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Education Opinion

If We All Want Student Success, Why Don’t We Allow It Of One Another?

By Cole Farnum — July 20, 2011 3 min read
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Note: Cole Farnum, a teacher in New York City, is guest-posting this week.

On Monday, I introduced my central belief for this week: all teachers, regardless of their background experience or training, need one another to grow as an educator. Yesterday, I explained that regardless of the assets I had as a beginning teacher or my work ethic, I’m at risk of slowly failing my students by acting alone in my practice, as if I don’t need my colleagues to replicate success. Now, I’ve been able to reflect on the times where my limits and need for alternative perspectives were obvious, and I’m startled by one trend: often, I share a common goal with my colleagues and, more often, we keep one another from achieving it.

The following three scenarios exemplify lost opportunities where my colleagues and I have a lot to offer each other yet couldn’t meaningfully exchange. While I’ve re-told them through my eyes as a beginning teacher, I’d ask you to think if any of the scenarios resonate with what you’ve felt and/or experienced in your school or work environment, and how you handled them.

First, I attend our weekly faculty meeting to discuss trouble with hallway transitions between class periods, a school wide issue we’d all like to improve. Individually, we have unique perspectives and vantage points that, when combined, might help improve transitions and make them more consistent. In the moment, strangely, I feel more comfortable to allow our transitions to remain the same because it’s been a norm in our school. I’m not alone: we all remain silent when the floor is open. The status quo ends up untouched because, if confronted, it has the potential to unleash other pent-up issues with “the way things are done.” To step forward with a new idea equates to threatening the status quo, even if the idea is strictly focused on transitions and even if we’re all worse off by not diving in. Like others, I’m silent, the meeting ends, and our transitions continue to be inconsistent and chaotic.

Next, at a grade-level meeting my colleagues and I take advantage of an opportunity to plan across disciplines using recent benchmark data. We’re enthused to share our insights and emboldened by our well-informed plans for student growth. Yet when we proffer student needs and solutions the conversation feels as if we’re treading on shaky ground. Personal anecdotes with students, experiences not commonly shared, are layered in as justification for certain actions and are difficult if not uncomfortable to question. If I do, I might come across as questioning a colleague’s teaching abilities and/or resolve. We’re all coming from a place of altruism in that we similarly want the best for students, but we can’t objectively decide between whose best intentions are, in fact, best for our own students. Paradoxically, we end the meeting sidelining concrete next steps for cross-discipline teaching.

Finally, I’m reviewing a round of formative data with a more experienced colleague. Although we have the same scope and sequence, our student achievement data trends differ to the point where students in the same grade level experience our subject in dissimilar ways. Our shared asset is our common desire to improve our students’ achievement. We acknowledge differences, make remarks mostly about student actions, and yet rarely evaluate the success of our decisions as teachers. If we do venture there, we often reach a safe zone where our different “teaching styles” explain why our outcomes diverge. Questioning these styles feels like it might question our professionalism, clearly something we want to avoid. We leave the meeting without any sort of action or support plan for one another.

In these scenarios, I’m convinced that all of my colleagues possessed a firm commitment to student growth and a desire to act on it. I also believe that, as a beginning teacher with the same qualities, I hadn’t yet understood how to act and I take responsibility for our lost opportunities. I still believe that working with adults, particularly one-on-one, can be an incredibly productive process. What, then, do I need to learn or experience as a beginning teacher to navigate these situations? If you can place yourself in any of these scenarios and sense me struggling with the three dilemmas above, what would your place be as my colleague? How might we allow ourselves more when working together as professionals?

--Cole Farnum

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.