My dream school is a place where students want to learn and teachers want to teach. The teachers know each and every one of their students personally—their learning styles, interests, family backgrounds, passions, and home environments. The teachers are energetic and passionate about their work, yet structured and focused. They consult and collaborate regularly with colleagues. They treat students like young adults and instill values of responsibility and respect. They incorporate technology into everyday instruction and make learning valuable, pertinent, and connected to the community. Teachers make a place for parents in their classrooms, and invite them to share in their child’s learning.
The main disconnect between my dream school and my current reality is teacher isolation. Chatting with a colleague at my elementary school, I realized that several teachers have difficulty asking other people for assistance, especially beyond the people immediately surrounding them. Many of our teachers are strong, confident, and independent, accustomed to finding solutions to their problems on their own. I started thinking about how many creative solutions we could find to our problems and questions if we could find a way to bring all our strengths and confidence together. Like others, I too began to isolate myself last year, and still do this year, to some extent. If I didn’t work on my own tendency toward isolation, how could I make my dream my reality?
Many teachers at our school are friends, but they do not collaborate with each other in terms of teaching strategies and techniques. Teachers have grade level collaboration every other week for 3.5 hours, but several teachers have taught more than one grade level and have insight as what works for students at other age levels. Unfortunately, collaboration seems to be confined to the immediate people around you. I don’t know too much about what is going on in the sixth grade classrooms, yet, I may have some great ideas for tackling certain teaching issues in those classrooms. Those same teachers could also assist me in my teaching. As students progress through the grades, more and more teachers have developed relationships with them. What fabulous ideas could come about if all the teachers who had a particular student in their class, came together to offer suggestions in bettering that student’s education. Once a student is in 6th grade, assuming they started at the school in kindergarten, seven teachers would have a year’s experience with that student’s strengths, struggles, hopes, and dreams. In the end, children are children no matter what grade they are in.
The discussion with my colleague helped me realize that most of our colleagues may have many of the same passions and struggles as we do. However, we will never know these passions or needs if we don’t open up the lines of communication across the grades. The chat inspired me to think about how I help create a trusting and comfortable environment where I can reach out to other teachers, and other teachers can reach out to me. How was I ever going to tackle this lofty goal?
My “aha” moment arrived during a discussion with a colleague in a graduate class. We started talking about how to apply the idea of “bright spots” (Heath, 2010) within our own schools. Far too often, the proposed solutions to our problems originate from people outside of our teaching community. We often complain that these “outsider” solutions don’t pertain to our classes, our students, and our style of teaching. Our best solutions come from the teachers teaching right next to us, in our same school, in various grade levels. These solutions and spectacular teaching strategies are called “bright spots.”
My colleague, who works at a nearby school, told me how his school has constructed a successful form of professional development that involves sharing each other’s bright spots. Each colleague must present at least once or twice a year on something they feel would help others. Topics range from “How to work with difficult parents?” to “How to successfully incorporate project-based learning?” Most times, presenters are allowed to chose their topic of presentation, but sometimes an administrator will ask for help on presenting information about a specific topic that seems to be currently difficult for many teachers, for example “How to structure student-led conferences?”
Although I wanted to immediately implement this type of collegial conversation at my school, the time was not right. An environment of open, cross-grade level dialogue and authentic discussion has not yet been established at my school. I began thinking about how I could implement the idea of bright spots, in a subtler and less intrusive manner.
I’ve talked to my administrator as well as a colleague at my school to identify the best way to introduce the idea of “bright spots” to the staff. Since our staff meeting time doesn’t currently have a flexible schedule, I had to introduce the bright spot idea in another venue. I decided to type up an introduction letter and corresponding survey about finding bright spots around us. If it turns out that one or two teachers receive a lot of “bright spot” recognitions, then they would obviously be given opportunities to share their ideas in a whole group setting since everyone may not be aware of their awesome work. We could also feature a “bright spot” of the week and include it in a staff newsletter and/or during a staff meeting. I honestly believe that each teacher at our school has a strategy/technique that could be considered a “bright spot.” Through the surveys, I will be able to gauge how staff members understand the concept of “bright spots” and whether or not the idea of “Bright Spot of the Week” would be beneficial and useful to us.
Waiting for the bright spot surveys to be administered and collected, a colleague and I decided to encourage our principal to begin our staff meetings with recognitions instead of just personal celebrations. We wanted to support the notion of recognizing others as well as promote a positive and collaborative culture. Our principal agreed to make the change and the turnout was remarkable. Staff members were more than eager to congratulate each other and recognize each other for their accomplishments, hard work, and overall dedication to the teaching profession. Teachers were also recognizing colleagues from other grade levels. With recognitions going so well, teachers were becoming more and more comfortable with sharing their work and accomplishments in front of their peers. One or two teachers began sharing teaching strategies, instructional techniques, and work samples from their classroom at staff meetings. Our principal was great at encouraging amazing teachers to stand up and share their ”bright spots.” Bit by bit, I could see the culture of communication changing amongst our staff. The overall attitude changed from pessimistic and negative to optimistic and positive.
I’m confident that these ideas and action steps, if nothing else, will improve my personal battles with isolation. I hope to help other teachers feel like they belong to a collaborative school, but I cannot guarantee the outcome. What I can guarantee is how I will change and grow. One of the hardest things about being a fairly new teacher at my school, is stepping up and taking the lead as well as stepping forward and asking for help. By taking these two steps, I am removing myself from isolation. I can’t expect others to change if I don’t change myself.
Heath, C. and D. Heath (2010). Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard. New York: Crown Business.
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