- Year 2019
- NSF Noyce Award # 1136432
- First Name Deborah
- Last Name Nolan
- Discipline Biology, Chemistry, Geosciences, Math, Physics
George Johnson, University of California Berkeley, firstname.lastname@example.org; Judith Warren Little, University of California Berkeley, email@example.com
Annie Liang, University of California Berkeley, firstname.lastname@example.org; Elisa Stone, University of California Berkeley, email@example.com
Critical shortages of skilled teachers and poor teacher retention throughout California calls for innovations that address teacher learning, effectiveness, and retention. Math for America (MfA), Berkeley is a STEM teacher professional development program that uniquely brings together master teachers from different schools/districts across the region to engage in a range of professional learning activities across 5 years, thus fostering sustained ties across (rather than within) schools. Weak tie theory suggests that encouraging such intergroup communication and collaboration can provide teachers with access to a breadth of perspectives likely to increase the dissemination of novel information, promote creativity and innovation, and increase the flow of ideas and resources across networks. Few studies to date have examined how teachers might benefit from such ties to a broader, more diverse network and resources intended to further their own inquiry, effectiveness, and leadership.
What types of relational, network benefits develop when master teachers from different schools and districts across the San Francisco Bay Area are brought together in a five-year, semi-structured professional development program? What kinds of ties do teachers form with respect to the amount of time invested, levels of intimacy, reciprocity, and network overlap (i.e. can they be characterized as strong or weak ties)? Throughout the course of teachers’ participation in the program, what topics are discussed and what kinds of resources are shared among teachers? To what extent can these interactions be characterized as high vs. low-depth with respect to discussions of teaching and learning? Finally, as a result of these interactions and activities, what benefits, learning and growth do teachers report (both tangible and intangible, proximal and distal)? Were certain characteristics of teachers and/or their school contexts found to moderate the effects and value of the professional relationships formed within the community?
From 2010-2019, 30 secondary public-school STEM teachers spanning 5 cohorts completed the MfA Berkeley program. During their tenure, each cohort completed teacher inquiry research projects, obtained National Board Certification, mentored or coached pre-service and in-service teachers, engaged in leadership initiatives in their respective schools and districts, participated in regularly scheduled group discussions and presentations, and received financial support for attending education-related conferences. Some participants further engaged in research projects, took subject area courses, or co-taught classes in a STEM teacher education program. Multiple sources of data reflecting teachers’ learning experiences, projects, and products/outcomes were collected annually between 2014-2019. Methods included individual interviews, cohort focus groups, participant surveys, analyses of teachers’ annual written reflections, and direct observation of participant discussions and interactions.
We found that teachers generally formed and sustained weak, bridging ties with one another, which promoted the diffusion of information and innovations across local school networks (Granovetter, 1973). Structured program activities and meetings enabled high-depth interactions and discussions where teachers discussed their classroom challenges, practices, and thinking around teaching and learning. Weak ties across broader networks and information diffusion were further promoted through annual support for conference attendance, mentoring preservice teachers, and engaging in teacher research and leadership efforts in a variety of settings (both industry and educational contexts). Through these interactions, teachers reported benefitting from access to a breadth of perspectives and knowledge sources with respect to topics of pedagogy, classroom practices, professional resources, school structure, as well as leadership opportunities and approaches.
With respect to teacher retention and resilience, reported benefits included increased teacher engagement, motivation, well-being, innovation, and commitment to field. The value and benefits of ties within the MfA community appear particularly pronounced for teachers who worked in poorer performing or lower resourced schools/districts, had less access to peer models at their schools (i.e. other experienced, effective teachers), and experienced greater isolation and challenge in their work. Findings suggest that STEM teacher education and professional development programs should consider ways of meaningfully connecting teacher candidates, new and experienced teachers to broader networks of educators as well as foster their capacities for learning through high-depth dialogue, interaction, and iterative processes with others with the ultimate goal of improving K-12 student STEM learning and interest in STEM careers.