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Professional Communities and the Work of High School Teaching

reviewed by Diane Wood - 2003

coverTitle: Professional Communities and the Work of High School Teaching
Author(s): Joan E. Talbert and Milbrey Wallin McLaughlin
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 0226500713, Pages: 192, Year: 2001
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High schools cannot change if the teachers in them won’t.  On that premise, most proponents of high school reform agree.  McLaughlin and Talbert, however, make a significant contribution to this argument with their quantitative and qualitative study of the nested contexts that influence teachers’ work.  By describing in detail the interrelated institutional and social contexts that acculturate teachers, their book succeeds in explaining just how complex an undertaking it is to promote teacher change, especially in high schools. It is far too simplistic, they argue, to expect teachers to do things differently  without attending to their relationships to colleagues, school and district leaders, institutional conditions, and mandated policies.  The best hope for changing high schools, they conclude, is to support teachers in creating and sustaining professional learning communities with shared commitments to career-long professional learning for the sake of all students’ learning.

The authors begin by arguing that the increasing diversity in student populations and rapidly shifting economic conditions account for both the reasons why change is so important and the circumstances that make high school teaching so complicated.  Whether teachers view these complications as impossible barriers or problems-to-be-solved, the authors contend, depends substantially on the nested contexts that influence high school teaching:  student populations, academic disciplines and departments, school and district cultures, state policy, and so forth.  When faced with new challenges, in other words, teachers’ responses depend, in part, on their affiliations. 

If, for instance, their primary connection is to their academic disciplines or if they work as isolates in a traditional school, they are most likely to cling to tradition and continue doing what they have always done or to sympathize with lower achieving students and lower their expectations.  If, on the other hand, they feel strong connections to a professional community collectively committed to ensuring that all students learn, then they are more willing to engage in a genuine search for new solutions and new practices that will ensure all students reach high standards.  Teachers in the first category are frequently prone to frustration, cynicism, and burnout.  Those in the second category are more likely to see themselves progressing in a career where they are constantly learning.   

There are several powerful aspects of this book.  First, the authors describe dimensions of teachers’ jobs that immediately affect their professional identities and practices, as well as their willingness to change:  who they teach, what they teach, and who their colleagues are.  Second, they provide particularly vivid portraits of various department cultures, too often ignored as crucial contexts for high school teachers’ work.  In the process, they explain why and how department priorities and relationships impact teachers’ attitudes and practices differently.  Third, while uncovering subtle issues of power, status, and rewards, they uncover how teachers’ professional communities affect career satisfaction.  Fourth, throughout they sustain a focus on equity, making it clear why a better understanding of teachers’ work lives is requisite to creating equitable opportunities for students.  Finally, they lay out the systemic conditions that support teachers’ professional learning communities, including the roles of peer collaboration, leadership, and policy.  

I did take issue with a point here and there, particularly one regarding teacher agency.  The authors write, “Teacher agency notwithstanding, traditions in education and society can shape their values, beliefs, and feelings about teaching, students, subject, colleagues, and careers” (p. 125).  Like Lortie before them, McLaughlin and Talbert, I think, confuse teachers choosing “individualism” with true agency.  In fact, I think teachers retreat in this way in order to establish some small domain free of the subservience and compliance demanded of them in larger arenas.  Perhaps their individualism is indeed an attempt to establish some modicum of autonomy, but if teachers truly exercised agency, they would have far more control over their working lives than they do.


This is a book written primarily for the research community with lengthy appendices to support their methodology.  Nevertheless, as I read through their book, I could not help reflecting back on my own twenty-year career as a practitioner.  The authors describe public and private high schools, both traditional and alternative.  I worked in all of the above and their descriptions rang consistently true to my experiences.  Furthermore, when I presented key ideas from the book to my students in a professional development course, they, too, claimed “the shock of recognition.”  It seems to me that the ideas in the book will appeal to the research, policy and school reform communities first and foremost.  But it has important implications also for district, school and teacher leaders and for all others with a stake in the professional development of teachers.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 1, 2003, p. 176-178
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10915, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 8:44:38 AM

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About the Author
  • Diane Wood
    University of Southern Maine
    E-mail Author
    Diane R. Wood is Assistant Professor in the Professional Education Department at the University of Southern Maine. She has just completed a book with Ann Lieberman entitled Inside the National Writing Project to be published by Teachers College Press (2002). Her articles have appeared in Harvard Educational Review, Anthropology and Education Quarterly, and the International Journal of Leadership in Education. She is co-editor of and contributor to Transforming Teacher Education: Lessons in Professional Development (Bergin & Garvey, 2001).
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