Claire Bove, Carnegie Scholar - CASTL K-12 Program, Carnegie Foundation

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Teacher community

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Community is important for students. The teacher is a part of the classroom community, where students interact as peers with the teacher as a mentor and guide. But students are working at learning, at growing up, at figuring out how to interact with peers. They are not doing the same job you are doing: teaching young people.

Teaching is a social profession. Most of us choose teaching because like to work with other people. But paradoxically, the historical development of teaching has made it into a profession where there is little opportunity in the workday to interact with other people engaged in the same work. After teacher training, a teacher goes into the classroom and works with students. Many teachers have told me the only time another adult comes into their classroom is when their principal comes to evaluate them. That's usually two visits during the evaluation year. The evaluation year is every other year. Furthermore, it is our evaluation. With even the most supportive principal, it is not always something we look forward to.

The result of this isolation is that most teachers have the idea that other teachers are doing a much better job than we are: ours are the only students who won't be quiet. Ours are the only students who are not learning the material. Consequently, we don't want anyone to come in and see that we have no idea what we are doing.

In my fourth year of teaching, I began to work with a student teacher, and I had the experience of being observed every day. Like all other teachers, I felt that the other teacher in the room could see everything I was doing wrong. But after daily conversations with my student teacher, I realized that the observer often sees things that are going right: things the teacher at the front of the room can't see. He or she sees, for example, that kids are engaged, while the teacher in the front of the room only sees that the kids are talking. When we met after class, what I heard was not judgment, but support. As I observed my student teacher, I was not seeing what that teacher was doing wrong, I saw him doing things that were creative, inventive, and successful. The dialogue we could have, the critical thinking, support from someone who has seen the lesson, someone who understands the difficulties of teaching, these things changed my ideas about what the profession could be.

I believe that isolation is one of the factors that keeps teachers from speaking up about what we know to be problems in our profession. If I am having difficulty, I think it must be because I am not a �good teacher.� When people outside the profession learn that teachers are paid only for the 40 hours they supervise students, and typically put in 50, 60, 70 or more hours a week, they are shocked. But it is well known within the profession.* We know how much more there is to it than standing in front of our class. Similarly, people on the outside don't know that secondary teachers typically teach 5 classes of 30 students: 150 students a day. They don't know that in a hands-on science program like the one at my school, we have a budget a $3 per student per year, and that teachers buy things out of our own pockets. We don't speak up because we think we will be seen as complainers, or because we think people will think we are not good teachers. �Good teachers� have strategies to deal with all these problems.

Another thing we all know, but people on the outside don't know, is that 80% of new teachers leave within the first five years. In Jonathan Kozol's book �Savage Inequalities,� (1) he writes:

�There are wonderful teachers such as Corla Hawkins almost everywhere in urban schools, and sometimes a number of such teachers in a single school. It is tempting to focus on these teachers and, by doing this, to paint a hopeful portrait of the good things that go on under adverse conditions. There is, indeed, a growing body of such writing; and these books are sometimes very popular, because they are consoling.

�The rationale behind much of this writing is that pedagogic problems in our cities are not chiefly matters of injustice, inequality or segregation, but of insufficient information about teaching strategies: If we could simply learn �what works� in Corla Hawkins's room � it would have happened long ago; for wonderful teachers have been heroized in books and movies for at least three decades. � The problems are systemic: � the salary scale [is] too low to keep exciting, youthful teachers in the system �� **

One way to counter the isolation and silence among teachers in our school system is for teachers to support each other. Established, tenured teachers, teachers like me, who are recognized, (rightly or wrongly) as �good teachers� need to look out for other teachers, particularly for new teachers, and to speak up from within the system about issues we see affecting our students and our colleagues. The silence will continue until we do.

About the videos on this page:

Everything I am proud of in my teaching practice has been a result of ideas from teachers I have worked with, who have supported me in my attempt to understand teaching. Many of these teachers have been student teachers and new teachers. The videos below show examples of the kind of conversation I'm describing.

Matt Reider, the other teacher in these conversations, worked with me as a student teacher, and later as a science department colleague. Together we developed many of the ideas in this project. He has also given me countless hours of help in creating this website.

Notes:

* I once attended a Teacher of the Year dinner, with a colleague of mine who was nominated to receive the award. An English teacher, another nominee, described in her speech about how she used to go on vacation with her husband, and grade papers in the car. Her husband would tell her, now and then, to look up and see something interesting in the scenery going by. I thought �Oh my goodness, how sad � she didn't even have time to enjoy her vacation.� And then, in a horrible moment of recognition, I thought �Oh my God, I've done that! I've graded papers in the car coming home from vacation! More than once I've done that!� I suddenly wondered how many other teachers have done that and never told anyone.

** Corla Hawkins is a Chicago teacher. In 1988-89 Chicago was spending $5,265 per pupil (Kozol cites the Chicago Panel on School Policy and Finance as his source.). To compare this with California: EdSource reports that in 1995-96, California was spending $4,924 per pupil and had among the highest average class size in the nation (edsource@edsource.org).

Reference

1. Kozol, Jonathan, Savage Inequalities, 1991, Crown Publishers.

 

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