When creating a new education model, it must be designed to meet the unique needs of all students; after all, teaching kids is the purpose for which schools were created. Like any work environment, however, the unique needs of the people who do the work must also be met. We must focus on the needs of teachers, not just to help them do the best job of which they are capable, although this is core to our mission and purpose, but we must also satisfy the personal needs of our teachers; unique human beings, each.
We want teachers to have personal and professional job satisfaction. A student’s academic success is as important to the well-being of the child’s teacher as it is to the student, him or herself. Close, caring relationships that are vital to the success of our students are equally vital to the success and well-being of teachers. We often talk about what the difference a “favorite teacher” made in our lives as we look back through our school years and, if we were fortunate, we may have two, three or more teachers who were special and whom we recall with such fondness.
Teachers also look back over their careers and the faces, smiles, and names of favorite students peek out from behind the curtains of their memories. Just like when we smile while thinking back on one of our favorite teachers, those same teachers are likely to smile when they think back on us. As their students, we recall that favorite teacher’s classroom as a place where we felt safe and enjoyed one of the most successful periods of our school career. It was in their classrooms where we did our best work, where we felt the least fear of failure, and where learning was fun. We can be assured that, for those teachers, our presence made their jobs a little more meaningful and their days a little brighter.
When we go back to the drawing board to re-invent the education process in and with which teachers and students work, we must make a conscious effort to create an environment that fosters these special relationships. We would like to create a classroom environment where every child feels a special bond with one or more teachers and where all teachers feel special connections with as many of their students as possible. We understand that no matter how hard we work, perfection is never attained. There are things we can do to ensure that we get as close to perfection as possible, however.
If you are reading this and finding yourself unable to imagine any way this type of an team environment can be created in your classroom, please be patient. To create such an environment is the purpose for which this book was written. We are going to walk you through the process of creating such classrooms, one step at a time.
One of the reasons it so difficult to envision such classrooms is because teachers work individually, with twenty-five, thirty, or even thirty-five students. Yes, many of you have aides and you may find them invaluable. Most schools also have various resource teachers for reading, special education, English Language Learning and more. Some special needs children have individual aides assigned to help them throughout the day. Most of these resources create value and, as a teacher, you and these colleagues may, occasionally, put your heads together to brainstorm or to come up with a strategy to help some of your students. Often, however, these colleagues are not your partners; they are not teammates. You have your job to do and they have theirs.
In the model that will be introduced to you, we will be relying a team teaching environment with teams of three teachers, working together as partners. Some of you may find the idea of working as a member of a team of three colleagues uncomfortable or frightening. This is understandable but, again, I ask for your patience; be hopeful. In diverse venues, such teams have proven to be extraordinarily successful. Often, team members become more than co-workers or even partners; they become close personal friends and provide a level of personal and professional support that is not possible within the current education process. Teachers as part of a team are never on an island by themselves.
Teams can contribute to unprecedented levels of performance and quality of outcomes and have even been proven to be more effective that management in dealing with performance or commitment issues. This has been found to be true even in strong union environments in manufacturing facilities. When people are working on their own, whether as a teacher in a classroom, a professional in another setting, or a production worker on an assembly line, it is easy for poorly trained and unmotivated people to hide in the crowd where their sub-standard performance goes unnoticed. Even when co-workers bring such individuals to the attention of their boss, many of these managers and supervisors find it difficult to act, even when doing so is their job.
I began my first job as a supervisor in 1972 and have managed units with as few as seven people and operations with as many as several hundred people, at all levels of the organizational hierarchy. In addition, I spent many years working as an organizational development and leadership consultant during which I learned as much as I taught. One of the things I learned is that we must all embrace a simple concept. Most people want to do their job, well. They would like to be respected and they would love to be part of a winning team. They may not know how to do these things, they may struggle to find motivation, and they may not even know to whom to turn for help. If we start with this idea, however, rather than read some measure of evil intent into the behavior of a colleague, it changes everything. This same approach should be applied to one’s students, also. They would like to be successful, but many do not know how and have no one with whom they feel they can talk.
It is also easy to tell these coworkers to, “see your supervisor or manager” but, sadly, one of the things most lacking in organizations of all shapes, sizes, venues, and purposes is positive leadership. Many supervisors and managers are unapproachable and are the last person to whom a troubled employee might choose to turn. Many of you reading these words have vivid memories of such supervisors, managers, and principals. Even some bosses do not know how to do their own job well nor do they know to whom they can turn for help. We will spend more time talking about positive leadership in a later section of this book.
In a team setting, there is no place to hide and each member of the team is accountable to the team and his or her teammates. While this may sound scary, it is, most often, a source of comfort and support. The fundamental difference in such team teaching environments, even when the principal may become involved, is that the focus is on ways to improve the quality of teaching; not finding fault with a team member. It is always about improving the effectiveness of relationship building, whether with the team’s students or with one another. It is never about finding things team members who are doing wrong, it is always about finding ways for all members to get better outcomes. It is a case where the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.
Teams are comprised of imperfect human beings and bonding will not always come quickly and easily. Often, however, when members of a new team struggle to come together, the very nature of having to work together for the benefit of the students for whom they share responsibility, begins to change the chemistry of the unit. This seems to be especially true with people who share a deep commitment to their mission.
There are few populations of professionals who have stronger and more enduring commitment to the people they serve than teachers. I think the generosity of teachers is a testament to that commitment. Danny Steele is a principal, speaker, and author who has an enormous following from teachers who support each other on Twitter. In a recent Tweet @SteeleThoughts, wrote:
“To all those teachers who have ever provided a pizza party for a class. . . or donut party. . . or a cookie party. . . out of your own pocket. . . for any reason—Thank you! You probably violated some health guidelines but the students loved it. You made an investment in them!”
If we could tally all the time devoted by teachers, before arriving and after leaving school, along with the money used for school supplies, décor, treats, parties, covert loans of lunch money, et al, it is difficult to imagine a more generous group of workers, professional or otherwise, than teachers. We are not talking about the words they say about how committed they are, we are talking about how they demonstrate that commitment by the things they do, day in and day out. It is this shared commitment to one’s students that make teams work so effectively. Teachers may have varying levels of experience or come from diverse cultures, but they all want what is best for their students. And when they link those diverse backgrounds in a team setting, magic happens.
If you are teacher reading this, and are not a Twitter user, I encourage you to become one. There is a huge support group of wonderful teachers who will be there to inspire you, every day. Start by following Danny Steele @SteeleThoughts and then gradually begin following the teachers and other educators who follow him. This author’s username is @melhawk46. I invite you to follow me, as well.
You are not in this alone and there is a solution if we all work together, not in protests or complaints, but as advocates for a powerful new idea.
[to be continued]