Stock image of a middle school orchestra cello player.

If you’re an orchestra teacher, please forgive me, in my exuberance, I’m bound to word something wrong here. I am not a trained musician or a music teacher, but I believe we have a lot to learn from strings class.

Recently, my colleague asked me to cover his orchestra class. Over the course of an hour, the fifth period strings students modeled exactly what I needed to be reminded of: collective efficacy in beautiful, living, action.

In 2018, John Hattie plunked collective teacher efficacy onto the tip top of his effect size list, solidifying its place as the star upon the Christmas tree of instructional impact.

“The New Number One”, as he called it, outweighs factors like home environment and student motivation three-to-one.

Loosely speaking, collective teacher efficacy refers to a staff’s shared belief that they can affect change in their students, but there’s more to it than that.

Here are a few ways orchestra students reminded me what it can look like:

Tuning takes a village

Before the students rehearsed their songs, one of them led the group in a tuning exercise. As the least musically-knowledgeable person in the room, I was mystified by the process. “C”, she would call out, and the whole room would move from silence to a searching, quivering “C” note. It was messy and also lovely. Amazingly, all the students seemed perfectly clear on what it should sound like when the whole ensemble tuned.

“But how do you know if you all have it right?” I asked. I’ve asked this question dozens of times, in learning walks with our staff. It’s a shorthand we borrow from McDowell’s Developing Expert Learners, to gage students’ orientation relative to success criteria. But in this case, I really wanted to know how they knew. Their answer gave me goosebumps.

Our ‘c’ might sound a little different from another orchestra’s ‘c’,” they told me, “but that’s alright; each group will sound slightly different. We know by listening to each other – we could use a tuner, but we don’t need to.”

This group of teenagers had figured out precisely what the most effective school faculties already know. What counts as success in your school is uniquely defined by the students and teachers who are the school. Yes, there are standardized measures of proficiency to reference- just like tuners- but a group’s particular stories, strengths, and challenges will shape how the group defines and measures growth.

When we say “collective teacher efficacy”, an appropriate question is, “Efficacy doing what?”

Just like an orchestra, one school’s “We did it!” (evidence) will look slightly different from that of a school down the road. Determining what kind of change we need to affect, and using a variety of ways to determine if we are making a difference, starts and ends with listening to what’s in the room.

2. Feedback culture

“My” orchestra students rehearsed seven songs in my tenure. By the third song, I asked them, “What did you all do well there? What needed to be better?” It was an honest question, and I was entirely dependent on their expertise. The students were quick to shoot their hands in the air. “Speed!” a few of them volunteered, “We went too fast on one part and too slow on the others.”

“Is that something you can pay attention to in the next song?” I asked them.


When the students wrapped up their next song, I asked, “how the speed that time?”

“Better! Yes, much better!” they agreed.

“What did you do differently? Do you think that’s something you could do again?” The kids enthusiastically bobbed their heads and turned their pages to the next song.

In a matter of minutes, this group of teenagers had identified a problem, determined their evidence, worked together to fix it, analyzed the results, and agreed upon the outcome as a shared success. I was witness to a collective efficacy cycle, set to the tune of cellos and violins.

That kind of culture, in an orchestra or a school, takes time to cultivate. But it is well-worth the investment, and it is entirely possible. When my school started using meeting time to analyze student work and collectively tackle problems, our focus moved from that of compliance to real curiosity. At our best, like the orchestra students, we could revisit a problem with new evidence over time, to see if our changes were working. This culture of feedback and response requires vulnerability and collaboration, and it is vital for collective efficacy.

3. We can, because we did.

The orchestra students at my school have been consistently winning awards since the arrival of our full-time music teacher, three years ago. Many of them qualify for free or reduced lunch, we have a dwindling budget due to declining enrollment, and we’re not necessarily known as a “good” arts school. But these kids know they’re good. They have accolades proving that others know they’re good, too. Their own feeling of efficacy is based on experience.

Likewise, collective teacher efficacy is more than just decorating the staff lounge with lines from The Little Engine That Could. “We think we can, we think we can,” sounds very nice. It’s not for me. Real confidence comes from experience.

One of the best responses I’ve heard from a teacher was, upon seeing her students’ state test scores, “Hey, I worked really hard on getting them better at that- and look, it paid off!”

As an instructional coach, it is thrilling to see teachers’ hard work be validated. Seeing evidence that students learned more, as a result of teaching and reteaching and holding kids to high expectations, is reason to shine. And it gives us confidence that we can do it again.

Researchers Goddard, Hoy, and Hoy call this “Mastery Experience”, and they cite it as a critical component for building collective teacher efficacy. The confidence that, as a whole, we can cause significant learning- starts with evidence. Find the success story, and celebrate that accomplishment as a group. Like our orchestra students, we believe we can affect change if we know that we have affected change.

Witnessing the collective efficacy of orchestra students reminded me of the potential we have as teachers, to create something that is not only technically correct, but also beautiful. Learning and music are both, after all, a harmony of precision and artistry.

And the good news is this: we are not meant to be soloists.

How do you develop collective efficacy in your teachers for the benefit of all students? Please share