As I began teaching, I was hired to teach Science at a traditional junior high school. I collaborated with and asked advice from the other science teachers. What my students did the rest of their day at school was irrelevant to me. Teachers who taught other disciplines sat in the faculty lunchroom with me, but we talked about our lives outside of school. Even if we tried to discuss details about a student, it was rare that anyone else had that student in class due to randomness of student scheduling. I loved my first teaching experience.
After several years, I was becoming stagnant and began to look for a new challenge. I got a job teaching Science in a middle school. The paradigm shift was earth shaking to me. Suddenly, I was part of a team of teachers including all the traditional disciplines (math, social studies, language arts), who shared the same students, could alter the schedule to fit the needs of the students, and had similar planning periods. Our team was lead by two veteran teachers who enjoyed creating interdisciplinary units. Multiple teachers of different disciplines working with the same group of students were normal and expected.
After a short time, I realized I barely knew the students in my past school compared to my current situation and the student growth I witnessed was amazing. Our lunch, hallway, before and after school discussions were about our students. I would gain a totally different perspective about a student based on observations from another teacher. Insight about how to motivate, inspire, or negotiate our students was acquired much quicker, allowing me to facilitate the project better for each student individually. I loved my middle school experience.
As my life outside of school changed, I moved home. I was excited about the move because all of the advantages a middle school schedule creates existed in my new school. However, the school climate was very different. Instead of feeling on the cutting edge of what is possible in teaching, I felt cut off. Our team of teachers was excellent at working together to manage the behavior our students, but the notion of working together to teach them was foreign.
As the current school year began, I was intrigued by my principal’s excitement about a Project Based Learning workshop he had experienced. But, was not sure how I could seize this opportunity. Then, the CTEPS Teacher leadership program application arrived. I applied and was accepted to the program with the charge of creating a project focused on teacher collaboration. I had an excuse to become a teacher leader!
I began to brainstorm what the project might look like. Climate change jumped out as a great theme because it naturally ties to all subjects and is part of the eighth grade curriculum. Interdisciplinary teaching seemed like a bridge to Project Based Learning, that my team of teachers would more easily accept.
I wasn't sure how my fellow teachers would react. I had taken a position as a STEM educator and was part of the related arts team rather than a core team. My schedule was different and communication would have to be planned, and thus less spontaneous or natural. Furthermore, I imagined comments such as, “Why should we create new lesson plans, when what we did last year is already done?” or “Our test scores were proficient (by less than a percent), should we risk something new?” I planned a rebuttal. “Imagine our student’s work, if they had a greater perspective or more experience with the topics we are investigating. Our adult word is not categorized into strict disciplines, shouldn’t we model student experiences in a more authentic way?”
Meeting with the eighth grade faculty was a fascinating experience. To an audience of each of the traditional subject teachers and our assistant principal, I laid out a plan to teach climate change in a different way. Teachers were initially hesitant as they wrapped their heads around this different paradigm. But, as understanding grew, so did their excitement.
We began to brainstorm a connection for each subject. I mentioned persuasive writing would be a natural fit for Language Arts. Unfortunately, they had already practiced that type of writing and informational writing was the replacement. I pitched graph analysis to our math teacher and she was receptive. The final two pieces became climate change basics in science and design solutions in my STEM class. I was feeling quite optimistic.
Fast forward through two months of multiple snow days, MAP testing, school-wide standardized testing practice, field trips, and nothing had happened. I decided to take the initiative and begin my part of the project. My fellow colleagues did join, but not with the zest or commitment I had experienced in my past school.
Where did I go wrong?
Apparently, being a good teacher leader does not mean you do everything. I agreed to find the graphs of evidence students analyzed in Math, developed the graphic organizer that prompted students through the script of the documentary in Language Arts, and found the basis of the major inquiry investigated in Science. The products created (or not) from these experiences were uninspiring. My overreach developed situations where teachers were not comfortable with facilitating the experience or simply not motivated to properly engage the students.
I didn’t allow opportunity for ownership of the project by others. From the beginning, I made too many decisions. I picked the theme and all the major projects thinking this would make it easier on everyone. Unfortunately, my decision making bred a mentality in which everyone referred to the project as my project rather than our project.
What did I learn?
My next attempt may not get out of planning phase because of the constraints listed above. But if it works, the sum will certainly be better than it’s parts and have a greater impact on students.