Ten minutes before school began, I hurriedly scrambled up the hallway to the front office, picked up my handouts from the copy machine, answered three students’ questions, got a diet Pepsi from the soda machine, and checked my mailbox. As I initialed the teachers’ sign-in sheet, a large colorful sign caught my attention. “Our District Schools: Voted Best Place to Work in the County.” I stared at the poster, probably a little longer than necessary, letting it sink in. The more I thought about it, I realized that instead of feeling pride in the award or even gratitude for working in such a well-respected place, I felt kind of . . . well . . . miffed (and then a little guilty for feeling that way). I didn't know what criteria was used to choose, who voted, and so forth, but it certainly got me thinking. As I retreated back down the hall to the safety of my classroom, I began to wonder What makes a positive work environment? Why do I feel like I’m not working in one? As a teacher leader, what’s my role in changing that?
In the days that followed, those questions wouldn't stop nagging me. It wasn't like my school was a terrible place to work. Everyone was pleasant to each other, my colleagues were all committed to students, our school was academically successful, and we had, for the most part, all we needed to do our jobs well. So what was it? Why did I feel so unsatisfied?
For many years, I was in love with my job and proud to work in a system with exceptionally high standards for teachers. Initially, teachers had a strong voice in decisions that affected their classrooms; we were valued and viewed as knowledgeable experts in our fields. We worked hard, together with our district leaders, to solve problems affecting students. But very gradually, this perspective shifted as we became buried under mountains of binders created to standardize our methods. They crushed our spirits instead.
I am a skilled, National Board Certified teacher with a wealth of educational experiences, but all this standardization made me feel that I wasn't teaching the “right” way anymore. In years past, I had been trusted to make wise decisions for my students. Now it seemed teachers were consulted less and less about policies and practices that we were required to implement in our classrooms. Perhaps these changes occurred because our district had grown larger; maybe they felt pressure to implement more “research-based programs” rather than work with teachers to develop our own solutions to problems we faced. I don’t know. However, by not including teachers in these decisions, district leaders sent the message that they knew better than us what was best for students. Having always been a team player and not wanting to disappoint anyone, I began to doubt myself: what if they were right?
In department meetings, I became particularly uncomfortable and edgy, as the literacy coach or lead teacher informed us about another district mandate or curriculum change. I wanted, desperately, to discuss the impacts these changes might have on students’ learning --how we might prevent problems from occurring by clarifying a few objectives or modifying assessment measures before implementing them into our classes. But input like that was no longer sought from teachers. Sometimes, I literally had to cover my mouth so I wouldn’t say something I’d regret. (Even though I often still mumbled it under my breath.) Usually, I just wanted to go back to my classroom, shut the door, and teach. It was the one place I still had some semblance of control and respect. So basically, to avoid the pain and disappointment of no longer collaborating in decision-making, I took my toys and went home. I really didn’t like the person I was becoming. But my lack of confidence, coupled with the inability to voice my concerns, left me feeling powerless, bitter, and lonely.
As difficult as it is to look back, these honest reflections gave me the answers to my first questions. Positive work environments empower teachers; in positive climates, teachers' voices are strong, sought after, and valued. Without these elements, teachers, even teacher leaders who love their students and schools, may become discouraged, passive-aggressive, and secluded.
Yet, even after discovering these truths, I still didn't know what to do about it. Find a good therapist? Find another job? Give up and become that bitter teacher everyone avoids in the hall? Fortunately, instead of those options, I joined a cohort of teacher leaders from around the Commonwealth, became a vampire, and sucked the life out of them! No. Really. I fed on the positive camaraderie and honest authentic discussions until I was nurtured back to health and virtual sanity. I had gone so long without this in my professional life, it was like I was starving. Once I tasted the sweet essence of Collaboration, I began to crave it--sniffing out more places to devour another conversation or bite into the next idea. That's also when I began to recognize the other reason why, for me, my school wasn't the “Greatest Place to Work.” I no longer had a community—no confidants, no critical friends, or best buddies to support me when I doubted myself. I needed that. We all need that. And unfortunately, I had no one to blame, except myself, for this part of the problem. I might not have had control over my circumstances, but I certainly had control over my actions in response to them.
The first step I took to improve my environment was to think about how I had wanted to be treated. When I was angry, defeated, and isolated, it was because I felt under appreciated and that my opinions didn't matter. So, I wanted to make sure my colleagues knew I truly valued their experiences and that their work was important. But how would I start those conversations?
This was probably the scariest part --I opened my door during my planning period.
And then, I went into their classrooms to chat, and I listened more and talked less; I asked questions instead of spouting opinions. Consequently, I found that many of my colleagues had the same concerns I did; we talked through them and found support in each other. Together, we made plans about how to overcome some of the obstacles we could control. And sometime during those discussions and informal exchanges in the hallways or at lunch, school became fun again and a positive place to work. I regained my hope and optimism even when my circumstances remained the same. Hey! Don’t skip that line--that’s really BIG!
What’s next? Well, who knows what miracles might occur when instead of retreating from problems, I turn around and reach out to others to help me defeat them. Perhaps with the help of my coworkers and by using the new power that flows through my veins, I can attempt to strengthen the relationships between district leaders and teachers. Like I said, we ALL need to be a part of a group that values our voices--that includes superintendents, administrators, parents, students, and teachers alike. Regardless of my next steps, I am resolved to stay committed to my new master--Collaboration. For she alone can transform us from isolated wanderers to content members of productive communities. And only Collaboration has the power to provide us with what we most deeply yearn for--a place to belong.