The classroom can be a lonely place.
My students surround me. They vie for attention, they want advice, they want answers, they want me to listen to a story about their weekend. In the cafeteria it is a chorus of “Ms. Ms. Ms. Ms. Lander!”
Simultaneously, I am alone. For help on a math problem, my students turn to me. I turn to myself. On hot muggy days when all my students want to do is poke each other or practice step routines, it is solely my responsibility to refocus the class. I discipline the class clown, or break up an argument. My students grumble, “You’re forcing it Ms. Lander.”
Out of the classroom, teaching is lonely too. I worry about my students on the drive home – about how two students didn’t get along, or how another student is having difficulty grasping a math concept. I dream about my students and wake up from nightmares set in classrooms.
These are solitary concerns. I share classroom stories with friends and family. I share with them stories about how one particular student wrote a particularly moving poem or made an insightful comment during a discussion. My students infiltrate most of my conversations. But to friends and family, they are just stories.
Yet, I know that, compared with most teachers, I am incredibly lucky. As a teacher with Citizen Schools, I am surrounded by an incredible support system. It is this support system, a cadre of colleagues who are there for me each day that has let me grow so much as a teacher this year.
As a group of teachers, we meet before class, we meet after class. We discuss lesson plans and we practice lessons. We strategize about certain students, we share success stories, we talk through disappointing classes. We devise extra worksheets and pass them around in a flurry of paper.
The situation could not be more dissimilar to my teaching experience last year.
Less than twenty-four hours after landing in Thailand, I was handed a pile of textbooks and a list of room numbers, and I was sent off to teach students at Chiang Mai University. A semester later, my students sat their final exams. In the intervening months, my teaching was never once observed. Not that I expected that to happen, the university has 40,000 students. The independence was daunting but also exhilarating: I had to find my own confidence in the classroom.
This year, colleagues not only sat in the back of the classroom to observe my class, they have once or twice pulled out a camera to film. Later, after students have gone home, we sat and discussed the films, as a coach does with their players: Could I have laid out this concept more clearly? What if I broke down those instructions to even more basic steps?
Yet, this kind of support system is not the norm for most teachers across America.
School days begin early and extend until early evening, leaving little room for additional meetings to discuss best practices. Tight school budgets make it difficult to support a teacher who can observe other classes and provide feedback. And, observation systems that have recently been created in a number of districts for the purpose of setting merit pay have become more judgmental than instructive for teachers’ personal development.
In most professions, collaboration is an integral part of the job. Scientists, Lawyers, Doctors all work together, relying on support, feedback and discussion with peers and mentors.
It is difficult to teach teaching.
You can’t simulate the experience of teaching a classroom full of 6th graders, short of having an actual class of them in front of you. For the sake of practicality, most classes about teaching are therefore taught in the abstract.
Before shipping off to Thailand, I attended days of sessions intended to train me to be an effective teacher. But, I learned just as much in my first 45-minute class in Chiang Mai.
We know that great teachers make an enormous difference to students (Harvard and Colombia economists even quantified the impact, calculating that a great elementary school teacher increased the average lifetime earnings of a student by $25,000 compared to a subpar teacher.)
But, how can we fill our classrooms with great teachers?
There is no shortage of proposed solutions – from hiring teachers with better credentials, to providing merit pay for high performers, to developing stronger accreditation programs, to firing ineffective teachers.
Whatever the merits of these approaches, I wonder if we might be wise to help teachers, already in the school system, improve their game in the way that other professionals do – meeting in teams to discuss strategizing, taking time to visit classes taught by other teachers, having other teachers regularly visit one’s own classes, having master teachers serving as coaches and mentors to budding teachers. These measures might increase schools personnel budgets by 10% or even 20%. But the payoff for students could be enormous.
And, with teachers learning from each other, the classroom might just become a bit less of a lonely place.