare. Discussion about practices of
under such circum-
stances, becomes difficult to separate from judgments of the competence of
Understandably, teachers may show little inclination to engage with
peers around matters of curriculum and instruction if doing so can only be
managed in ways that may jeopardize self-esteem and professional standing.
Under the rubric of aid and assistance, the prevailing model for professional
interaction is one that treats the matters of teaching in piecemeal fashion
while resting on implied asymmetries in teachers’ status.23 As a basic form
of collegiality, or as an outer boundary on expected interactions among
teachers, learning by asking seriously limits the degree to which teachers pos-
sess what Lortie has termed a “shared technical culture.“24 The tendencies
toward individualism, presentism, and conservatism are sustained rather
than altered.
Two related bodies of work illuminate the “mutual aid” construction of col-
legiality. Social-psychological perspectives on help-seeking offer a substantial
but largely unexploited resource in conceptualizing the helping relations in
teaching. Ranging widely from bystanders’ responses to victimization to the
relations between donor (funding) agencies and recipient Third World coun-
tries, this literature begins to account for occasions on which help is sought
or not, offered or withheld, accepted or rejected.25 Some conditions expand
the occurrence of aid and assistance; others depress it. The choices persons
make to solicit aid or to accept assistance when it is offered are determined
in large part by their assessment of the psychological and social costs: the
costs to one’s own sense of competence, the status one has with important
others, the obligations one incurs by accepting resources. Advice-giving has
been assessed as a productive but problematic form of collegial exchange that
emerges where local commitment to traditional norms of privacy and equal
status is weak, thus permitting more overt expressions of help-seeking.26
Teacher-induction programs and other consultative arrangements that are
premised on the utility of “help” confront both the occupational prohibitions
surrounding interference and the wider cultural ambivalence about help-
In addition, research and theory development on work redesign and role
innovation are fruitfully applied to the study of help-giving, ‘which is pro-
Teachers’ Professional Relations
moted as a central feature of career-ladder plans, teacher-induction pro-
grams, or differentiated staffing arrangements. The tensions surrounding
the evolution of the “mentor teacher” role, for example, highlight the prob-
lematic character of help-giving in an occupation grounded in strong egali-
tarian traditions. The implementation of a mentor role confronts school dis-
tricts with a two-part challenge: Districts must introduce persons to roles and
relationships for which they typically have had little preparation, and they
must introduce the role itself to an institution and occupation in which it has
few meaningful precedents.27 In a series of vignettes written by mentors and
compiled by Shulman and Colbert, the titles alone convey the main issues:
“reluctant to ask,” “never got a chance,” “everything is fine,” “mutual bene-
fit ,” “defensive.“”
Nearly all of the forty-seven vignettes reveal dilemmas as-
sociated in some way with help-giving, among them the attributions of com-
petence or incompetence that either person makes about the other, the ten-
sions surrounding nominal status differences introduced by the mentor title,
and the demands for reciprocity. Other factors constrain mentors’ support
for new teachers-in a study purporting to examine the “hidden costs of
sharing expertise,” mentors have been characterized as “misers” who with-
hold their store of knowledge, methods, and materials in order to preserve
their individual reputations.29
The literatures on helping behavior and role development productively in-
tersect in pursuit of key issues that surface when one makes mutual aid a
prominent construct of collegiality. Under what conditions is one-to-one
assistance considered
Beginning teachers (like newcomers to other
organizations or occupations) may ask for some help, but not too much or
too often. Experienced teachers who accept a radical change in teaching
assignment may make certain requests of those more familiar with the sub-
ject area, grade level, student population. Some schools more than others
make help-seeking an accepted activity; in such schools, teachers may be
frowned upon for withholding requests or offers of assistance. Further, how
might we assess the
of advice? Might we find instances of advice-giv-
ing in which the advice is of sufficient depth, detail, and contextual sensi-
tivity to be worth following and possible to apply? Does the content of advice
reflect more than a pooling of classroom habits? Are exchanges of aid and
assistance frequent enough, widespread enough, and sturdy enough to do
more than resolve crises? (Are we filling potholes, resurfacing the road, or
inventing new modes of transport?) In cursory or infrequent exchanges,
teachers may offer reassurance that serves only to confirm present practice
without evaluating its worth. They may supply sympathy of the sort that dis-
suades teachers from the kind of closer analysis of practice that might yield
solutions to recurrent problems.30
By confronting these aspects of aid and
assistance, we equip ourselves to account for the persistence or gradual
demise of individualistic, present-oriented, and conservative orientations in
Teachers College Record
A third conception of collegiality highlights the routine sharing of materials
and methods or the open exchange of ideas and opinions.31 This is a concep-
tion found to some extent in all the literatures. Through routine sharing,
teaching is presumably made less private, more public. In principle, the pool
of ideas and methods is expanded. The coordination of teachers’ work and
students’ careers is made possible in ways that cannot be achieved through
other forms of collegial contact. By making the ordinary materials of their
work accessible to one another, teachers expose their ideas and intentions to
others. Unlike periodic advice-giving, which tends to atomize and fragment
teachers’ grasp of their own and others’ practice, widespread sharing may re-
veal an entire pattern of choices with regard to curriculum and instruction.
Further, the ground is laid for productive discussion and debate regarding
curricular and instructional priorities. In British primary schools marked by
a well-established culture of collaboration, such sharing of professional work
and personal lives in the public forum of the daily assembly serves to “drip-
feed” the culture of the schools.32 By displaying selected samples of their work
to the scrutiny of the entire school, teachers communicate their own expecta-
tions of their pupils and themselves; they also provide a visible performance
that subsequently serves as the point of departure for staff-room talk. Sheer
visibility provides an opportunity to learn about others’ work, and to gauge
one’s own. Teaching in such schools, Nias says, is construed as “personal but
not private; teachers are prepared to reveal a good deal of themselves in the
public arena.“33
Sharing is a term that invites commonsense interpretations, appearing to
promise a robust but harmonious exchange of insights and methods. In fact,
however, sharing is variable in form and consequence. It may prove norma-
tively permissive or obligatory, may engage more or fewer teachers, may be
fully reciprocal or only marginally so. Teachers may reveal much or little of
their thinking or practice in the materials and ideas they share. Grade-level
or department chairs intend much when they issue an invitation to “share a
favorite lesson” at a monthly meeting, but such tactics promise little in light
of discoveries that experienced teachers conceive of their planning not in dis-
crete lessons but in terms of whole days or weeks-or units.34 By contrast,
the thorough compilation and review of all materials, activities, and assign-
ments used by an English department to teach a specific play or novel, or
by social studies teachers to examine the conditions of revolution, offers at
least the prospect of coherence in the curriculum even while it risks (or
promises) vigorous debate over priorities.
Nias’s account of British primary school assemblies-daily gatherings of
pupils and staff-underscores the variable nature and impacts of sharing.
Even in the most collaborative of the schools, sharing does not extend to
Professional Relations
direct commentary on curriculum and instruction. Nor should we assume
that the mere opportunity to witness one another’s work necessarily influ-
ences teachers’ day-to-day practice. Further, in schools where a collaborative
culture is less clearly established, sharing appears to be truly problematic.
Relations among teachers are found to be fragile, potentially damaged by
actions that teachers might interpret as “competitive.” Such accounts of
whole-school cultures, together with studies of teacher-support programs,
suggest some of the conditions- that operate to enable or constrain sharing.
Sharing appears to be suppressed by commitments to traditional occupation-
al norms of noninterference, but stimulated by collective commitments to
alternative norms of experimentation and mutual support.35 Resource-im-
poverished and isolating environments may prompt teachers to hoard “a few
good ideas”; resource-enriched environments in which teachers value mutual
support may demonstrate a solid “return on investment” in sharing. In prin-
ciple, sharing expands the collective pool of resources; in practice teachers
describe the painstaking accumulation of an individual store of resources
that may be diminished, depleted, or compromised when revealed to others.
Among the “hidden costs of sharing expertise” are the risk of an added
planning and preparation burden (as teachers replace the ideas that have
been “given away”) and an erosion of the corpus of ideas, methods, and
materials that serve as the basis of individual reputation, giving teachers dis-
tinctive identity and status.36
Joint Work
I reserve the term
joint work
for encounters among teachers that rest on
shared responsibility for the work of teaching (interdependence), collective
conceptions of autonomy, support for teachers’ initiative and leadership with
regard to professional practice, and group affiliations grounded in profes-
sional work. Joint work is dependent on the structural organization of task,
time, and other resources in ways not characteristic of other forms of collegi-
ality, and thus is both responsive to larger institutional purposes and vulner-
able to external manipulations.37
Collegiality as collaboration or as joint work anticipates truly collective
action-teachers’ decisions to pursue a single course of action in concert or,
alternatively, to decide on a set of basic priorities that in turn guide the inde-
pendent choices of individual teachers. The cases stand out. Teachers in a
middle school form interdisciplinary teams whose members debate curricu-
lum priorities and monitor the progress of specific students; their classroom
teaching reflects both their individual personalities and their common em-
phasis on achieving literacy among their linguistically diverse students.
Teachers in three high school departments share a concern about high stu-
dent failure rates; they meet daily over lunch to discuss what they are learn-
Teachers College Record
ing from quite different action research projects in their classrooms. Mem-
bers of a junior high school math department decide on criteria and pro-
cedures for diagnosing the math competence of seventh graders; their agree-
ments will affect the curriculum each employs in the first weeks of school.
In these and other similar accounts, the intellectual, social, and emotional
demands of teaching supply the motivation to collaborate. Quite apart from
their personal friendships or dispositions, teachers are motivated to partici-
pate with one another to the degree that they require each other’s contribu-
tions in order to succeed in their own work.38 One theorist observes that
“greater task interdependence stimulates greater use of all coordination
Motivation is lessened when it appears that success and satisfac-
tion can be readily (or even better) achieved alone, or even in competition
with others. To get a practical grasp of “interdependence,” we might call to
mind some examples of complex work that cannot be accomplished by even
the most knowledgeable individuals acting alone. Without an appropriately
configured team, brain surgery is inconceivable. So is a symphony per-
formance. Nor could a container ship be piloted into a congested harbor.
Short of true interdependence, of course, one might imagine cases in which
the quality of solutions to recurrent and difficult problems is enhanced by
consultation with others, even while the work itself can be (and typically is)
conducted independently. To what extent does the work of teaching benefit
from teachers’ joint deliberation over difficult and recurring problems of
teaching and learning, or from teachers’ joint involvement in the actual work
of teaching?
Felt interdependencies in teaching are few. Asked to specify essential re-
lationships, those others without whom they simply could not do their work,
teachers identified an average of one person; the average number of close
consultative relationships was higher (about four), hardly approaching
a meaningful proportion of most faculties.40 Such a finding suggests that
teacher collaboration is largely “voluntaristic” and generally peripheral to the
main work of the organization. Case studies of “collaborative” schools often
highlight the socioemotional support that teachers offer one another, the
generosity of spirit that prevails; they offer fewer examples of teachers who
somehow balance personal support with hard-nosed deliberation about
present practice and future direction. The case examples offered above
suggest how the press toward interdependence may be supplied internally by
the social organization of work and by the stance that school leaders assume.
For good or ill, the press may also be exerted on the school by external
sources. As policymakers and the wider public press schools to achieve more
ambitious and complex goals, school leaders in turn press teachers to col-
laborate in the service of those goals. In Britain, the advent of a national
curriculum has been the occasion for teacher collaboration.41 In Norway,
Teachers’ Professional Relations
policy-level changes have
created a certain redefinition of teachers’ work in the direction of more
collectivity. For the local school to fulfill its obligations, it is no longer
sufficient to base itself on individual work by individual teachers. More
of the tasks are of such a character that they can hardly be dealt with at
least not properly-without involving the collective of teachers in
them. . . . A possible consequence of this change is that there may be
an increased demand on teachers to develop consciously-collective
rather than individual practical theories of work.42
Commonly held conceptions of professional autonomy are rendered prob-
lematic by the demands of joint work. Among the psychological costs associ-
ated with rigorous collaboration is the loss of individual latitude to act on
personal preferences-or to act on personal preference unexamined by and
unaccountable to peers. Collegial relations that center around storytelling,
mutual assistance, or sharing issue slight challenge to autonomy conceived
as personal prerogative. Teachers in productive teams, departments,
groups, and projects express an alternative conception. The demands and
the prerogatives of professional autonomy shift from private to public, from
individual to collective. Personal prerogative is made subject to collectively
developed values, standards, and agreements; but personal initiative is also
accorded greater collective and institutional force. Independent action is
both constrained and enabled. Teachers open their intentions and practices
to public examination, but in turn are credited for their knowledge, skill, and
judgment. Indeed, the close scrutiny of practice within a group perhaps is
sustained only where the competence and commitment of the members is not
in doubt.
Finally, constraints on independent action-the substitution of collective
autonomy for a “private” version of autonomy-do not require and will not
ensure consensus of thought or uniformity of action. Rather, a staffs beliefs
and practices become more publicly known and publicly considered. Deeply
held beliefs may be in conflict, with proponents of competing views each
holding their own to serve the best interests of students. “Involvement” and
“participation” require greater contact and visibility, greater awareness of
one another’s beliefs and practices, and greater reliance on verifiable infor-
mation as a basis for preferred action. In an effort to arrive at “decisions,”
teachers join discussions that sometimes link them to like-minded colleagues;
those same discussions, however, may force teachers to confront peers whose
perspectives and practices they do not share or cannot admire. A move to
increase teacher-to-teacher interaction has the prospect for making the mi-
cropolitics of the school more visible, as teachers and administrators discover
which aspects of school and classroom life are legitimately open to scrutiny,
522 Teachers College Record
debate, and decision. To contain conflict, all may be inclined to reserve joint
deliberations to those arenas in which agreement is most likely, arenas that
may have only marginal significance for the lives of either students or teach-
ers. However, moderate levels of social conflict have been found to be essen-
tial to the development of integrative agreements; conflict is “often necessary
for the emergence of high joint benefit.” Conversely, the desire to avoid con-
flict (a frequently cited feature of teacher groups) can undermine the de-
velopment of such agreements.43 Without abandoning basic canons of
courtesy, teachers who are engaged in joint work displace the norm of non-
interference; an alternative norm prevails, one that favors the thoughtful,
explicit examination of practices and their consequences. Joint work enables
teachers to engage in direct commentary on the moral, intellectual, and tech-
nical merit of classroom practices and school-level programs or policies.
Teachers both accept and expect initiative on matters of professional princi-
ple and craft.
Further, joint work can be tested against a standard of teachers’ profes-
sional influence. In the empirical literature, teacher influence has been nar-
rowly conceived both theoretically and methodologically. Studies of teacher
influence in school-level decisions have defined teacher influence almost ex-
clusively as teachers’ felt impact on school-level decisions (that is, as influ-
ence in the context of school governance). There has been relatively little
examination of teachers’ influence on other teachers’ thinking or classroom
performance.44 Second, studies have been dominated by questionnaire self-
reports of perceived influence. Few researchers have made use of observa-
tional data or in-depth interviews to describe and assess influence.45 Most
references to the
of decision making list topic areas in which decisions
have been attempted: curriculum planning, methods of instruction, program
planning, classroom management and discipline, school priorities and goals,
textbook selection, staff development, staff evaluation, staffing (hiring and
placement), and the like. Yet we have little in the way of close-up description
of the
people do together versus what they attempt alone, or the
decisions that arise from deliberately “participatory” interactions. Rarely do
we read the case history of a consequential decision.46 Teachers, administra-
tors, school boards and other policymakers, teacher educators, all will re-
quire a clearer picture of what the gains (and sacrifices) are when teachers
work together and arrive at decisions collectively.
First, initiative by teachers should be manifest in choices that affect stu-
dents’ opportunity to learn. The study of teachers’ influence must have at its
core the standard of student benefit. Yet there has been little attention to the
relationship between teachers’ involvement and teachers’ productivity con-
ceived either as student opportunity to learn or demonstrated student learn-
ing. Second, teachers’ initiative and influence can be traced in teachers’ own
evolving identity as teachers. Teachers’ work beyond the classroom, includ-
Teachers’ Professional Relations 523
ing their participation in joint decision making, can be expected to have an
effect on their capacities and commitments as teachers. Teachers’ technical
capacity to teach can be enlarged through access to a larger pool of ideas,
methods and materials.47 In a broader sense, involvement with colleagues
and administrators on matters of schoolwide importance may shape a teach-
er’s sense of self as a classroom teacher, as a member of a faculty, and as a
member of a profession. It may intensify (or shake) teachers’ commitment
to teaching, both with regard to long-term intentions to remain in teaching
and with regard to the energy and engagement that teachers bring to daily
work. Third, teachers’ influence presumably bears fruit in organizational
capacity and adaptability. The collective capacity of a school, program, or
group to serve students is arguably improved by joint decision making on
matters of curriculum, instruction, and testing.
My basic argument here is that teachers’ main motivation and reward for
involvement with one another will be found in the work of teaching. This is
not to say that teachers do not have other motives for seeking one another
out, but to argue that they are unlikely to sustain a pattern of significant out-
of-classroom involvement in the absence of interdependent work-related
interests. To the extent that teachers find themselves truly dependent on one
another to manage the tasks and reap the rewards of teaching, joint partici-
pation will be worth the investment of time and other resources. To the ex-
tent that teachers’ success and satisfaction can be achieved independently,
the motivations to participate are weakened. At one extreme, teachers con-
duct their work as fully independent entrepreneurs. In this conception, indi-
vidual discretion takes precedence and teachers’ initiative on matters of prac-
tice is constrained by norms of noninterference and equal status. At the
other, teachers as members of an “occupational community”48 exert recipro-
cal influence on one another and on the school as an organization in the in-
terests of a student clientele for whom they accept joint responsibility. In this
latter conception, professional autonomy and discretion reside collectively
with the faculty; put more forcefully, each one’s teaching is everyone’s busi-
ness, and each one’s success is everyone’s responsibility.
The greater the prospect for mutual influence among teachers, the more con-
sequential becomes the substance of teachers’ joint work: the beliefs teachers
hold and their substantive knowledge of subject and student. Although the
richest of the school ethnographies provide us with detailed accounts of the
beliefs and substantive interests that bind teachers together or alienate them
from one another, studies focused directly on the phenomena of collegiality
and collaboration have given precedence to form over content. The treat-
524 Teachers College Record
ment of content has tended to take two forms: (1) categorical distinctions be-
tween merely social talk and more richly substantive discourse; and (2)
descriptions of the program content or the innovation that constitutes the
ostensible occasion for joint work. Neither of these substitutes well for a more
close-grained account of the moral and intellectual dispositions that teachers
bring to or develop in the course of their relations with one another; neither
has been well-informed by careful scrutiny of the actual talk among teachers,
the choices teachers make in concert, or the ways in which individual actions
follow from the deliberations of the group.
The arguments that teachers make to one another, the preferences they ex-
press, and the choices they promote or challenge all inevitably express a set
of beliefs about children. An unspoken and unexamined ideological stance
is present in the apparent assumption that if teachers are talking intensively
about instruction and curriculum, they are doing so in the best interests of
pupils. Rarely have we considered the ways in which teachers’ collective
endeavors confirm or compromise standards of care and justice in the treat-
ment of children.
The content of teachers’ values and beliefs cannot be taken for granted in
the study or pursuit of teachers’ collegial norms of interaction and interpreta-
tion. Under some circumstances, greater contact among teachers can be ex-
pected to advance the prospects for students’ success; in others, to promote
increased teacher-to-teacher contact may be to intensify norms unfavorable
to children. Some forms of “experience-swapping,” for example, are con-
sistent with collegial norms that emphasize reassurance and sympathy while
discouraging close scrutiny and skepticism.49 Such norms may provide
teachers with collective permission for poor performance and marginal
Much of the press toward collaboration has occurred in the context of re-
form movements or on behalf of specific organizational innovations. What
is missing is what the various parties bring to the exchange: what values and
affiliations and orientations bind the group-and with what apparent impli-
cations or consequences for the kind of classroom experience that pupils en-
counter or the kind of moral and intellectual stance the group or school
adopts. Hargreaves warns that some staff-development strategies that em-
phasize collegial interaction “reduce questions about ends, goals and values
in teaching to questions of means, techniques and procedures. The nature
of teaching as profoundly moral craft . . .
the intensely personal dimensions
of teachers’ knowledge and action . . .
unfolding values and life interests . . .
all these essential features of teaching, of what motivates and informs the
teacher, are ignored.“50
Teachers’ Professional Relations
The intellectual capabilities and dispositions that colleagues bring to their
work, and the quality of the products that follow from joint ventures, are no
less crucial. Arguments in favor of collaboration assume that teachers’ under-
standing of their work will be advanced through time spent with others. A
more ambitious curriculum will be achieved and more inventive instruction
attempted. Such assumptions deserve examination. Bluntly put, do we have
in teachers’ collaborative work the creative development of well-informed
choices, or the mutual reinforcement of poorly informed habit? Does teach-
ers’ time together advance the understanding and imagination they bring to
their work, or do teachers merely confirm one another in present practice?
What subject philosophy and subject pedagogy do teachers reflect as they
work together; how explicit and accessible is their knowledge to one another?
Do some collaborations in fact erode teachers’ moral commitment and intel-
lectual merit?
At issue here is the knowledge that teachers draw on, apply, or develop
in the course of work with and around colleagues. Teachers’ general exclu-
sion from the curriculum-policy and other decision-making process would
seem to underscore the “dim view of teachers’ knowledge”51 that has pervaded
much of educational research (and, one would have to add, much of educa-
tional policy). Recent case studies of teacher thinking and teachers’ class-
room practice have countered this view by revealing the diversity of practical
or craft knowledge on which teachers rely, Such studies have acknowledged
and given special accord to teachers’ practical knowledge.52 By involving
teachers more closely with one another, schools are presumably in a better
position to make use of teachers’ practical knowledge and to accord proper
status to teachers as knowledgeable professionals. However, certain prob-
lems arise that are associated with the immediacy and intensity of classroom
practice and with the isolation in which most teachers work.
Teachers face a challenge in making their knowledge explicit and accessi-
ble. They describe their knowledge as intuitive; in Margret Buchmann’s
description, they rely on “folkways” that are “learned by acquaintance which
yields familiarity without insight, through participation in cultural patterns
containing trustworthy recipes, and as common sense, which claims palpable
obviousness and sagacity.“53 The taken-for-granted, invisible character of
“just teaching” is only with difficulty rendered problematic and open to scru-
tiny and debate. Teachers’ affiliations with one another on the basis of “like-
mindedness” do not appear to call for or provoke close examination of their
shared assumptions.
To emphasize the importance to teachers of their reference groups is not
to suggest that they hold lengthy philosophical discussions. Teachers in
primary schools decide whether or not they have enough in common to
Teachers College Record
be able to work together by, for instance, watching each other’s actions,
looking at children’s work, holding brief conversations about common
interests, not by seeking the articulation of deeply-buried beliefs.54
Teachers may not know what they know, or how to say what they know.
Using what one knows to shape a curriculum unit or navigate live successive
periods of mathematics teaching is different, both intellectually and socially,
from articulating one’s accumulated knowledge as a set of principles and
practices to guide others as they deliberate “best practice.” In addition, teach-
ers’ knowledge has been criticized as incomplete, derived predominantly
from a small, narrow sample of classrooms (their own) in which their ability
to detect significant patterns is further constrained by the performance im-
perative. Those who defend teachers’ context-specific practical knowledge
argue that “the purpose of practical knowledge is to inform wise action-not
to advance general understanding. The goal of wise action and the practical
contexts of teaching provide the appropriate terms for describing what teach-
ers know, how they acquire this knowledge, and how they put it to use."55
Critics imply that wise action is in fact compromised by the experience-
bound character of teachers’ practical knowledge. The criterion of “wise
informed by privately held and unarticulated knowledge, becomes
problematic when an independent course of action is inadequate to the
school’s larger purposes and tasks. Caught up in the immediacies of the class-
room, and isolated from comparative practice or theory, teachers “take
strong stands against practices different from their own and rely on personal
experience to defend what they do. The meanings they give to abstract terms
are limited to the boundaries of their own experience.“56
In addition, teachers’ joint work is made problematic by the very character
of teachers’ thinking and experience and how it comes to be represented ver-
bally. Though teachers construct schemata to represent classroom events and
patterns, and to account prospectively and retrospectively for their actions,
classroom work itself remains held in performance, like theater. Concepts of
composition and improvisation may account more readily for knowledge-in-
use than do concepts associated with rational planning and design.57 Fellow
improvisors can in fact describe the principles of improvisation to one
another,58 but such principles prove difficult to illuminate if the per-
formandes themselves are neither seen nor heard. In this regard, the persis-
tence of privacy has its roots in the organization of the work of teaching itself,
and in the immediacy and fluidity of classroom experience. The very com-
plexity, immediacy, and subtlety of classroom life not only render “shared
knowledge” problematic, but also intensify the primacy of the classroom war-
rant in teachers’ shared work. Even when teachers have access to a broader
base of knowledge (gained through reading, university study, in-service edu-
cation, talk with colleagues, or observation), there is some evidence that such
“outside” knowledge is selectively discounted when decision-making groups
Teachers’ Professional Relations 527
come together. A conservative bias is introduced when the most powerful
warrant for action is personalized and localized classroom history. “Experi-
ence counts, theory doesn’t,”
in the words of one close observer of curriculum
decision-making teams.59
The classroom overwhelms other sources of infor-
mation. Individual preferences and prerogatives shape conclusions that
might have been cast otherwise if informed by a more systematic and dispas-
sionate comparison of practices and their consequences that reaches beyond
classrooms. To the extent that successful decision making requires informed
consideration of alternatives, teachers’ general isolation places them at a
What teachers hold in common-the basis of their affiliations with one
another- may suggest something of the limits and possibilities of their collec-
tive action. In teachers’ own accounts of colleagues, pronouns are significant:
I,” and “they” convey meaningful boundaries. In the ongoing life of
schools, teachers find reason to collaborate - or not-regarding the students
or subjects they teach, the extracurricular responsibilities they assume, the
stance they take toward matters of district policy and politics, or the interests
they pursue outside school. These connections may lead teachers to pursue
new courses of action and support one another in the attempt-or to join to-
gether to preserve and reinforce the status quo. Teachers may act in common
to secure resources, yet have little to do with one another on more substan-
tive matters; thus Cusick describes the departments in two high schools as
an administrative convenience but not an intellectual home.60 Or teachers
who are nominally members of the same unit (department, grade level, pro-
gram) and presumably of like mind may find themselves at odds on matters
of subject philosophy or pedagogy. Sarah, the Canadian high school teacher
studied by Elbaz, was enthusiastic about the teaching of English but alien-
ated from her department when the group persisted in what she perceived
to be a short-sighted allegiance to a basic skills curriculum.61 Four English
departments studied by Ball and Lacey varied substantially in their philoso-
phic and pedagogical cohesion.62
A rich and growing literature alerts us to the salience of subgroups within
organizations and occupations. On the whole, students of teachers’ profes-
sional relations have only begun to take advantage of a long and productive
body of work on the internal structure of organizations and on the nature of
work groups and their relationship to larger organizational wholes. From
whole-school studies informed by a micropolitical perspective, and from
other recent work on the nature of subunits in organizations,63 we can derive
four aspects of professional community that bear on our understanding of
joint work and the other forms of collegial interaction: (1) the number and
Teachers College Record
heterogeneity of meaningful reference groups within schools; (2) differences
among groups with regard to professional beliefs and practice, and with
regard to institutional status; (3) the individual teacher’s multiple affiliations
within the school and among a wider professional community; and (4) the
degree of fit between naturally occurring reference groups and the collabora-
tions that are promoted or induced in the service of special programs or
Emphasis on the school as the unit of interest obscures the sheer multiplic-
ity of teacher reference groups. Even in small and remarkably unified pri-
mary schools the collaborative culture is the dominant culture but not the
only one.64 Other observers describe schools in which the staff is deeply
divided over fundamental educational purposes and pedagogical strategies,
and in which teachers form cohesive and mutually competitive subgroups.65
Thus, one primary school is populated by four distinct teacher groups, each
of which
defined in different ways the purposes for which they, as teachers, were
in school. Accordingly, they set different standards for their pupils, ex-
pected different behavior from them, and treated them, as classes and
individuals, differently. . . .
Archetypally, Rockfield was a primary
school in which the existence of different staff reference groups made it
possible for individuals to collaborate within cohesion sub-groups but
impossible for them to work together as a whole staff.66
Groups may be formally designated on organizational charts (departments
or grade levels); they may be established de facto through shared assign-
ments or other functional links (tracks and special programs); or they may
be informally constituted in cliques, factions, and in-groups and out-groups
whose boundaries and significance are harder to detect. The various groups,
formal and informal, may be in agreement or in opposition over basic educa-
tional matters. They may vary significantly in the status they are accorded
inside and outside the school, and the access to resources they enjoy. Among
the groups, norms of collegial interaction and interpretation may vary
Few studies take account of all of the ways in which groups are constituted,
or the manner in which the “groupness” provides a set of lenses through
which to portray a school’s culture or cultures. Subgroup analyses reveal not
only differences of perspective and practices, but also differences in institu-
tional leverage. Stephen Ball67 details the history of a decision at Beachside
Comprehensive, where the headmaster’s interest in promoting mixed ability
grouping was met with support by one group of teachers, who were commit-
ted to principles of equity, and with opposition by a second group, who were
equally committed to protecting the opportunities of “the more able pupil.”
Teachers’ Professional Relations 529
Ball summarizes:
Clearly, at one level there are two distinct and opposing ideologies at
work. These may be viewed in simple terms as meritocratic . . . and