The greatest resource that teachers have is other teachers. But sadly, teamwork and collaboration are not commonly found in schools. Having taught for 20 years myself, I know how it works.
Teachers have very challenging and stressful jobs, and part of what contributes to their level of challenge and stress is a teacher's tendency to isolate him- or herself. How many teachers close their door and feel like they are all alone in fighting their overwhelming battle against ignorance and apathy and paperwork and standardized testing?
Isolation Is Not Effective
I remember my first year as a high school literature teacher. I began by adopting those exact habits of preparing alone and working in isolation. I was a lonely superhero who went home exhausted each day without the encouragement or support of my more experienced peers. I was right next to people who had answers and ideas that could have benefitted me, but I was too proud to ask for them.
It was only by the grace and generosity of a couple of seasoned teachers from my department that I was able to appreciate what I had been missing. They reached out to offer unsolicited assistance, build a relationship, and share a few encouraging stories with me. I had assumed that I could be more effective when planning and working alone, but I eventually found that, when working with people, efficient is rarely truly effective. It took a long time for me to realize that I could accomplish more and be far more effective and energized if I was willing to share ideas, ask for help, and lean on others.
That experience of connecting with other teachers and sharing ideas throughout the year had a tremendous impact on me as a young teacher. Over the years, it is what led me to share with and reach out to others who I felt might need encouragement or ideas. I realized that teachers have too much of a history of closing doors and doing things their own way -- and that the isolated nature of teaching made it even more important that teachers have the time and incentive to collaborate.
The truth is that no industry succeeds in isolation or secrecy.
Building Meaningful Connections
Being a professional doesn't mean that you have the opportunity to work alone. In fact, professionals in most every other industry are required to work together to improve performance. Whether they're airline pilots, psychiatrists, or salesmen, successful professionals lean on and share ideas with others in their field.
There are two main types of isolation that teachers experience:
- Egg-crate isolation: This is what I call the kind of isolation that is due to the physical layout of school buildings. Egg-crate isolation is the result of physical separateness, where teachers have little contact with others and feel as if they have no support system. To alleviate this feeling, instead of being tucked neatly away in separate rooms all the time, school administrations should give teachers the time and opportunity to talk and plan together, and to share laughter, encouragement, and ideas.
- Avalanche isolation: This kind of isolation is the result of teachers feeling overwhelmed by their daily responsibilities of serving lunch duty, grading papers, making copies, attending meetings, learning new strategies, contacting parents, and the thousand other things on their to-do list. The best way to assuage this form of isolation is to focus on getting rid of egg-crate isolation.
The surest way to reduce workplace stress is to help your people build meaningful connections and feel like a valuable part of something larger than themselves. Building that kind of culture requires administrations setting aside time and emphasizing the importance of teacher teamwork instead of simply suggesting that it occur on its own.
Perhaps you could suggest a mandate that your staff spend just 30 minutes every week where one teacher can share a creative lesson plan, or where every teacher has to share his or her most challenging issue. These conversations open doors for sharing encouragement and insights while establishing the empathy that drives all great organizations.
If your school staff needs to share a few laughs, a day of teacher team building can be a powerful catalyst to boost morale, improve interactions, and establish a culture of collaboration. Teamwork is not optional for effective schools.
Effective administrations ensure that teachers can work together to plan, share ideas, and support each other. Once educators experience the benefits of collaboration, they will appreciate the camaraderie and creativity it provides.