Every other Wednesday, I post ideas about how to improve the learning going on in the classroom. There are so many buzzwords and great ideas floating around about what could make education better: blended learning, 1 to 1 education, media labs. It would take 30 hours a day to get schools to be perfect and for teachers to prepare the needed lessons to implement these ideas. Yet, even if all these innovations were implemented, I’m not sure these ideas would improve the learning drastically without addressing a more fundamental issue. No matter how much research and effort we put into improving education there is still one factor that impacts all teachers, young and old, novice and expert that can turn an excellent teacher into a burned out one. That factor is what it’s like to work in a school.
Teaching in Isolation
Teaching can be an isolating job. As a teacher, I am often all alone in a classroom facing a room full of kids. I love them, I adore their energy, and I understand that each one has unique challenges and gifts. But like parenting, if I have to do it by myself, it gets tough. Technically, in a school, no teacher is ever alone. The building is full with other adults: teachers, administrators and staff. However, there are schools where each man is for himself, and schools where everyone is part of a team.
I have taught in both kinds of schools. There were some schools where going into the teachers’ room left me feeling queasy. In other schools, I felt emotionally respected and professionally invigorated. When the environment was stressful, my energy was spent worrying about politics rather than my students. When I felt like a respected part of the team, I was able to give over that feeling to my students and their learning improved.
The Role of the Adminstration
A lot of the emotional feel of the school, its collegiality and culture, come from the top. The administration sets the tone by how they communicate, how they accept and give influence and what behaviors are allowed. So if you are an administrator – your school culture is huge and needs attention.
What’s a teacher to do?
But, I’m a teacher, so I can’t make these global decisions. But I am someone else’s colleague. The only one I can work on is myself. So what can I, a teacher, do to improve the culture in my school? Because, just as much as anything else, improving the culture in the school improves the learning in my classroom
Today, in the teacher’s room in my school I asked my colleagues for help with writing this blog post (Go Team!) We came up with a few suggestions:
1) Be kind – If there is a chance to help someone else out, do it. Today, a faculty member, Dr. E., came into the teachers room with arms loaded with packages. Mr. P jumped up cleared a spot on the table and helped put all the stuff away. Mr. P is in grad school and this was his prep period, yet he spent those moments being helpful rather than thinking about himself. Two years ago, when I needed more space in my classroom, Mrs. R and Mr. F spent their prep time problem solving to come up with a solution that inconvenienced them but helped me. “How can I help?” is a phrase that turns a roomful of strangers into friends.
2) Be gracious – Give with good humor and humility. Receive with a smile and a sincere thank you. Today, Dr. E brought lunch for the staff because there were difficult meetings that lasted all day. She didn’t announce, as I have heard in other schools, that she provides lunch to improve the school morale or that she does it even though no one ever appreciates her efforts. Instead, she sincerely thanked us for all our hard work and encouraged us to enjoy the lunch. When I give a compliment to another teacher, I love hearing a thank you rather than a self-deprecating comment.
3) Be positive – Cheerful energy spreads. Negative energy spreads, too. Try to leave wherever you are a better place than it was before. Today, I was leaving the teachers room when Rabbi C. called out when looking at the lunch spread “This is the best place in the world to work!” Those kind of positive messages are infectious and frame the day with joy. I couldn’t help but go into my classroom in a better state of mind. Spread positive messages about your school to others and tell them to yourself too. In another school, teachers spent their lunch breaks criticizing students, other communities and the administration. It was hard to appreciate my students and their gifts after hearing so many put downs..
4) Be forgiving – All teachers, kids and administrators (yes even administrators) are doing the best they can with the tools they have. If they could do it better and become perfect, they would. If you can help improve the situation while being kind, gracious and positive, go for it. Otherwise, realize that hostility and judgement just makes the other person defensive. As teachers, we are trained to analyze and notice. We need to train ourselves not to notice when it leads to negativity and despair.
5) Problem Solve – Teaching has its challenges. For some reason, the children and adolescents in my school insist on acting childish and adolescent. I’m assuming the same is true in your school. As a result, teachers all over the world have days where they want to tear out whatever little hair they have left. Rather than getting stuck on bad feelings, try to move the issue into the problem solving stage. Identify and label the problem and then think about possible solutions with your peers. Be the kind of colleague that doesn’t judge someone else for having a bad day. Encourage your colleague and support them when they are down. A few weeks ago, I had a tough day. I called my colleague, and she reminded me that I’m a good teacher and we all have hard days. Her positive, affirming messages, together with some good suggestions helped a lot
6) Have integrity – Be a trustworthy person. Don’t try to get a colleague to do your work for you. Leave the copy machine area the way you found it. Don’t gossip about co-workers, students or parents. Treat the new staff with the same consideration as you do the old-timers. Keep the private lives of students and their learning struggles confidential. When you have integrity, colleagues trust you and feel comfortable around you.
7) Learn together – Find like minded staff and talk ideas (as long as you can stay kind, forgiving, and positive) so that you grow as professionals together. Don’t use your interest in education as an excuse to put down other teachers though. Share ideas in a positive way so that you feed each others’ creativity.
The Culture Killers
There are a bunch of ways that make a teachers room into the worst kind of prison. Watch out for Gossip, Sarcasm, Snobbishness, Resentment, Judgementalism, Inconsideration, and Negativity from creeping into your interactions. If you find that these habits are sneaking in, it’s time to take a break and refuel your energy before you burn out and burn out others. Look around your school for people who don’t share these characteristics and start sharing the 7 positive relationship building tools mentioned above with them.
As a teacher, what would you like to see in your school? I’d love to hear your thoughts!