Teachers as Team Players

By Ann Cook — March 08, 1995 7 min read

Try this test: Jot down all the Hollywood films you can think of that feature schools and schooling. No doubt, certain titles come immediately to mind: films like “Dead Poets Society,” “Stand and Deliver,” and “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.” Maybe, if you’re over 45, you thought of “To Sir With Love,” “Blackboard Jungle,” and “Educating Rita.” Or, if you’re under 30, you might have confused TV with films and come up with “Welcome Back Kotter,” “The Wonder Years,” or “Boy Meets World.”

A closer look will reveal that the main focus of these films is not actually school, for although the action takes place in school settings, the institution is fairly inconsequential. If schools figure at all, they are zoo-like caricatures filled with savage beasts--kids who are either troubled, poorly behaved, or just plain bored--waiting to be tamed.

And who can do the taming? Who are these films really about? Our hero teachers, that’s who, the exemplary educator with a charismatic personality: There’s Robin Williams standing on a desk to recite “Oh Captain, My Captain,” or Maggie Smith guiding her girls as the unforgettable Miss Jean Brodie, or Sidney Poitier as “Sir” in the slum school of London’s East End. What little we see of Los Angeles’s Garfield High School in “Stand and Deliver” is pretty grim--kids who don’t care, violence spilling over from playground to school corridors, and, most of all, teachers who are disbelieving, disinterested, and cynical. But never mind, there is Edward James Olmos, as teacher Jaime Escalante, in a pizza maker’s hat turning the hostile gang members into mathematical wiz kids.

Actually, such portrayals of schools cast hero teachers as defiers, not definers, of the institutions in which they work; that is, the teachers gain their reputations in contradiction to, rather than in collaboration with, the schools in which they teach. From a scriptwriter’s point of view, of course, it’s easy to understand the attraction of such a formula. After all, it’s much easier to sell a film with central characters like John Cleese, the sex-education teacher in Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life,” than it is to present schools as real institutions with cultures and teaching faculties who, although individually talented, are not Hollywood glamour stars.

Yet, this fixation on one individual, on the single teacher, as the center of all that is good or bad in schools is not limited to Hollywood fantasy. Rather, it mirrors a more generalized view held by the wider public, by universities, the press, and sometimes even teachers themselves, that it is the individual who defines the institution.

Schools of education are particularly fond of this perspective, emphasizing the individual education major’s success in subject and methodology courses while generally devaluing collaborative and consensus-building skills. Few, if any, teacher-preparation programs insist that novice teachers work jointly with colleagues to problem-solve, engage in peer review, or team teach. And cooperative learning, that much-applauded teaching strategy for children, consistently finds little application among those teaching teachers. Certainly, when it comes to the student-teaching experience, schools of education virtually ignore schools as collective institutions. First, they scour the city for individuals “good enough” to become “cooperating” teachers, then they reward selected teachers with tuition waivers for graduate credit.

Such an approach has serious consequences: In addition to creating a system of haves and have-nots within a school, it scatters the resources of colleges of education across the city, minimizes the importance of a schoolwide culture, and ignores efforts at schoolwide reform. Student-teachers are seldom required to attend school staff meetings or participate in school events. They hardly ever work in teams (either with one another or with members of the school staff), and they seldom have an opportunity to reflect on their membership in a collaborative environment.

By design, one’s student-teaching experience reinforces a view of teaching that is disconnected from the school as a whole. As Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, has pointed out, “Almost every other profession has a better system of induction for new members than teaching.” He blames the isolation from colleagues and the lack of opportunity to benefit from the experience of others as primary reasons why so many novice teachers fail in their chosen professions.

Mr. Shanker is really addressing more than a problem of mentoring. Just as “it takes a whole village to raise a child,” so, too, it takes a whole school’s professional community to properly prepare a novice teacher. That’s the problem with Teach For America, which places idealistic college graduates in any school that will take them, without providing strategies for teacher collaboration. This approach sends a powerful message to program participants: that teachers, heroes or not, are interchangeable, that a teacher in one school can be easily and successfully transferred to another, with few consequences for either the sending or receiving institution. This view perpetuates the myth that school reform means placing individual teachers--one here, one there--without regard to building a professional community and without creating a sense of ownership and commitment. It’s a view that those who have studied the American automobile industry tell us is doomed to foster alienation, sabotage, and poor production.

Print journalism also promotes this “teacher as school” idea. With a stream of personal profiles, newspapers and magazines attempt to capture the essence of schooling through articles about this math teacher or that award-winning chess coach. Never mind that schools are complex social institutions, hard to capture and even harder to understand. Better to finesse the complexity by providing a glimpse inside one teacher’s classroom.

Yet, such teacher stories tend to narrow, rather than expand, the public’s understanding of what makes a good school. The “Let’s Meet Ms. Jones"-type articles focus on the single classroom rather than the collective school experiences children have over time. They emphasize the individual at the expense of a schoolwide culture, minimize the respect (or lack of it) shown toward intellectual endeavor, and camouflage a school’s hidden curriculum, which reveals how adults treat children as well as each other, and how they feel about their work. By focusing on the teacher in Room 307, the media fail to help the public develop a more sophisticated understanding of what criteria ought to be used to judge schools.

The corporate community isn’t much help either. Its practice of bestowing “super teacher” awards further lulls the public into believing that individual achievement represents overall school performance. There is an ever-increasing tendency for corporations to bestow awards, plaques, cash, and recognition on individual teachers, as chronicled in a recent New York Times article. Corporations promote classroom heroes almost as readily as ice-cream companies promote their flavor of the month. The McDonald’s Corporation honors outstanding teachers with Big Macs and cheeseburgers, Inland Steel provides plaques and cash awards, and the Ralston Purina Company honors individual teachers who “excel in teaching about poultry animals and dairy science.” As the Times article points out, leaving aside the somewhat dubious claim that such awards “promote the cause of education,” even the corporations admit that such awards “are tangential to structural educational change.” Moreover, one doesn’t need to be a cynic to understand that such awards often propel the best teachers out of the classroom altogether. Said one award-winner: “I have not been back to my classroom since the day I left and got my award.”

Hollywood. Higher Education. The Press. Corporate America. Is it surprising that teachers themselves often mistake individual effort for school achievement? Perhaps this view is a holdover from one-room-schoohouse days, when teacher and school were one and the same. Teachers do often fail to see the whole as more than the sum of its parts.

Yet, upon reflection, most will acknowledge that there is a vast difference between isolation and collaboration, between working alone and working with colleagues to think through how one’s classroom practice develops and is sustained over time. Like kids, teachers know they work best in an environment where they can admit mistakes, seek help, get support, share successes, and have a good laugh. Significantly, these are the conditions in which schools become “learning cultures” for both teachers and students--communities that share goals which foster respect for both the learner and the learning process.

Creating communities that foster interdependency may require us to put aside our desire to create heroes, but these communities will surely result in better schools for all children.