Don't Be An "Island" Teacher

I’ve never worked in a great school. In 10 years as a teacher, I’ve had at least 9 different principals, and a revolving door of assistant principals, instructional coaches, guidance staff, and other teachers. There have certainly been some people who have stayed in the same position over time, but the tranciency seems to be more of the norm than the exception. Some professionals who stay in struggling schools become less energetic and professional as the years progress. They see so much change and they exert so much energy in failed systems, that they eventually give up and stop trying. They learn to accept failure.

I’ve learned that one of the greatest inequities that exists in our education system, and there are many, is our failure in consistency. We have built a system that allows teachers and other school personnel to treat struggling schools like a right of passage rather than a career.

The problem of inconsistency is another blog post, and one that is worth writing. This post, however, has to do with one seemingly small side effect of that inconsistency. It isn’t the major problem of people giving up or leaving the profession completely, and it isn’t the problem of leaving for an “easier” school with less “challenges.”

It is the problem of the island teacher - the hardworking and talented guy or gal that sees the chaos in the hallways and decides to shut their door, maybe even lock it, pull their students in for class, and work like hell to be great in their own room.

It actually feels like a logical decision on the surface. There have been times as a teacher when, because of all kinds of transition and adult negligence in the building, the hallways seemed more like an amusement park than a school. Chaos seemed to spill out of every transition and class change. I thought I was a good enough teacher to get kids to want to come to my class, so I planned perfect lessons and tried to get kids in the door each period.

I worked really hard, but I worked in isolation. I told others that this was what I had to do. Some of my colleagues and I even joked about our “islands.” We would wear flowered shirts or toss an umbrella in our morning coffee as a sign of resistance. We thought we were good teachers, and we thought the best that we could muster was to do all we could to keep teaching. Some years, we saw some really great things in our classrooms, but those small signs of life always looked unimportant against the larger backdrop of the school.

If we were lucky, we were a drop in the bucket. In the hardest times, we were kind of meaningless. I was challenged last month when I listened to author Karin Chenoweth talk about her recent book, Schools that Succeed. In fact, if you haven’t read this, you should stop reading this boring blog right now and go get that book. Especially if you are concerned with education equity. And if you are not concerned with educational equity I would argue that you should probably quit working in education. Go make Lattes or something. Chenoweth said that the greatest teachers acting alone are not nearly as good as an average teacher on a team. She has been in thousands of schools, and she said it’s not even close. You could be the LeBron James of teaching, but if you are alone you are average at best.

Even as I did this island teacher thing through the years, there was a simple truth that always rang in the back of my head. The most meaningful things I have ever experienced in education have been experienced in groups. There have been times when a group of adults organized sections of a school around the basic idea that students can learn, and then we tried to act accordingly. When we did that, amazing things happened. Entire groups of students, or classes, or departments showed remarkable gains in short amounts of time. Students and teachers were more engaged in learning tasks and meaningful conversations about growth. Adults talked almost constantly about what they were trying, how they were succeeding and failing, what they were measuring, and why they were making certain decisions.

I don’t want to speak to soon, but I think I am in one of those departments this year. We talk all the time, and it is not about annoying classroom behaviors or how much we hate the curriculum. Instead, we talk every day about students. When someone digresses, talks too much, or goes on gets caught up on anecdotes, the group tries to bring it back to students and learning. There is probably 5-7 hours per week of looking at data, discussing classroom interventions, discussing and implementing various levels of support, and trudging through the challenges of meaningful engagement. We talk about how to push and support all at once in a relational context.

And for the first time in my teaching career, our group has a pulse on every student in our department. We know who we are pushing toward more challenging opportunities, we know who is trying to prepare for the SATs, and we know who is struggling to get through. We know who is working hard every day, and we know who isn’t really trying. Intervention and MTSS have become living, breathing, and changing things.

Honestly, my lessons felt better planned when I was on the island. I was trading hours of team work for hours of sitting at my computer and planning. The transitions were seamless, there was more little videos and audio clips to brings students in, and the plan felt airtight. But, amazingly, students are more engaged now then they were back then. It seems that student felt that island mentality as well. The umbrellas in their drinks were a nice touch and the flowered shirts were kind of funny, but they would trade that for a team of supporters any day. Or in teacher terms, all the jazz of our perfectly choreographed “engagement” activities often fell short.. All of that was less important than having a few people cheering for them and working together to help them grow.

So, I think it's time we all throw our Coronas to the side (noting that if you had a Corona in your classroom that was probably inappropriate anyway) and open our doors. Step outside, and work like hell. Together.