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Education CTQ Collaboratory

My Growth as a Teacher Writer: Returning to the Local Level

By Paul Barnwell — December 11, 2013 5 min read
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I remember a teacher accosting me in the middle school hallway after she read my article questioning the value of traditional grading. She was shouting and her face was beet-red. I managed to stay composed, taking a few steps backward to open some space between us.

It took me a few minutes to realize what was going on: She had taken it personally that I thought grades were often counterproductive. Though I hadn’t “called out” any of my colleagues (nor would I), she felt I had directly challenged her tried-and-true methodology. (She also had many more years of classroom experience than I.)

A few months later, Shelbyville, Ky.’s local paper, The Sentinel-News, published my op-ed questioning the value of homework for homework’s sake. I still recall feeling knots in my stomach entering school the next day. Who would react and confront me next?

Incidents like these characterized my early forays into writing and debating about teaching and learning. I didn’t engage with a blogging or Twitter community. Instead I kept my influence local, sharing my writing directly with my co-workers through mass emails and getting a few acknowledgments or disgruntled stares at meetings.

I don’t know if I was productive in swaying opinion or opening minds. I definitely know that I enjoyed the process of questioning my own beliefs, conducting action research (admittedly informal) in my classroom, and writing. And I still do.

But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my early missteps—and what I could do differently to boost my local impact as a teacher writer. Other teacher leaders in the CTQ Collaboratory have influenced my new thinking and changing approach to advocacy as well. Here’s some advice from a recent online conversation we had.

Relationships First

I’m a proponent of what Brianna (who teaches English/language arts in Pennsylvania) pointed out: “The best method I have found is to focus on relationships first, philosophy second.”

As a Mississippi National Board-certified teacher commented: “I know from experience it is often hard to get co-workers to look at a new idea (one that is new to them anyway) as an opportunity to re-examine what they already do or learn something new themselves. Perhaps it is in how we phrase things, or more often it may be the relationships we have already established with our co-workers that earn us enough respect that they will at least consider our ideas.”

I’m fortunate to have administrators and colleagues with whom I can debate any issue, and it all starts with knowing them beyond their formal titles. It’s not that I didn’t attempt to foster positive relationships during my early years of teaching, but I boldly—perhaps even brashly, at times—led with my ideas when interacting with coworkers. Looking back, this wasn’t the formula to create sustained dialogue.

I have much more to build upon with my colleagues now.

Remember to Listen

Anne, a State Teacher of the Year, offered some great tips, stolen from her own playbook for student collaboration: “Make sure everyone is heard from and feels listened to. Avoid arguing for your own position. Instead present your position as clearly as possible. Listen closely to other team members’ reactions and comments to assess their understanding of your position. Consider their reactions and comments carefully before you press your own point of view further.”

My Collaboratory colleague in Mississippi noted that fear is a major factor for many, and also pointed out that sometimes other motives play into colleagues’ unwillingness to consider new ideas, such as racist or classist expectations about what students can and cannot accomplish.

I can tell you this: Within my first few months of teaching, I assumed too much. I assumed everyone was gung-ho about traditional grading practices and punitive discipline. I assumed most teachers would post lengthy lists of classroom rules, instead of creating dialogue with students about creating collaborative, caring classroom spaces. If I had led my interactions with more questions, I’d have gotten a better understanding of my colleagues’ philosophies, and perhaps gained some allies as I tried to broadcast contentious ideas that ran counter to the status quo.

I now understand that listening and learning from others—rather than making assumptions—is key to local influence, whether as a writer or some other kind of leader.

Assess Your Own Priorities

On some level, advocacy—especially local advocacy—requires us to make highly personal decisions about what we value and what we’re willing to risk.

“I think sometimes you know the time has come and the issue is so right you can’t do anything but ‘stir the pot,’” said Lalla in Florida. “The mind and body are powerful. When I feel ‘it’ in my gut, know ‘it’ in my heart, see ‘it’ in my classroom, and the noise of ‘it’ in my head keeps me awake at night, I can’t be silent.”

Brad teaches in my own state. He knows what his “it” is: advocating that Kentucky teachers must lead teacher effectiveness. “There is no time for passivity; #ourkidscantwait and neither can we,” he stated on reading this discussion about local debates.

“In most cases, I’d rather speak out than stay quiet,” noted Ernie, a Nevada teacher. “I wonder what state our education system might be in if teachers were emboldened to speak out more often. After all, if I were fired tomorrow, I’d have a lot more time to sit and write … and possibly have my criticisms published on a national level! I’d prefer to be teaching, but I wonder if one day I’ll step over the line just a bit too far!”

I confess I’m now most comfortable launching my thoughts out into the Internet, especially since my early attempts to advocate at the local level fell flat. The world of Twitter-connected teachers, writers, and CTQ bloggers is heavily populated with inquisitive educators willing to tinker, tweak, and refine their practice. Many of us find comfort in having this space to bounce ideas off one another and to engage in debates mediated by a screen. Disagreements happen, but they aren’t so visceral.

But I can’t avoid it: Many issues must be discussed at the local level. I’m making a resolution to increase the number of “constructive conversations” I take part in during the remainder of the school year. I’m grateful to my online networks for having provided me with the opportunity to reflect on the importance—and difficulty—of having constructive debates.

After all, teacher leaders must be bold enough to be heard, even if it’s challenging to whittle down our priorities to that one idea worth fighting for, a thought echoed by a Kentucky language arts teacher: “We can pick so many different hills to die on; how do we decide which ones to charge? The only thing I do know is that we have to pick something.”

What are some lessons you’ve learned from engaging in local debates? As a teacher leader, do you feel an impulse, or perhaps a responsibility, to make your voice heard?

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