The end of the school year draws near and the level of intensity is ratcheted. While it is easy to become lost in work it is exceptionally important to make time for colleagues. Contracts at my school were distributed but not all were signed for a variety of reasons. Retirements, new opportunities, emergency family leave and loss of interest spurred several faculty members to move on. I will have lost an opportunity to learn their stories or to acknowledge their contributions. Being with colleagues is the best professional development yet the easiest to overlook as teachers race to take care of seemingly important tasks when all we have is each other.
In our rural district we have several educators retiring after 30 or 40 years of commitment to public education. They began teaching when I was but three years old. They taught in the one room school houses that now stand weathered and dilapidated on roadsides. They taught programs that no longer fit a 21st century classroom recalling the days of smoking lounges and gun clubs. They came to school early to help stoke the campus furnace and stayed late to wash cafeteria dishes. They taught the parents and grandparents of current students. They sat through too many funerals and scores of weddings. They are of a generation that had to do without and somehow found a way to teach every student who walked through the doors. If they lasted this long, they were differentiating long before it was a concept. I was fortunate enough to realize this a couple of years ago. I began sitting in or stopping by for five minutes. I deliberately began making time to hear a lunchtime story. In these moments I not only picked up valuable lesson but also learned of histories that would otherwise be lost.
Tomorrow I will follow up on a promise to sit in on music classes even though I teach social studies and this classroom is far away from mine. I discovered that I have a great deal in common with this colleague at a time when I really needed reasons to escape the monotony of my own classroom curriculum. Our school committed to developing Personal Learning Communities (PLC) as a means of unifying our practices and our curricula school wide. Several teachers are singletons, teaching courses not shared by other faculty thus we create PLC through social media, online communities or meet with educators around the state. Being a singleton this year forced me to step away from my department and to begin spending time with spectacular colleagues in other subjects. Periodically I met the music teacher for lunch time chats. I volunteered to chaperone her band concert and in turn she subbed for me on occasion. In our exchanges I discovered classroom management strategies that were genius for engaging overly excited middle school students. No reprimands or consequences needed. I spent time studying her work on a state wide music rubric. It addressed the Common Core in a manner that made me interested in updating my own assessment tools. Those extra minutes I could give to appreciate a colleague indeed made all the difference in my own classroom management. Fresh perspective literally brightened my day. I only hoping that my appreciation will suffice to keep this educator in our school community.
Living in a rural district means that teacher salaries are significantly less than surrounding union schools. We tend to see young teachers begin their career and quickly move on, taking their enthusiasm and reform with them. While this used to frustrate me eventually it became an inspiration. Application of digital technologies and social media tools allowed me opportunities to extend the educational community beyond my classroom walls and to develop that professional relationship further. Online I meet colleagues to discuss articles and practices. We share lessons and Facetime each others classrooms. We meet for drink coffee and vent. We set dates for book clubs or running events meeting in new locations across the country. In fact, I haven’t lost colleagues but expanded the community that originally began in a single classroom. Their need for change and my need for consistency has been the balance for propitious paradigm shifts in education. I teach in a 1:1 iPad classroom as a leader and a pioneer in digital technology and I am not alone.
Observations of classrooms is not just about the teachers. Students are desperate for an audience or a fresh face. Asking a colleague to step in, participate in activities or to walk around a classroom and look with interest at student work brings authenticity to them and to you. I enjoy listening to teachers ask my students, “what are you learning?” “Why did you design this project this way?” Sometimes colleagues will give suggestions or just listen to students practice a presentation. I discover a different approach to delivering an instruction or I discover that students learned something I never intended.
These last weeks of school is the time we have to interact, to congratulate our peers. Almost all educators have excuses to stay hidden in our classrooms. We are tired and worn but simple praise and the smallest attention can boost our esteem better than a double shot espresso. When was the last time you sat in another classroom? When did you look with interest at a colleague’s lesson or give some positive feedback on their work? If time is what all we have we should not squander it.