Question from xgrlgamerx:
Hey! Love the blog! I just have a quick question about teaching overall.
What impact does a teacher that wants to make a difference really have? I’ve read countless books ranging from the topics of NCLB and Achievement Gaps, and they all say that one of the solutions is to have teachers meet more on a regular basis and work as a team and discuss what works and what doesn’t. I’m all for it, and I understand how a lack of time is probably the biggest culprit in why this doesn’t happen as much as it should, but what can I, as a future educator, do about this? What do you do? Is it pointless to bring up at meetings? Will vetrans shake their heads at me and label me as “naive” and “ill experienced”? Thanks!
Great question, and relevant to a lot of what I’ve been navigating in my first year. I think there are a couple of different aspects to your question, so I’ll tease them out, and I apologize if I misinterpret what you’ve asked.
The first piece is the actual question you pose: What impact does a teacher that wants to make a difference really have? The phrasing of this question implies that there are teachers who don’t want to make a difference. As a student teacher, it’s easy to believe that most older teachers are too cynical or too burnt out or just too old fashioned to be interested in making a difference. You probably see some of this at your placement. Maybe your mentor is one of these teachers. As a first year, I assure you that this is not the case. Yes, there are veteran teachers who are cynics and who are so burned out they should leave the classroom ASAP. But I have found that getting to school early and leaving late is by far the norm, not the exception. When you hear a veteran teacher complain about a student or a class in an exasperated tone, listen carefully—would they bother to be annoyed by students’ lack of effort if they didn’t care about the students? By and large, teachers care about their students, work hard to support their students, and do what they can to positively impact student learning.
But what does “making a difference” mean? You know, hopefully, that the kind of making a difference portrayed by Hollywood teacher stories is bullshit. Veteran teachers absolutely know this, but they often assume that young teachers don’t. If you say, “I want to make a difference,” you might get labeled naive because a veteran thinks your goal is to be that chick from Dangerous Minds. But maybe what you really mean is that you’d like to get at least a few of your students to find pleasure in reading this school year. So it’s an issue of communication, of learning to be very specific and narrow when talking about your goals as a teacher. I believe—and most working teachers would agree, I think—that teachers can absolutely have a very real, meaningful impact on students. It might not happen with every student that sits in front of you. It most likely won’t be anything dramatic or even very visible. It’s entirely possible that you could change a student’s entire perspective on a topic and never even realize it. You just have to kind of trust and go with it and focus on having a positive relationship with the kids.
At my school, we are required to meet as disciplinary teams in order to collaborate. This is true for many if not most of the teachers I know—teachers in all kinds of schools and districts and locations. These are generally called Professional Learning Communities or “PLCs.” It does require time, but it’s not optional for us. The goal of these meetings is to do exactly what you’re talking about—share notes on what works and what doesn’t, develop some common formative assessments so we can all meaningfully compare data, that kind of thing.
Having just finished telling you all of this, I’ll share that my current department head falls into the category of Veteran Teacher who Needs to Leave the Classroom ASAP. He is very anti-PLC and has really hampered the bio team’s ability to meaningfully collaborate. Nonetheless, there are a couple of really great bio teachers in my department that I collaborate with informally all of the time. Our formal PLC meetings are not useful, but we make up for that by asking one another for help on specific topics, sharing any cool or useful resources we come across, or just listening to one another after a long day.
So my actual advice to you is to find like-minded colleagues. They exist and are much more plentiful than you’ve been led to believe. Be positive and friendly. Get things started by asking for help on something specific—a management problem, a school policy question, a particularly troublesome lesson. Ask how they have handled similar situations. If you take their advice, follow up with them and thank them and tell them how it went. If you didn’t take their advice follow up with them anyway and tell them how you ended up addressing the issue. Share whatever resources you have or find, and ask around for materials and resources. Contrary to popular belief, teachers love sharing. I’ve yet to meet a teacher that doesn’t love talking about their classrooms. Even the mean-spirited old chemistry teacher in my department was thrilled to spend twenty minutes giving me much needed advice about grading and testing. If you’re discussing what you want to accomplish in your classroom with an older teacher, avoid cliches and be specific. For me, my personal teaching goal is to get my kids thinking like scientists. My department head would absolutely have laughed at me for that. So I say things like, “I want my students to design their own experiments this quarter” or “I want my students to be able to draw conclusions from this data set during my climate change lesson.” If I can get even a few of my students to do those things, I’ve made a difference, even if they don’t all go on to become Nobel laureate scientists.
This might be more long-winded than you were looking for, but I hope it’s helpful. Any other Tumblr teachers want to chime in on this?