Before launching this blog six years ago, I wrote posts for a variety of online forums. From time to time, I re-post them here if they still seem relevant. This one originally appeared in slightly different form on English Companion.
I care deeply about what goes on in my class and with my students. I will do pretty much anything to reach, teach, motivate, accommodate, develop, and inspire the hundred-plus students that I am so fortunate to have assigned to me each year. I care about what they learn, how they learn, and my role in their development as writers, readers, thinkers, and citizens. My personal goal is for every one of them to have a quality literacy experience in my class each day, and most days I feel like my goal is achieved.
But up and down the halls of my school are other classrooms with other students and other teachers. While I wish them all well in a more abstract sense—hoping that they too are having quality literacy experiences—I’m growing weary of having those students and teachers being grafted on to my work load.
Here is what I mean. A growing trend toward mandated collaboration and professional learning communities is playing out in our schools resulting in a kind of paralysis among too many teachers who seem unable to make decisions or move forward unless every other teacher is doing pretty much the same thing at the same time. If that works for them, hallelujah, but it doesn’t work for me.
I believe in the following principles regarding teacher autonomy:
• Teachers should be relatively independent beings who know how to collaborate when it best serves the needs of their students.
• Classrooms are highly contextual. What works for one teacher and one set of students should not automatically be presumed to be “best practice” for any other teacher or class. Heck, it might not even work for that teacher on a different day or in a different class!
• Emerson was right when he said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Consistency between teachers has the possibility of being “worst practice” if teachers apply inappropriate strategies and methodologies, even if those strategies and methodologies are consistent and successful with other teachers. When all classes and students are consistent, then and only then will teacher consistency make any sense.
So, when I’m ordered to participate in a collaboration session, I am sometimes reluctant to engage in it. I respect each of my colleagues, but I see teachers who do not know how to plan on their own, teachers who try very hard not to change a single thing from last year’s lesson plans, and teachers who believe that their way of doing things is the only valid way. What do my students gain from my collaboration with those colleagues?
If their approaches are working for their students, what’s the problem? If their approaches are not working for their students, is it my responsibility to take time and energy from my own classes in order to make their classes better? My experience, unfortunately, shows me that forced collaboration is more likely to result in some kind of incoherent least-common-denominator mishmash, usually designed to satisfy an obsession with data or standardized assessments.
I don’t want to seem like an iconoclastic ogre. I value collaboration when it benefits my students and my teaching. I participate in some form of collaboration almost every day through an ever-growing network of teachers whose opinions, expertise, and experience I have found to be sound, wise, and valuable. Some of those teachers are on-site; some are across town; some are online. It is also my great honor to be asked from time to time to consult with individual teachers, schools, and districts to help them with their classroom practices and writing programs. In these instances, collaboration is authentic, voluntary, and tends to be focused on pragmatic problem-solving.
So, Wise Ones of the Blogosphere, please help me find the balance. When is collaboration healthy? When is it unhealthy? And is it OK to care more about my own classes than about what is happening down the hall? I’m interested in responses from teachers in all career stages. Thanks for your replies.