The other day I was off campus, meeting serially with the academic departments at another school. It’s always fun to hear how educators at other schools construe their work and how they understand and explain their schools. It’s like visiting relatives you don’t know very well and discovering that they share with you some delightful peculiarity.
Much of what I am interested in about schools is the way we create professional cultures within them, how we talk to each other about what we do, and how we pool our efforts to understand and support our students.
One thing of which I am often reminded is that within independent schools there can be an unfortunate legacy of treasuring our “autonomy,” too often a euphemism for operating in a kind of professional vacuum, beyond observation and critique. The single greatest challenge of the 21st century in many schools is to open teachers’ classroom doors and to get them talking to one another about what they do.
I don’t know why this is something that teachers often shy away from, but I think that as educators we are often so aware of our own self-perceived shortcomings that we suffer, especially in the absence of actual and considered feedback, from inferiority complexes. Don’t come and visit me, don’t ask me about what I do! I don’t feel worthy! These are complicated, raw feelings; what they don’t do is help teachers feel confident sharing ideas and concerns about practice with their colleagues.
Add to this the reality that in most schools there are a few teachers who are regarded (accurately or not) as standouts. There’s an old saying about no one liking a good example, and for better or for worse these teachers’ reputations can arouse envy and even greater self-doubt in some of their peers--a situation that does little to help in the creation of professional learning communities.
In one department group at the school I was visiting someone described this side effect of “closed” and reputation-based cultures: “Excelling is not competing and shouldn’t be seen that way; the personal excellence of some, if we can learn to share, can help us all develop ourselves and one another.”
The clarity and wisdom of this observation really struck me, and yet the cultural hurdle it describes can be very present in schools.
Surmounting this hurdle is easy to imagine, challenging to implement. Simply stated, it’s a matter of creating a culture, a professional and social milieu, in which there are multiple opportunities for teachers to share what they know with others. Ideally, it should be equally comfortable for a teacher to share an effective insight or new technique as it is to openly share real quandaries, even catastrophes, with peers. We want schools in which teachers are liberated to learn from one another, and in which everyone is encouraged to do so and feels equally valued.
“Excelling is not competing.” Being good at something is not a zero-sum game. It’s a pretty good mantra for teachers, just as it’s a great mantra for students (especially, in my experience, for seniors, for whom applying to college raises all kinds of competitive specters).
Schools should and mostly do expect teachers to excel. But teachers need to learn what “excellence” means in the context of their school and in the context of their students’ needs. In the absence of such knowledge, authentic quality can be too easily confused or conflated with mythical quality. The mythical quality of a few teachers, reputation alone, doesn’t help a school’s professional community grow or improve. (And it’s worse when administrators are the source, explicitly or by implication, of invidious comparisons.) Authentic quality, real effectiveness in the art and/or science of teaching, really can infuse a school with a sense of purpose and its faculty with a spirit of professional ambition and pride.
Getting beyond jealousy and a culture of reputation begins, I think, with a determined effort to start teachers talking about what it means to be an effective teacher, maybe even an excellent one, in their school. Why not make a strategic project of having faculty generate a formal document on this topic? These conversations might be bolstered by developing a regular and consistent way for lots of teachers to share ideas and questions with peers in at least semi-formal settings, developing the skills and the disposition to do this well and confidently; some schools have made hay on this front using the “unconference” model, where a question or concern is as valid and fruitful a session topic as a technique. The more frequently these events occur, the greater the “opening” effect they have on a culture.
Teachers want to work in schools where we feel and truly are valued, and we want to be as good as we can be at our work. We don’t want to be in competition with one another, but we do want to be our best, each in our own way. As much as we have traditionally valued our autonomy, we know that we will grow the most in professional communities characterized by collaboration, cooperation, and just plain sharing. Excelling is not competing; it’s doing the very best by our students in the fullest expression of the aims and values of our schools.
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