This piece originally appeared on the author's personal blog, Moments with Mike, at https://momentswithmike257577506.wordpress.com/, on August 7, 2018.
It’s now less than two weeks until the beginning of the new school year. For maybe the first time in my career, I am neither panicked nor nervous about the prospect of facing my incoming students and beginning our journey through United States history and civics.
What I am nervous about, however, has nothing to do with the students and everything to do with my fellow teachers. As strange as it may sound, I have a secret fear of collaboration. Let me explain.
My tendency, when meeting with my colleagues, is either to acquiesce to everything they want in terms of curriculum or pacing… or to proclaim the rightness of a certain agenda or plan of action in a “take no prisoners“ manner. Neither approach has been particularly successful.
If I give in to what others want without making my own views heard, I come away from the meeting feeling useless and something like a freeloader. If I come on too strong in expressing my opinions, I usually meet resistance or opposition. And, since I’ve usually led with emotion rather than research or science, I get out-argued by people who have given some serious consideration to what they want to do in the coming school year or semester.
In my school, and in my district, we are required to be in close alignment with each other – – that is, we need to be going at the same pace, with the same textbook, the same cumulative experiences, and largely the same assessment at the end of each unit. What that means is that there is relatively little room to innovate or to deviate beyond what we all “agree“ on as a teaching cohort.
So what’s a boy to do? Being a doormat doesn’t work, and neither does doing my imitation of a Sherman tank.
I think I know what I will do in my first meeting with my colleagues this year, and I’d like to share it with you here.
This time, I am going to assume that my fellow teachers of U.S. history want what is best for our students no less than I do. I am also going to assume that none of them is out to get me or to make what we are doing personal or competitive. And I need to keep in mind that they are trying to meet their needs in what they are saying and planning in the same way I am… That is, they want to feel secure, acknowledged, meaningful, and appreciated. (Thank you, Abraham Maslow.)
This time, I am also going to work hard to counteract the self flagellation that I have tended to do in the past. Previous to this year, it was difficult for me to hear about what a fellow teacher was doing that was new and innovative without seething inwardly, beating myself up emotionally, and communicating a message of “Why the hell didn’t you think of that??“ to my mind and heart.
I don’t like starting the school year feeling bad about myself or my role in the school where I work. It has taken me several years to realize that’s not a good feeling, and that it is not natural or helpful.
Oh, I will come in with some ideas. Ideas that I think are good, that are backed up by research, and that I have have considered carefully before I ever get to that series of meetings. And I intend to advocate for those ideas on that basis.
But this time, I will realize that this is not a competition. This is not about who’s idea is more prevalent on a generalized unit plan. This is not about being dictated to by people who don’t know the dynamics of my classes, and it is certainly not about “winning.”
If my colleagues don’t want to do the same things that I do, rather than act like a sore loser, I will try to find a middle way – – where we reach a compromise. Like, for instance, I’ll teach that research skill your way, and you add in this review game or brain break that I came up with. Or, failing that, I will try to implement my idea in a small, nondisruptive way in my own classes. I win, the kids win, and my colleagues aren’t thrown off from their own lessons.
Last spring, I told my principal (whom I have known for decades, and whom I consider a friend) that I wanted to take my teaching to the next level. This is one of the ways I think I will be able to do just that in the next 10 months, starting next week when I arrive on campus to work with my fellow historians.
Wish me luck!