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Response: Several Ways Teachers Can Create a Supportive Environment for Each Other

S.H. asked:

Our school culture has a growing sense of [unhealthy] competitiveness. I believe a lot of this stems from the fact that our administration does not recognize (or maybe they do and simply don't voice) teacher expertise using specific, positive praise. We do receive thanks yous - but they tend to be blanket statements and pretty general. (For example, "Thank you Ms. _____ for helping your team out.")

This appears to have led to some teachers to measure themselves against others. Rather than feeling grateful that the students in our school are being taught by many talented teachers, it has become a zero-sum game and fed rivalries and pettiness.

It's sad for me to admit this, but I don't think there's a ton of hope in my administration changing their ways. I guess my question is, how can teachers create a sincere, supportive environment for each other?

I've asked Bill Ferriter and Parry Graham, co-authors of Building a Professional Learning Community at Work: A Guide to the First Year, to provide guest responses to this tricky question, and also include some excellent reader responses later in this post.

I think they offer excellent specific suggestions. The one thought I'd like to contribute is that a challenge to many of us -- whether it is how we operate as teachers with our colleagues or with our students, or if we are administrators or policymakers -- is that it's easy to get caught up in the belief that power (or potential advancement, or success -- whatever you want to call it) is a finite pie -- that if you get some that means I will have less. The reality in the vast majority of instances is that the more I share with you, the bigger the whole pie gets and greater possibilities are created for everyone.

If I share my lesson plan with you, that really means that you might be able to make it better for both of us. If I tell you about the challenges that I faced in the classroom today, instead of making me appear weak, it instead demonstrates that I have the self-confidence to share and hear ideas from others who have probably experienced similar problems (or will in the future).

This perspective of the "pie getting bigger" is a core belief of community organizers (which I was for nineteen years prior to becoming a teacher). The first step towards making this happen in any institution or neighborhood is to build relationships -- an exchange of personal and professional stories -- so that people can learn the hopes, dreams and challenges of each other. The trust that develops during these conversations is the key building block towards countless possibilities...

Response From Bill Ferriter:

Bill Ferriter teaches 6th grade language arts in North Carolina, where he was named a Regional Teacher of the Year for 2005-2006. He is a member of The Teacher Leaders Network.

Another factor that feeds rivalries and pettiness in PLCs is the unhealthy push in many districts and states to use standardized test scores to rate and sort teachers.
Anytime that we try to assign numbers to individual teachers--rather than recognize that improvements in student performance come from collective reflection around practice AND the collective contributions of all of the practitioners that work with a group of children--competition is inevitable.

One way to address this is to establish a team norm that collaborative efforts AREN'T about studying successful people. Instead, they are about studying successful PRACTICES. While that may seem like a subtle bit of semantic gymnastics, it is an essential shift made by every healthy learning team. Conversations focused on the practices--instead of the people--that produce the best results are safer for everyone.

More importantly, they send the message that by working together to enhance and amplify effective instructional practices, a learning team can make tangible improvements in student achievement.

You'll have to be militant about language in order to cement this norm into your collaborative work, though.

Because teachers are (1). surrounded by efforts to tie performance to individuals instead of collaborative groups and (2). used to working in isolation, it is only natural to see competitive teacher-centered language slip into our conversations.

"Wow," we'll say, "Mary is a master! Look at her student's scores on the last assessment."

Instead, we should be saying, "Wow. Mary has discovered a practice that works! Look at her student's scores on the last assessment. How did you teach those skills, Mary?"
When your team stops talking about teachers and starts talking about teaching--or more accurately, student learning--you'll begin to erase the competition and defensiveness that is destroying your collaborative work.

Response From Dr. Parry Graham:

Dr. Parry Graham is the current principal of Luftkin Road Middle School in the Wake County Public School System. He is also an adjunct professor in the education department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

From what I can tell, there are two levels to this complex question. The first level is, what can an individual teacher do to impact the culture of her individual professional learning team? The second level is, what can teachers do to impact the culture of their schools?

At the team level (or department level or grade level), I think there are a couple steps a teacher can take. First, model what you think is positive behavior: don't gossip about other teachers, keep comments about others positive, praise others when you see something worth praising. Second, bring up your observations in team meetings. Mention your perceptions of negativity during a team meeting, ask if others have similar perceptions, and identify specific behaviors at the team level that can help to build a positive team culture.

At the school level, things get more complicated. First, I am somewhat dubious that a relatively simple behavior on the part of the administrative team--i.e., not recognizing teacher expertise using specific praise--could be the primary factor underlying a competitive culture throughout a school. School cultures are complex creatures that typically result from years of behaviors, actions, attitudes, and beliefs. Yes, administrators have some control over culture, but my guess is that the factors underlying this school's culture go much deeper.

So get involved in the kinds of groups that can influence school culture. If they exist, volunteer to serve on the school's improvement or leadership team, on curriculum committees, or on a hospitality group. If your backyard will handle it, host a schoolwide barbeque to bring teachers together outside of school. Set up a Friday afternoon club that meets after school to decompress over beverages of choice. In short, work to improve the relationships between the adults in the building, one interaction at a time.

Reader Responses

Kristen Hewett:

Building a sense of family and community spirit has been something that my school has struggled with for the past few years. As a mentor to our beginning teachers, one thing that I have started this year has been to ask them to select a staff member who exemplifies a certain trait that they admire and would like to emulate and have them let this teacher know this through a short note or a card. My hope is that this will allow my beginning teachers to make connections with other staff members and that it will help to build morale. My ultimate goal is to take this idea and slowly branch it out into other areas and begin a "pay it forward" type of movement. I know that this is just one small step, but my hope is that our small steps will eventually spark bigger changes.

Tyrion Lannister shares a way not to create a supportive environment:

My old school ordered teachers to collaborate, and then graded our collaboration according to a rubric.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks to Bill, Parry, Kristen, and Tyrion for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I'll be posting the next "question of the week" on Friday.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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