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.
I soon learned the teachers at that school were not just intentionally isolating themselves for the sake of mindfulness, but harbored serious resentment and enmity toward one another. Sadly, all of the schools where I worked had the same issue amongst staff members. In fact, three schools out of the four had such serious issues animosity and tension that administrators named it a significant contributor to student failure.
This was not the secret society that I imagined.
I carried those images and feelings with me when I started my first lead teaching job this past year. I was determined to ensure negative tension between teachers was not an aspect of my school’s culture. This was not an easy task to prioritize with the emotions and anxieties that coincide with being new to teaching. As a novice, who was also significantly younger and less experienced the majority of my colleagues, I expected it would be difficult to find an ally.
But, I soon learned all four of the new staff members were within two years of my age and also novice teachers. We spent all of our preps and lunches together, making arrangements for after-school hangouts. As we got to know each other we learned we had a lot in common. At the start of the school year we’d hear students say we were all sisters and some of the staff members corrected them, saying we were all friends from college. None of those things are true. What was true was that we made an active effort to bond over positive aspects of our lives and our jobs and to overlook the negative ones. This sounds like a fairy-tale, right? That’s because it is.
It’s true the three other novice teachers and I are in the same age group and have many things in common, and it is true that we bonded quickly over many commonalities in our lives; but it wasn’t easy. There were many moments of cohesion and alliance during the first few months of our new careers but there were also moments of diffidence and distrust. The glue that brought us all together was simple: honest conversations.
Recalling my first teaching job I wondered if those individuals would have been world-class co-teachers had they aired their anxieties and insecurities with each other? I wanted my allies to be able to share their feelings and to support each other in our areas of strength and improvement. The most effective strategies in accomplishing this harmony were:
1. Complimenting each other for achievements in the presence of other teachers and administrators. At one morning PLC (Professional Learning Community or grade-level group) I complimented one of my allies’ management of reading centers. I also made it known that she was helping me achieve this procedure in my classroom.
2. Lending each other a hand during a preparatory period. During our preps we would conduct guided reading groups or additional general support for each other.
3. Inviting each other to lunch every day. There were plenty of days when we didn’t feel like eating with each other but we never forgot to at least extend the invitation. I liked to eat alone in my classroom but there were days when I felt like I needed a shoulder to lean on - and sure enough one was there.
4. Copying successful lessons or materials for other teachers to use in their classrooms. All of my allies are outstanding teachers and when we recognized a great lesson we made sure to share it with each other.
5. Listen to one another with an open mind. Some days are just not going to go well, and some days are going to go so well that you want to jump out of your seat. We are always there to listen to each other and say, “this will pass” when necessary, and “you’re awesome!” all the time.
Finding an ally at school is like finding your best friend at summer camp. It’s okay to be shy - but don’t let that discomfort develop into fear. Be confident in your abilities and seek opportunities to compliment and develop from others. Teaching is an incredibly rewarding career that truly values constant growth. You’re bound to find your teaching bestie in someone who is going to help you accomplish that!
For more information regarding my story finding my teaching ally please visit OUR website at http://teachami.weebly.com which describes our journey into co-teaching and the remarkable goals we/our students were able to achieve because we worked together.
Jaimie Piotrowicz is a 4th grade teacher who chose the profession as a medium for motivating and empowering Philadelphia students to “live their legend (S. Dinsmore).”