2. Teaching and Learning with Care and Commitment: Faculty Cohorts as Best Practice (1/3) – Best Practices for Education Professionals

Chapter 2
Teaching and Learning with Care and Commitment:
Faculty Cohorts as Best Practice
Jean Ann Hunt, Aline Bobys, Jean Mockry, and Denise Simard
The cohort model is an essential aspect of teaching and learning. Over the past five
years the model has been implemented to develop communities of students and teach-
ers who are caring, committed, and competent. The model highlights critical areas
related to the forming and sustaining a cohort in any educational setting: 1) Leadership
Focused on the Whole; 2) Faculty Choice and Control; 3) Creation of Community;
4) Use of Time; 5) Collaborative Decision Process; and 6) Relevant and Meaningful
Learning Experiences. These areas are interdependent and must be braided together in
order to create a cohort as best practice.
Teachers who do exemplary work in helping students engage deeply with what they
are learning are invariably part of collegial communities of educators.
––Alfie Kohn
In 2005 we were anything but a “collegial community of educators.” In March of that
year our Teacher Education Unit had been denied accreditation. The faculty had a
range of reactions to this announcement. Some felt it was not entirely undeserved, as
many of the courses we were teaching had not been revised in 20 years. In addition,
several faculty members had not been in schools for more than a decade. Others were
angry that their hard work and dedication to teacher education was being dismissed in
such a public manner. However, the denial of accreditation gave us all an opportunity
to reflect upon what we, the teacher education faculty, needed to do to prepare our
students to become effective teachers. In this chapter we will share our journey of
reflection, revision, and ultimately the revision of our Childhood Education program
through the establishment of faculty and student cohorts, both using collaboration as
a basis for teaching and learning. Using a cohort model for both faculty and students,
with an emphasis on collaboration, is essential in developing communities of teachers
who are caring, committed, and competent. Examining our journey holds relevance
to parallel experiences in K-12 schools as teachers work collaboratively to meet the
diverse needs of their students.
In retrospect, we are able to identify the following six areas as being critical to
forming and sustaining a cohort in any educational setting: 1) Leadership Focused on
the Whole; 2) Faculty Choice and Control; 3) Creation of Community; 4) Use of Time;
5) Collaborative Decision Process; and 6) Relevant and Meaningful Learning Experi-
ences. Although here we have pulled each of these threads apart for examination, as you
16 Best Practices for Education Professionals
will see throughout this chapter the reality of our lived experience is that these threads
are braided together, each needing the other in order to create a cohort as best practice.
Clearly, the denial of accreditation was our catalyst for change. It was a wake-up call
similar to the way schools are identified as being “in need.” We want to be clear here
that we do not believe that mandated testing or accreditation should be the only form
of evaluating the effectiveness of teaching and learning. In our case there were other
pieces of evidence suggesting a need for change was in order. Although, our students
did well on their certification exams, we often heard them talk about how they were
learning the same thing in two different classes or how they were unable to connect
learning from one class to another. During advising, students would sometimes ask
why they needed to take specific courses that seemed disconnected from teaching and
the rest of their teacher education program. These comments made sense, as all of our
foundation and methodology courses were taught in isolation from one another. In ad-
dition, many of our faculty and students did not feel connected to schools. Given that
our students were not in their first field experience until their junior year, it was not
unusual for students to then discover teaching was not the right field for them. Many
felt changing majors was too costly for the time and money already spent, leaving us to
wonder about our ethical responsibilities to the children, families, and other teachers
such students would be certified to work with in the future.
We have seen a similar list of evidence used by K-12 administrators and faculty
when change is called for in their schools. For when everyday teaching and learning
experiences are addressed, it is easier to identify when change is needed. Classroom
teachers we know will talk about their students who see no connections from one
subject to another or between several professionals who work with them, resulting in
students who “fall through the cracks.” These same teachers have heard their students
say, “Why don’t my teachers talk to each other? If they did, I wouldn’t be asked to
do the same stupid stuff in resource room that I have to do with everybody else in my
Our challenge was not unlike the challenge many K-12 schools have: the creation
of cohesive, contemporary, and meaningful programs. Like many K-12 schools our
past practices were reective of education based on a “factory model.” Students were
passing through courses in assembly line fashion with each faculty member being
responsible for the curricular piece identied as matching his/her expertise. In K-12
schools this approach means designated education professionals are employed to serve
students needing their areas of expertise (i.e., special education, speech, counseling,
OT, etc.). Our college students were bounced from class to class, all designed with
good intentions but being taught in isolation from one another in a way similar to how
children and young adults can get bounced from one expert to another in schools,
all educators working in the best interest of the student, but not necessarily working
with one another. In spite of what we know about effective learning and teaching, our
schools and institutions of higher education have been largely designed as silos where
Teaching and Learning with Care and Commitment 17
people and classrooms are set apart from one another. How many times have we said
or heard other teachers say, “I’ll just close my door and do what I please”? How many
meetings have we attended where time is spent trying to understand what the other
people in the room are doing instead of talking about how to work together as a team
for the best interest of our students? As one educator we know says, “We long for com-
munity, but settle for institutions.”It made sense, then, that our journey needed to begin
with breaking down those silos.
Good leaders, like our dean at the time, know that isolation in the workplace works
against collaboration. So we began our work toward change with our entire unit at-
tending a retreat. Our initial work was focused on trying to get us to see one another in
a new light. An important piece of creating our collaboration was to debunk our insti-
tutional identities that had been established through isolation. We began with exercises
in writing the strengths we saw in one another. Sheets of chart paper, with a name of
one faculty member on each, were spread on tables around the room. We were asked
to circulate around the room and “write the strengths each person brings to our teacher
education community.” It was a way of starting fresh––beginning to see each other
differently and, in turn, opening the door to being able to revision our programs and
ourselves in new and inventive ways, not dissimilar to beginning, mid or end of school
year community building days that some K-12 schools develop for staff. From there
we were asked to envision what we wanted in a teacher education program. This fos-
tered collaboration as we could see what dreams we had in common and what options
we held. When putting our dreams on paper, we used exact quotes from participants
which enabled us to see how each voice was valued. By identifying trends in these
quotes, we saw the unfolding of a common purpose. Our next step was to use Wiggins
and McTighe’s (2005) process of backward design; we answered two questions: What
is it that we want students to know and be able to do as rst year teachers? How will
we know if we have achieved our vision? Our teacher education unit collaboration
resulted in the development of the following nine themes:
Theme 1: Content in Context–Effective teachers know their content area and its
disciplinary learning standards and adapt teaching strategies to match the needs of
diverse learners.
Theme 2: Learning Environments–Effective teachers understand human behav-
iors and interactions and how those influence the learning environment.
Theme 3: Technology–Effective teachers use technology appropriately to improve
instruction and communication.
Theme 4: Assessment–Effective teachers use assessment to guide their teaching.
Theme 5: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving––Effective teachers develop
their pupils’ capabilities in critical thinking, problem solving, and decision-making.
Theme 6: Recursive Learning–Effective teachers use developmentally appropri-
ate and sequenced curriculum models supporting a coherent knowledge base which
progressively builds upon itself.
Theme 7: Collaboration–Effective teachers collaborate with all of those respon-
sible for student development.
18 Best Practices for Education Professionals
Theme 8: Modeling–Effective teachers exhibit professional commitment, which is
evident to their students.
Theme 9: Multiculturalism and Diversity–Effective teachers value the dignity,
talents, and experiences of diverse students from many cultures and backgrounds.
This foundational work led us to the redesign of all of the teacher education pro-
grams in our unit and, as such, these nine themes have become our barometer for
measuring the effectiveness of our programs and our work together.
As often happens when an outside entity imposes a definition on an institution, the
denial of accreditation initially made many of us feel like we were out of choices and
had no control.
Whereas the themes helped us dene the focus of our programs and helped us
redene the way we were working or not working together, we ran the risk of sim-
ply recreating the same set of silos that existed before. Using new language to de-
scribe a vision is not enough. With vision alone it becomes all too easy to continue
the same old practices under a new name. We had to change our habits, our ways of
doing business with one another, for new habits are required when implementing new
ideas. Shifting gears is not easy and cannot be done by simply repeating past patterns
of behavior. Sensing this, our dean interviewed each faculty member to hear her/his
thoughts and feelings about the changes taking place. As part of his inquiry we were
asked to articulate where we saw ourselves in the emerging new programs, and how
we saw ourselves in relationship to other faculty members, the themes, and the emerg-
ing idea of creating cohorts of students and faculty to carry out a newly redesigned,
four year undergraduate program. Where we saw ourselves was important because
teaching in our new programs, with an emphasis on literacy, universal designs for
learning, multicultural competences, and technology all woven through early eld ex-
perience and integration of content, would require us to step out of our silos and be in
close relationship with one another.
As a result of the dean’s interviews, the four of us were challenged to become the
rst faculty cohort for the newly redesigned undergraduate Childhood Education pro-
gram. As one of our rst tasks, we were asked to create syllabi using the new master
course outlines developed by faculty and based on the work done during our retreat.
We were given a year to engage in this task before the rst cohort of students would
arrive on campus.
The concept of implementing cohort models to recruit students, improve learning, and
increase retention is not new. In fact, Dewey (1933) indicated collaborative learning
experiences such as a cohort model would “foster community and poise the teacher
as more of a facilitator within a group of learners than merely as an outside author-
ity” (p. 59). More recently, research conducted by Whitaker, King, and Vogel (2004)
found that some members of the cohort perceive the model to be the most critical
aspect of their educational program. In many cases, such models undergird the belief
that cohorts or a strong sense of community or connectedness build and strengthen the
teaching and learning process (Barnett & Muse, 1993).
Just as developing nine themes did not ensure collaboration and continuity, neither
did identifying four faculty members to work together ensure collaboration would
succeed. Our faculty lines were from Literacy Education, Childhood Education, and
Special Education, all strands in the new program; we brought with us a variety of
public school and higher education teaching experiences and perspectives. Although
we knew and respected each other, we did not have any particular history with each
other prior to this experience. For us, being in a cohort meant we had choice and con-
trol over an entire program, something most of us had only experienced on a per class
basis or maybe within the department we were assigned. We began our work together
with some stimulating, exciting, and wildly creative conversations about our hopes
and dreams for this newly designed program. We believed a cornerstone of working
within a cohort model was in building community, both among cohort students and
among the four of us. Thus, one of our rst steps was to create the following guiding
We agree to keep the needs of students first, as our guiding focus.
We agree that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and that we would
keep departmental agendas outside of the room.
We agree to engage in respectful interactions with each other by being open-
minded and listening actively.
We agree to continue to build trust with each other by agreeing to keep specifics
of our work’s progress among team members until final products are ready to
be shared.
We embrace the concept that it is through respectful expression of differences
that our own learning is enhanced in this process. In short, we speak with the
expectation of being heard and listen with the expectation of being changed.
These principles became our statement of how we were choosing to be together.
These principles often served as a lifeline––preventing us from moving back into our
own silos and helping us to keep our focus.
Our task was invigorating and frightening and we knew it would take time, lots
and lots of time.
This breaking down of silos and the building of community was and continues to be
long, arduous work. It takes time and the willingness to take time. As Kohn points out
“authentic communities” are built over time with a common purpose by people who
trust each other (Kohn, 1996). Good leaders know this and will set aside the time and
resources for teachers to begin collaboration. They will also think about how to use
that time wisely.
Teachers who continually ask questions and reect upon practices in the class-
room are modeling genuine life-long learning and creating their own professional
Teaching and Learning with Care and Commitment 19