Squashing teacher collaboration

Teaching is a very is a  lonely job — and that statement seems like an oxymoron.    Teachers are social, on stage, the answer givers, the facilitator, the energizer, the thinker, the organizer how in the world can you say they have a lonely job? How can teachers be so isolated from their colleagues? Don’t we want our teachers to collaborate?

So, why are teachers so isolated?  Aside from the obvious layout of a school that places teachers in compartments, the other biggest reason is the culture of teaching.  During my undergraduate coursework,  if you heard once you heard it a 1,000 times that good teachers deal with student issues without calling upon the Principal.  Good Teachers know what they are doing and do not need administrative support.  Good teachers solve problems on their own. Those that need help are shown the door.  Once you graduate you have this fear of living up to this standard.  You would never consider asking your colleagues for help or feedback on a particular lesson. You would never go to your Principal to discuss a difficult student.  That would show weakness and a lack of knowledge and your “boss” (the Principal) might think less of you as a teacher.  But that is exactly what other countries expect teachers to do and do frequently.

And let’s think about the pressures we place on teachers who have high expectations for themselves doing a job that has no defined limits.  We expect them to differentiate, integrate seamlessly with special education students, grow all students, and challenge the gifted ones.  We want them to be social workers, nurses, psychologist, motivators, disciplinarians, and scholars.  We have the outside pressures of accountability, testing, data-driven results, and often archaic bureaucratic regulations. You juxtapose all of this with the constant barrage of criticism from politicians and the media about teachers and teacher quality.  You could easily feel pretty lonely and defeated.

We see this isolation of teachers intensify and on steriods with the new evaluation tools introduced in Ohio and many other states.  When a teachers job or pay is dependent upon the performance of the teacher on a rubric coupled with the performance students, teachers will not be overly anxious to share teaching methodologies and techniques with each other.  We are essentially creating a competitive environment pitting one teacher against the other using faulty data points like test scores of children to determine job performance and pay raises.  They will squabble over who gets the best kids.  Who is going to volunteer to teach in that high-poverty building or take on more special education students?  Who is going to be willing to innovate or try anything new?

This is not good news for kids who need high quality teachers.  Several respected researchers have proven that teacher collaboration directly improves student learning.  When teachers collaborate on the best teaching techniques, discuss student work, plan together, observe each other, formulate cross-curricular projects, share ideas, etc…the learning of kids and the adults (teachers)  improves.   The old adage is “two heads are better than one” is especially true in the field of education and if teachers isolate themselves further the real losers are kids.

I am not so sure that the lawmakers who imposed this new system of evaluation with the expressed purpose to improve teaching and teachers considered fully how that would squash teacher collaboration.  It was extremely difficult to get teachers to collaborate effectively before this new evaluation system and it might well be next to impossible as we raise the stakes on teachers.


About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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