The BTR Early Career Teaching Network is a community of teacher educators, scholars, and early career teacher-leaders working to improve how teachers learn to develop the flexible, adaptive expertise needed to prepare all students for a rapidly changing world.

Early career teachers work really hard, and there’s a lot to learn on the job.

Over time, with support and mentoring, many of us find reliable ways to deal with familiar challenges. We eventually get more efficient at a range of things: from giving feedback to designing purposeful assessments, from managing a whole class discussion to anticipating student misconceptions… from managing our own emotions to empowering students to drive their own learning.

But teaching is a complex set of skills that develops over time. In the process of learning to teach, we don’t usually learn how to keep improving once we’re in the classroom.  

The Challenge

We know from research on how professionals develop expertise that more time and experience teaching do not guarantee continuous improvement.1 Unless teachers get continued support to learn from their experiences and deliberately work to improve, their developmental trajectories in teaching will be varied and uneven. Only some teachers steadily advance the art and science of their teaching in ways that allow them to improvise beyond routine practice, adapt to new or unexpected challenges, build deeper connections, and reach higher goals for themselves and their students. Expert teachers are able to balance efficiency and innovation in their practice, but too many early career teachers plateau in the development of this flexible, adaptive expertise. Our field lacks a system for supporting all teachers to keep getting better throughout their careers.2

“Through the BTR Early Career Teaching Network coaching, I became aware of aspects of my teaching that felt peripheral, but are critical to my effectiveness.  I’m now able to share those practices with other teachers.”

-Kyle Dempsey, cohort 10, 1st grade teacher at Guild School

The Aim

We want to support all BTR grads to keep learning and improving. To us, this means building adaptive expertise in teaching.3  In many of the complex situations teachers encounter, the problem and solution aren’t clearly defined — there isn’t a “best practice” to implement, as if following a recipe. To teach effectively in these moments, especially when learners and their environment are constantly changing, teachers need to develop adaptive expertise.4 Teachers with adaptive expertise respond efficiently to routine or familiar problems of practice, and can innovate or adapt new approaches when faced with new dilemmas.5 They transfer lessons learned from past experiences to help make effective instructional decisions when there is no one “right way” to proceed.5

All students deserve teachers who can help them become independent, confident problem solvers. To achieve equity in student outcomes, we must support teachers to develop the adaptive expertise needed to reach all students.

Our Working Theory

We believe the answer lies in unleashing teachers’ collective expertise by engineering better ways to learn from and coach each other.

Early career teachers need models of how more experienced teachers think and reason about teaching and learning. When teachers can explain not only what they do instructionally, but also why and under what contexts or conditions, they make their habits of reasoning and decision making visible. From their specific experiences, they and others can generalize the principles of how and why those decisions work for student learning. If we bring teachers together with diverse kinds and differing stages of expertise, and support them to make their practical knowledge explicit to themselves and others, then knowledge about teaching might be shared in a way that others can use and adapt to improve their own practice.

If we develop better systems and processes to support teachers to learn from and coach each other (and still remain in the classroom), then everyone involved will keep growing their expertise in ways that push their teaching to new levels. By improving systems for social learning, we’ll move more early career teachers from “good” to “great.”

“Through the process of working with the Early Career Teaching Network to develop my Learning Site, we identified and addressed obstacles to student learning. It’s changed the way I think about relating to students. Behavior management is about controlling behavior. Instead, I focus on what I can do to help the student to be more successful. When teachers come to my Learning Site, they ask how I achieved this classroom culture. We (the students and I) build the culture together. We create the place where all of us want to learn.”

-Alice McCabe, cohort 9, 2nd grade teacher at Boston Teachers Union School


1 Ericsson, K. A. (1996). The acquisition of expert performance: An introduction to some of the issues. In Ericsson, K. A. (ed.), The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games, Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ, pp. 1–50.

2 Mehta, J., Theisen-Homer, V., Braslow, D., Lopatin, A. (in consultation with Ettinger, R., Kovacic, K., and Tran, D.). (2015). From quicksand to solid ground: Building a foundation to support quality teaching [Whitepaper]. Retrieved November 1, 2015 from Transforming Teaching:  

3 Hatano, G., & Inagaki, K. (1986). Two courses of expertise. In H. Stevenson, H. Azuma, & K. Hakuta (Eds.), Child development and education in Japan (pp. 262-272). New York, NY: Freeman.

4 Hammerness, K., Darling-Hammond, L., & Bransford, J. (with Berliner, D., Cochran-Smith, M., & McDonald, M.). (2005). How teachers learn and develop. In L. Darling-Hammond & J. Bransford (Eds.), Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do (pp. 358-389). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

5 Bohle Carbonell, K., Stalmeijer, R.E., Könings, K.D., Segers, M. and van Merriënboer, J.J.G. (2014). How experts deal with novel situations: A review of adaptive expertise.  Educational Research Review 12, 14–29.