The answer: much-needed empathy.
As coach of the English department in an urban-Philadelphia high school, I spend a lot of time in classrooms but hardly any time teaching. However, when one of our 12th-grade teachers was suddenly hospitalized, I offered to teach her AP Literature class until she returned. I hadn’t formally taught in nearly four years, and the experience reshaped how I view the classroom, my colleagues, and the relationship between teachers and administrators.
Some background first. I strive to be a defender of teachers. While four years of teaching taught me the challenges of this work, coaching has taught me how important it is to equip teachers with the right resources and supports to do their jobs well. I’ve seen teachers go from floundering to thriving in just a few months of coaching. I’ve also worked with teachers who actively resist. Some are hesitant to trust my feedback or our conversations, and occasionally reject the process altogether. When I was in the classroom, I remember frequently questioning my coach, but ultimately embracing their perspective and eagerly trying out their suggestions in my classroom. I saw coaching as a tool to make me a better teacher. Who wouldn’t want that?
It may be presumptuous to consider summer break when spring break hasn’t even made an entrance. But, on this day in February, I’m asking you to do just that. And I’m asking you to think teacher professional development.
I know! Don’t stop reading!
Every summer, the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) offers educators the opportunity to study with university professors at their respective institutions. The course offerings are extensive, relevant, and scintillating. This year, the available seminars and institutes cover topics such as “American Women at War,” “From Harlem to Hip-Hop: African-American History, Literature, and Song,” and “Muslim American Identities, Past and Present,” to name a few. Not your typical professional development...nor your typical summer.
I have a confession to make: I am one of the nearly one million viewers tuning in for HBO’s Vice Principals. The show’s been criticized by notable publications like Slate and The Guardian, and justly so—dozens of cringe-worthy comments and scenes, especially surrounding the racially-charged issue of the new black, female principal, have made me turn away from the television.
But something draws me back. It’s the way I see my school and my colleagues in the show. Sure, it’s distorted and exaggerated for the viewers’ amusement, but when the goings on at the fictional North Jackson High School are familiar. The poorly-run restorative practices room, the gossip in the teachers lounge, and Mr. Gamby – many think, “That happens at my school, but it’s not that bad.” That’s the draw. That’s the dark comedic escape.
Before I became a teacher I genuinely believed in the ludicrous notion that all teachers across the world were associates of a secret society. One in which they only befriended one another and shopped at “teachers only” grocery stores. If such a society exists, then I have not yet received my membership invitation. I did, however, receive a reality check – hitting me hard about seven years ago, on my first day working as a teaching assistant.
It was lunchtime on that fateful day and my 18-year-old brain was channeling my inner-voice fueled by Lindsey Pollak’s From College to Career. I thought (with far too much enthusiasm), I’ll go sit in the teachers’ lounge and network!” I entered the motivational poster-laden door only to find three empty chairs and a forgotten-worksheet covered table. I walked the halls of this seemingly empty school and despondently realized that every one of the staff members was eating lunch alone. Some were on their cellphones, complaining about their work, while others sat in the dark listening to calming music.