– by Dan Jones –
Our classroom is a sacred space. We can decorate our classroom, structure it in a way that encourages student engagement, and create our little bit of paradise. The number of Pinterest pins I find and apply to my classroom grows every day. Always on the lookout for inspiration, I have tried to make my classroom comfortable and inviting. Two summers ago, I built a faux fireplace and created a living room feel to a portion of my classroom. I also made a portion of my classroom into a movie room. I even brought in a few couches to make the room have more of a flexible seating arrangement. I want it to be a place that my students want to experience. Not only do I focus on creating an environment that allows my students to learn well, but I am always looking to create amazing learning experiences for my students. For example, I have had my students play life-size Hungry Hungry Hippos as well as perform team-building exercises that are rooted in content. Throughout my career, I have found some effective ways to structure my classroom as well as develop some activities that resonate with my students, but my island of paradise can be very lonely.
So much time is spent on creating our version of an educational paradise that we do not want to taint it by indicating that at times we struggle meeting the needs of our students. This paradise is also our way of expressing how far we have come in our career. If we let others onto our island they may advance much faster than we did, and that just isn’t fair. It is far easier to close the door to our island paradise and let our struggles be our struggles and our successes our successes.
Every teacher has had moments in their career where they felt ineffective and wish they could say, “HELP!” without feeling judged for not knowing what to do.
In education, it is hard to express our struggles as well as our successes. The fear of being judged can be paralyzing to educational innovation. The Atlantic (April 2012) shared the results of a study done by Scholastic and the Gates Foundation. It stated that educators only collaborate with their peers for about 15 minutes a day (Goldin, 2012). In Dan Lortie’s book, Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study, he addresses the fact that teachers working in isolation have a direct negative impact on improvement in schools. Every teacher has had moments in their career where they felt ineffective and wish they could yell, “HELP!” without feeling judged for not knowing what to do. Teachers tend to not share the successes from their classroom for fear it will come across as boastful. The more collaboration that can occur in education, though, the more innovative all teachers become. How do we move in such a positive direction?
For far too long, teachers have walked into their classrooms, shut the door, and refused to let others onto their island. A teacher’s classroom is their dominion. Edutopia posted an article by Janet Allen titled, “When Teachers Compete, No One Wins.” In this article, she talks about the fact that teachers guard their best strategies and lessons due to a competitive nature of survival (Allen, 2015). The successes that occur within that dominion become a “secret family recipe” and the failures become the skeletons in the closet. In fact, teaching in isolation has led to many young, talented new teachers leaving the profession entirely, just when they’re needed the most.
For my first two years as a teacher, I worked as an intervention specialist and my desk was in the general education teacher’s room. I learned from my partner. She was amazing. She was supportive when I was struggling, and I was able to learn from her example. She pushed me out of my comfort zones and encouraged me to try new ways of engaging students. Part of my struggle was a result of working under a temporary certification because my degree was in middle school education and I was serving as a high school intervention specialist. After two years, I got a call that I was being moved to teach 7th-grade writing. I will never forget walking into my first classroom. I was so excited to have my very own instructional space, but I had no clue exactly what I needed to teach. I had no textbooks, no resources to pull from, and I did not feel comfortable going to administrators for help. Because I didn’t know what I was doing, I was often unprepared and seemed to be making things up as I went. We had grade-level meetings every week, but the thought never occurred to me to ask those people for help because they didn’t teach what I taught. We discussed student issues and we looked at teaming, but we never talked about teaching methods or strategies for improving student engagement. I was on my own island.
More recently, I worked with a teacher who was in his first year. He knew all of the right things to say and had a solid understanding of pedagogy, but he lacked the experience to put good pedagogy into practice. Like a newly minted surgeon who has never led a single surgery, he knew a lot but didn’t fully appreciate that he also had much more to learn. I had approached him on a number of occasions and even had the opportunity to sit down with him to talk through some practical instructional practices that would address the issues he was facing in class. The problem, though, arose from him not feeling like he needed help. It was as though he had something to prove. He was on his island but wasn’t interested in building any bridges off of it.
Teaching is not a competition, nor is it merit-based. Teaching in isolation is rooted in the idea that the teacher is the keeper of all knowledge. We are the ones who are supposed to have all of the answers. The truth is, though, if we are in this profession to help kids, we need to approach teaching from the perspective that we should help all kids, not just our students. We would never approach our students with an elitist or secretive strategy. We encourage our students when they fail and we celebrate their successes! When teachers support each other in this same way, educational change occurs and kids are put first.
I have found myself feeling ashamed of how excited I became in the past regarding student achievements or a successful activity we did in class. I also know that my occasional failures made me feel like I was a terrible teacher. We have to do more to support one another. I often wonder if I would have felt so depressed in my classroom if I had shared my struggles with my colleagues. It is a tough balance between excited and boastful or seeking help and complaining.
Feeling ineffective and questioning whether or not I should even be a teacher led me to a point where I was willing to become vulnerable and seek guidance. I am not alone, and this is why districts are enacting formal mentoring programs for new teachers: to build this support and camaraderie network. For me, though, that guidance came from my administrators, who were supportive, and it pushed me in a direction that would allow me to help others.
In 2013, I approached my administrators feeling very defeated. Their wisdom and guidance directed me to look for new ways to engage my students. As I researched new and innovative teaching methods, I came across the flipped classroom. It all made sense. I began flipping my classroom, and I felt like I had discovered this magical strategy that was the miracle I needed. Not only did it save my teaching career; also, it reignited my passion for education. The power a simple conversation had on my teaching is something that I will never forget, and I want to support others in the same way.
Fast-forward five years. I was the only Flipped Learning teacher at The Richland School of Academic Arts. I felt like I didn’t have anyone to talk to about my practice. Even though my administrators supported what I was doing, they didn’t understand exactly what it was; they just knew that it worked. My island had flourished but, alas, it was still an island. I was growing stagnant in my practice. I didn’t know of a single other Flipped Learning teacher in my entire county. My only resource for guidance was what I could read on the internet.
About six months ago, I found an online community of Flipped Learning practitioners: the Flipped Learning Global Initiative (FLGI). Found at www.FLglobal.org, this group has thousands of members who are passionate about Flipped Learning. I was able to connect with other like-minded teachers who were doing amazing things in their classrooms. I became aware that Flipped Learning was a global movement. I was having conversations with teachers in Spain, New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. My eyes were opened to the idea that instructional practices from all over the world could impact my classroom and my classroom could do the same thing for others.
The support I have received from this global collaboration has moved my classroom from a static FL1.0 Flipped Learning environment to a dynamic one. I can share my experience with others and learn from them as well. The more we as teachers talk to one another, the more innovative and encouraging we become. Collaboration is the bridge-building magic that can connect all of our islands together. I love my new Flipped Learning family, which I have adopted on FLglobal.org. They have inspired, supported, and helped me to be the best teacher I can be, and they can do the same thing for you.
Allen, J. (2015, June 8). When Teachers Compete, No One Wins. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/when-teachers-compete-janet-allen
Goldin, J. M. (2012, April 17). Alone in the Classroom: Why Teachers Are Too Isolated. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/04/alone-in-the-classroom-why-teachers-are-too-isolated/255976/
Heider, K. L. (2005). Teacher isolation: How mentoring programs can help. Current Issues in Education, 8. 4https://thejournal.com/articles/2018/02/05/new-project-to-launch-global-standards-for-flipped-training.aspx