“If we are willing to embrace the challenge of becoming whole, we cannot embrace that challenge all alone. At least, not for long: we need trustworthy relationships, tenacious communities of support, if we are to sustain the journey toward an undivided life. That journey has solitary passages, to be sure, and yet it is too arduous to take without the assistance of others.” -Parker Palmer
As humans, we thrive best when we have supportive, collaborative, and trustworthy relationships—a “tenacious community of support” as Parker Palmer says. The unfortunate reality is that too many teachers work in a system of silos in which many of us feel isolated, alone, and lacking the relationships and sense of community we need. It should be no surprise that teacher burn-out and staff shortages are becoming a national concern. Teachers, like all humans, don’t tend to thrive alone in a silo.
I offer you three steps you can take, right now, to overcome the silos in your professional landscape and start building the relationships you need to thrive as a caring and talented professional. Taken together, these steps can help you feel more nourished by the work you do, become more connected to your colleagues, and accelerate your professional growth.
Step 1: Focus on what we all value the most—seeing our students thriving.
As teachers, we are separated by the physical silos of our classroom walls, buildings and campuses, each of us focused on content specific to our own grade levels. This prevents us from seeing how interconnected and interrelated our work really is—regardless of the grade or content we teach.
To overcome this silo, I invite you to make a fundamental shift in your professional identity by thinking of yourself less as a teacher of content and more as a steward of the relationship your students are forming with your content.
Two things happen when we make this shift. First, we begin to see how our work as teachers is interconnected because we all have the same goal: we want our students to have a healthy and productive disposition toward the content we teach. We want them to see themselves as capable mathematicians, writers, artists, scientists, historians, engineers, etc. And at the end of the year, we want our students to leave our classrooms filled with a desire to learn more of what we just taught them.
Second, we turn our focus to what we desire most as teachers—generating human data from our students that tells us they are all thriving. The systemic focus on raising standardized test scores can leave us feeling internally divided and feeling disconnected from our professional purpose. Test scores don’t nourish our passion for teaching. Instead, we are nourished most when we see students experiencing success and enjoying being in class. It’s what makes us feel good about ourselves at the end of the day.
Here are some questions to help focus on what you value most as a teacher:
- What does your ideal classroom look, sound, and feel like? What is the human data that nourishes your passion for teaching?
- How has that vision changed over the course of your teaching journey? What is something you used to believe about effective teaching but no longer do? What changed your mind?
- How do you want to be remembered as their teacher? What enduring understandings do you want your students to have about your content? What do you want them to believe about themselves and what it means to be a mathematician, a writer, a scientist, etc?
I invite you to make a fundamental shift in your professional identity by thinking of yourself less as a teacher of content and more as a steward of the relationship your students are forming with your content.
Step 2: Have “mirroring conversations” with your colleagues about your responses to these questions.
Given the draconian pace of our bell schedules and our overwhelming teaching load, physical silos can become emotional silos. Instead of seeking ways to reach out and build the relationships we need, we can often find ourselves wanting to recede and withdraw—to work alone behind closed classroom doors in an attempt to insulate ourselves from the chaos of the day.
Conducted regularly, mirroring conversations can be a powerful tool to help us overcome our emotional silos and build the trustworthy relationships we need as colleagues. When we listen to the stories of others, we are showing each other that we value the perspectives and unique lived experiences we all bring to our work. And we position ourselves in ways to learn through each other as active partners in each other’s professional growth.
Here’s how to have a mirroring conversation.
- In pairs or small groups, decide who will go first. For a set period of time (usually about 10 minutes or so), that person will share their responses to one of the questions above.
- As the listener, you are deliberately listening to what they have to say. Set aside a desire to respond or add your own commentary. Your job is to paraphrase and “mirror back” the things you hear. Aspire to be a mirror for your colleague in ways that enhance their identity. Use the prompt: “Something I hear is…”
- Switch roles, time permitting.
- At the end of the conversations, reflect and ask yourselves: “What is something new we’ve learned about ourselves and who we are as teachers? What do we have in common and what makes us unique?”
“…our work as teachers is interconnected because we all have the same goal: we want our students to have a healthy and productive disposition toward the content we teach.
Step 3: Visit each other’s classrooms.
In our current system of silos, our place of professional learning—PLC meetings, workshops, conferences, weekly PD—is siloed away from our space of professional practice—the classroom. One of the most powerful and productive ways to overcome this silo is to spend time in each other’s classrooms. It does not matter if you teach different content or grade levels. When we sit in each other’s classroom, freed from the cognitive demands of teaching, we can free up space to see what we need to see to accelerate our own professional learning.
Spend time in each other’s classroom focusing on what you value and asking yourselves the following questions.
- What actions are we taking to position our students as capable?
- In what ways are we enhancing their identity and agency?
- How are we sharing authority for learning and centering student thinking?
- How are elevating student voices and valuing their lived experiences?
- What missed opportunities do we see? How might we improve in any of these areas?
Further your learning.
It takes a lot of courage to take these steps. They invite us to be vulnerable and open up about what’s not going well in our classrooms. And they ask us to invest time working against some of the institutional norms that don’t serve us well. In my book, The Imperfect and Unfinished Math Teacher, I elaborate on these steps and outline a journey that we can take to reclaim control over our culture of professional development by focusing on what we value most, building the relationships we need, and being in each other’s classrooms and seeking vantage on our own teaching practice. Find out more and download free resources at corwin.com or chaseorton.com.
Palmer, P. J. (2008). A hidden wholeness: The journey toward an undivided life. Jossey-Bass.