Why teachers feel so alone

Intended or not, school reform has left many teachers feeling isolated and alone. Here’s a post on this by Hillary Greene, who has taught middle school for three years in independent, public, and public charter settings in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. She graduated from Brown University and completed the Shady Hill School Teacher Training at Tufts University. She is interested in teaching and teacher-education research. This first appeared in Education Week Teacher. Connect @hillarylgreene on Twitter.

By Hillary Greene

Everybody knows that a good house party, no matter how enticing the dining room, ends up in the kitchen. Surrounded by the comfort of food and drink, we relax and bond. We say things we wouldn’t say in the dining room.

Yet, in this nation that “runs on Dunkin’,” some schools appear to be cutting back on staff-room provisions as a budgetary precaution. So while Google generously—and shrewdly—provides copious amounts of first-class nourishment to its employees, teachers often can’t get a free cup of coffee.

And while a cut like this may seem relatively insignificant, I’m convinced it harms teaching and learning.

Without coffee to induce them to linger in the staff room, teachers have lost their kitchen space. And gone are the conversations that used to occur there, where the most productive (and completely unscheduled) meetings would often occur. Somehow, encounters in front of vending machines tucked in some tiny, darkened room do not produce the same effect.

But this isn’t really about coffee. This is about teacher voice and collaboration.

 An Isolating Profession

I decided to become a teacher four years ago, due to some combination of a desire to have an impact on others and indecision about what else to do. Also involved on some level were the collapse of the economy and an interest in heeding President Obama’s call for top students to pursue public service and teaching.

I learned to teach middle-school humanities in an alternative licensure program at an independent school in Cambridge, Mass. Around the seminar table, we soon-to-be teachers grappled with questions of equal access to great education while we swapped tales from teaching that day. Between classes and after school, the teachers’ staff room provided not only free coffee, but also free peanut butter and crackers, so people congregated. In that cozy space, I practiced an important aspect of teaching: bonding with colleagues. Another teacher’s “Patrick” sounded like “James” in my class, so we talked and shared experiences. We all laughed together when a stressed teacher ran in to get a coffee and exclaimed, “I have to remember I’m not running the Pentagon!”

I stepped into my first teaching job filled to the brim with ideas about teaching and learning. But I completely underestimated all it takes to be an effective teacher (and how infrequently bathroom breaks occur). Making matters worse, my school offered none of the opportunities for collaboration and informal conversation among teachers that I had experienced in my training program. I tried to figure out my next social studies unit during 30-second conversations in the copy room. A 20-minute conversation with a social worker seemed like a rare treat. I spent most hours at my computer, drowning alone.

Still hopeful, I stepped into my second dream job this past fall at a first-year public charter school, but it has proven to be no different. I find myself reflecting relentlessly: Does public school teaching really have to be this isolating?

 Losing My Voice

The greatest disappointment for me as a teacher has been how little intellectual exchange there is among educators. On the way to a staff meeting, I still catch myself running through my dream agenda: First, we’ll reflect on the prevalence of ADHD and the implications for us, after which we’ll all step back and think about whether more—not fewer—music classes could improve our math scores and students’ experiences. Then we’ll think about the rapidly growing use of iPads in the classroom and what that might mean for instruction. Instead, in reality, I quietly enter the meeting room, sip my tea, and chime in when I must because perhaps my professional opinion matters on where recycling bins could be stored or maybe the department head just got to my students on her list of numbers—that is, students—not meeting assessment proficiency.

At these get-togethers, the party never moves out of the dining room.

I have occasionally worked up the nerve to ask kitchen questions in the dining room, but the results have not been good. During an IEP meeting, I brought up the issue of racial identity for a struggling African-American boy in a predominantly white, affluent school. For that, I was called a “loose cannon.” At another meeting, I divulged that I felt more like a proctor than a literature teacher due to the frequency of assessments. For that, I was made to feel as though I misunderstood the whole purpose of assessment. I have questioned many aspects of the way my school operates, and I have stated my views more directly as my experience as a teacher has grown. For that, I have been urged to be more “politically correct.”

It’s hard not to feel that I’m losing my voice. Or perhaps I’m saving it for something else.

We frequently hear the statistic that nearly half of teachers leave teaching within five years. I’m inclined to believe that politically incorrect loose cannons leave schools at a higher rate. Yet this is precisely the type of person you want teaching because he or she can inspire children to find their own voices.

Teachers are getting the message: Quiet down and behave. We need you, but we don’t value you.

If we want our public schools to create the next generation of thoughtful, engaged Americans, we need to support the people whose job it is to make an impact, and we need to work especially hard to retain the types of teachers who question the status quo and speak up even at the risk of being politically incorrect.

We could start by giving teachers free coffee—and how about decent coffee?—so that the party can move back to the kitchen. Otherwise, doors will close and the great ideas in education will be spoken separately and silently in lonely classrooms.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | August 19, 2013