By Cathy Whitehead
Teaching can be an isolating, lonely profession at times, which is ironic, considering we spend the day surrounded by humans. In classrooms that can feel like cubicles, we work next to each other, still very much apart.
I wonder, is it a mistake to separate ourselves from one another so much?
About a year ago I participated in something that has me rethinking this: my first Twitter chat. With a beginner’s trepidation, I was at first determined to simply dip my toe in the water and lurk on the periphery of the conversation. Yet, I soon found myself hitting that like button while vigorously nodding my head in agreement. I retweeted my favorite comments, adding empathetic phrases like, “Finally! Someone’s saying what I’ve been thinking!” It felt good. It felt good to find people who think like me, who are passionate about the same practices and policies I value, who voice the words I’ve been thinking. I’d found my tribe.
It’s a human characteristic to seek out those who think like we do. We sit with them at lunch. We reserve spaces for them at faculty meetings. We call them first when presented with a problem, such as working with a disgruntled parent, navigating the latest district mandate, or reaching a hurting child. Agreement feels comfortable, validating. Agreement can affirm me as a person and a teacher. After all, I’m not the only one on the planet who thinks this way. But does it help us grow?
I fear that, in surrounding ourselves primarily with people like us, we silo ourselves, echoing the polarization that has come to characterize American society. Lately I’m learning that my greatest growth comes when I surround myself with diversity, especially diversity of thought.
This past January, I found myself in a whole new tribe, the 2016 State Teachers of the Year. We are a diverse group of folks in about every way you can imagine, and I have grown more as a teacher and a person this year than at any other time in my life because of this.
They push and challenge, argue and debate, and I have come to treasure the differences among us just as much as I do the similarities. Because of them, my perspective has broadened, shifted and changed. I have come to believe that a lack of equity, in all its forms, is our foremost educational problem. I have learned that it is time for a shift from teacher voice to teacher power. I understand now that advocacy begins in the classroom, and getting legislators and policymakers into classrooms is key; there is no better authority to inform policy than teachers. And I have seen how teacher leadership really can make a difference in how schools run and students learn, whether we flex our leadership skills through negotiated rulemaking at the federal level or secure time for students to read locally.
We think best and most creatively when we surround ourselves with those who agree - and disagree - with us. This requires us to stay connected and fight the tendency to isolate ourselves as islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity. We need each other--our best and most creative thinking--to face the challenges that lie ahead.
I now seek out Twitter chats where there is a focus on innovation or controversial topics, and I find that I learn as much from the debates between participants as I do from the question’s responses. Because when we seek diversity of thought, we find that we grow and change and become better because of it. Reach out to someone you respect but disagree with and make that connection. Have a cup of coffee and a thorny conversation about policy. It may not be easy, but it will be worth it.
See you there! @CathyWhitehead1
Cathy Whitehead is the 2016 Tennessee State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. She teaches third grade at West Chester Elementary School in Henderson, Tennessee.
The opinions expressed in Teacher-Leader Voices 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.