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.
Of all the parallels, Mr. Gamby is the most troubling because he’s the most realistic. Every school I’ve worked at has at least one Mr. Gamby: someone who thinks it’s better to be feared than respected. Ask any teacher who works in a city school, and they’ll likely tell you they know a version of this toxic man.
Though it wasn’t the Mr. Gambys the caused me to join Action Research Group, they’re why I stayed. I was first invited to a meeting in October 2014, my fifth year teaching, and I’d just completed my Masters degree. The first meeting followed a schedule I’ve since become accustomed to: a check-in over dinner (they made good on their free food promise!) discussing some aspect of our lives or our work, an overview of what the group would be doing that year, and small breakout groups in which we discussed our research topics. After that first meeting, I realized there were no Gambys there. No teachers lounge gossip. No haste, no whining, no negativity. There was only support.
With this support, I’ve participated in five different conferences, presenting both my individual research and the importance of Action Research Group as a third space. In November, we’ll be travelling to Atlanta to present at the National Council of Teachers of English conference. With the help of our Action Research leader, Andy, I published an article about my reading and soft skills research.
I’ve been able to experiment with and change my classroom systems, procedures, and routines in order to make me a more effective teacher. Every year, my class is a little different, a little more tailored to my students’ needs, because of a feedback loop driven by the data I collect through my research.
And, being part of Action Research Group has had another benefit: a boost in my confidence as a teacher.
In recent years, schools have enacted a variety of policies and practices that are detrimental to teachers’ wellbeing, policies and practices that make them less confident and less effective in the classroom. Teachers, even those who have a generally positive outlook, often voice frustrations about more recognition of what they’re doing wrong than right, nit-picky lesson plan critiques, and micromanagement by administrators because of perceived teacher incompetence.
But, at Action Research Group, we can collaborate with our peers without the worry of criticism from our supervisors or evaluative repercussions. We can speak honestly about our research, our classrooms, and our struggles. We can work through issues in a truly collaborative manner. We can experiment with new ideas without the fear of failure that characterizes our time at work.
When I engage in such problem-solving discussions as Action Research Group, I am not left feeling diffident and ineffective. Rather, I’m left with a sense I’m doing something right and, more importantly, feel a renewed passion for my job.
Until we find a way to improve our teaching practices—a way that doesn’t damage morale and community—shows like Vice Principals will continue to be popular because of their absurdity and their truth. I look forward to the day when I can work in a school environment that challenges and supports me, fostering a true community of professionals learning from and with one another. For now, Action Research Group is the only place like that I know.
Katie Dickerson teaches 11th grade English in North Philadelphia. She studies the connection between independent choice reading and empathy.