When I was new to teaching, I once looked forward to collaborative meetings in hopes that I would learn new techniques and gather useful advice. I also yearned to be useful. At my first department meeting, a more experienced teacher began complaining right off the bat (we had been tasked with improving our writing instruction techniques). This teacher, whom I still respect, started asking “how” questions, as in “How are we going to do this when the students can’t even (fill-in-the-blank-here)?” I took the question literally and offered a suggestion in spite of being “new” because this teacher claimed she had no idea how to teach writing; I had picked up a few ideas from a tutoring center I worked at prior to coming to this school. I regretted it the moment I opened my mouth. You see, this teacher, much as I love her, may have stated that she wanted help, but she shot down everything that was offered. One or two teachers would immediately rally behind her cause, and we would all come out of the meeting none the wiser. This happened not once, but several times. It is not so much that my ideas were rejected as they were rudely dismissed. As a teacher, I believe you have the right to decide which practices you will employ in your classroom. It is utterly demoralizing, though, when you outright stamp out others’ suggestions. You need not like someone’s idea, but you can still listen politely.
After several meetings like this, I shut down. I kept my ideas to myself and just did my own thing. That is, until I grew tired of it. Now, I speak up when I feel compelled but always add some type of disclaimer, like “I don’t know about you but…” I am not going to hide what I do in my classroom out of fear of what my colleagues might think. More often than not, I find at least two other colleagues who use similar methods. If it works for me then I will do it; I do not need another teacher’s permission to try a technique. Sadly, though, we still are not at a place where our collaboration is meaningful. But at least we are becoming more accepting of each other’s unique styles.
In an ideal world, teachers would support each other, listen attentively, and contribute equally during collaborative meetings. My department may not be there yet, but I have had good experiences in other similar settings. To help teachers work better together, I’ve compiled a short list of tips.
Attitude is the foundation
It can be annoying to attend yet another meeting when you have so many other things to do. I get that. So does everyone else in the room. However, there is no sense in making a bad situation worse with your stinky attitude. In fact, you are missing an opportunity to turn a bad situation into a good situation. It all begins with your attitude. Instead of pledging to resist the meeting viciously and bring everyone else down with you, you should tell yourself, “I will do what I can to make this meeting fruitful.” Sure, your time could be better spent elsewhere, but while you are there you might as well be engaged and productive. Productive meetings do not just happen unless you put forth some effort.
If you notice someone else with the crappy attitude, refrain from joining that person. Instead, lead by example. You might even try a comment like, “You know, I wish I could be doing other things right now, but since I have to be here, I am going to make the most of this situation.” You are not calling anyone out except yourself, but hopefully everyone gets the hint. Should they not, carry on. You can accomplish something with or without Grumpy Gus.
Work toward solutions
Usually meetings are called to discuss a situation or identify problems. The goal is to find a working solution. Certain teachers can make that next to impossible. They might do so without realizing it, but they will strangle any hope out of a room the moment a solution is presented. Going straight for the jugular, they deliver blow after blow by explaining why a particular solution will not work. Anyone who dares to oppose them by throwing out another idea will be met with the same brutal force. You ever notice how these same people never offer anything positive?
When Debbie Downer or Negative Ned start derailing the meeting with their soul-sucking criticisms, turn the tables and ask one of them to offer a solution instead. “I see, so you don’t think this will work. OK, what do *you* suggest, instead?” More often than not they have nothing to offer, which makes a point in and of itself. To which you might add, “Well, now that everyone has had a chance to contribute solutions, let’s list what ideas we have and vote on one to try/take turns trying them all/etc.” Another way to shut them down is to remind them that as teachers, they are expected to experiment with different techniques as well as adapt them to their own classrooms as necessary. There is no perfect answer; that is not an excuse to stop trying. Do so politely, by the way.
Share the workload equally
While the destructive critics of the world irritate me the most, those who survive by doing the minimal work possible are second-in-command of the Lousy Colleague Brigade (title patent pending). Again, this is a chance to be an example. Be one of the first to volunteer to complete a task. This can help set the tone and expectations of other members. Plus, it puts you in a bargaining situation. “I can do this if someone else will do that…” If your job must be completed first in order for someone else to move on to the next step, then make sure you check with that person and set a feasible deadline. If you are the person who is relying on someone else to do his or her part first, then speak with that person and let them know how much time you will need.
Just make sure that when you volunteer you find a balance between a feasible workload (i.e. don’t do all the work by yourself) and your colleagues having a feasible workload, too (i.e. don’t let them do all the hard work by themselves).
Bonus Tip: Document
Unless you are working with those you know and trust and reliability is not an issue (and I hope you are), then consider documenting your contribution and agreements. This can be done simply by creating an email group (or just CCing everyone in the group, including an administrator if necessary) so that all communication is recorded. That way, should someone fail and/or try to pass blame on you, you have documentation and witnesses. Even if the initial meeting takes place in person, you can send a follow-up email.
Finally, make sure you are cooperative co-worker. Leave your bad attitudes at the door (fake it if you have to), look for solutions no matter how imperfect they are, and contribute your share equally. You cannot control how your colleagues will behave, but you can at least be the example.