How Teachers Lose Connections

How Teachers Lose Connections

James SpillaneJames Spillane

When teachers move to a new grade or lose a leadership position, the change can sever important work relationships, suggests new research from Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy.

Moreover, teachers generally don’t reconnect with each other, resulting in a ripple effect through the school, according to the study “Breaking Up Isn’t Hard to Do: Exploring the Dissolution of Teachers’ and School Leaders’ Work-Related Ties,” published in the journal Educational Administration Quarterly.

“Work ties do not occur in a vacuum,” said study lead author James Spillane, the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Professor in Learning and Organizational Change in the School of Education and Social Policy.

“The breakup of work ties seems to have more to do with the way the school is formally organized rather than individual characteristics, such as someone’s commitment, perceptions of school leadership, or beliefs about instruction,” Spillane said.

The study was coauthored by Matthew Shirrell, assistant professor at George Washington University and former postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern, who earned his PhD from Northwestern’s Human Development and Social Policy program.

Previous research has examined how teachers bond in the workplace. Spillane and Shirrell’s current study, which analyzed four years of data from 14 suburban elementary schools, is one of the first to shed light on what happens when those relationships dissolve at both the individual and organizational level.

Work-related ties are important for teachers because they offer social support and resources that research has linked to teacher productivity.

But switching grades is associated with school-level teacher turnover and lower teacher performance. It has the potential to change the network of close colleagues that teachers turn to for advice on curriculum, teaching, and learning.

"The fact that changing grade levels strongly predicts the dissolution of ties between teachers reinforces the need for school leaders to think carefully when they reassign teachers to different grade levels, because these moves can really change these teachers' interactions with their colleagues-- for better or worse," Shirrell said.

Spillane’s previous work suggests that as standards and accountability pressures have increased, school leaders have become even more influential when it comes to maintaining work-related ties among staff.

“School leaders are central to how the school staff develops work-related ties,” Spillane said.

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 4/17/17