Teacher Voice

Working (and Learning) With a Teacher People Gave Up On

In a recent post, Before You Give Up On ‘Those’ Teachers, teacher and blogger Pernille Ripp writes:

Yet, before we give up on those teachers, before we push them out, write them off, and definitely talk behind their back, stop for just a minute. Because those teachers had a dream once. Those teachers came into this profession wanting to inspire, to change, to create. They didn’t come to be the naysayers or the ones that brought us down. They came into this profession wanting to be the very best teachers they could be…those teachers are just like us, they just got a little lost. They don’t need to be pushed out, they need to be re-found.

I worked alongside one of “those” teachers this past year. I shared a class with a teacher who others saw as brash, angry and old-fashioned. A teacher who used to sit at her desk and bark out orders. I wasn’t quite sure our pairing would be fruitful. We were polar opposites. Flash forward to the end. It worked out, and over the year she became my partner and teammate.

Where She Comes From

Mrs. Smith (pseudonym alert) is a traditional teacher. She believes in the merit of memorization, obedient behavior, beautiful handwriting and proceeding “page by page.” Things better be spelled correctly, and students need to recite the Gettysburg Address line by line. Notes, review questions and chapter tests are her norm.

Most everything is the students fault. She believes students don’t work hard enough and are often lazy. Maybe if they cared more, they would do better. Worse yet, they are disrespectful and given too many chances.

Where I Come From

Some would call me kooky, some would call me crazy, some would call me progressive, some would call me different. I never liked school very much so I tend to push back against standard practices and doctrine. I feel grades are one of the most harmful aspects of school. I teach through projects and am ambivalent about text books, page numbers and teacher’s guides.

I allow multiple retakes and revisions. I tend to trust kids and think they work too hard. I try to give them multiple chances and understand their unique situations and circumstances. In my opinion, “talking things out” is superior to detentions, referrals and marks. In a different context, I am one of “those” teachers.

The Situation

Mrs. Smith started her teaching career over 25 years ago. Mrs. Smith never left the school she started at. She became a fixture in the school community, a reliable constant. She benefited from her longevity and loyalty (at least for a time). Mrs. Smith was the school vice principal for a few years, until a change in leadership and assignments, sent her back to the classroom. Mrs. Smith did not want to go back to the classroom. In all fairness, she lacked the energy and was a bit jaded.

To complicate matters, the school was changing. New leadership pushed a new vision. The staff would collaboratively teach and plan classes. The staff needed to use technology to plan and teach lessons. The staff was expected to emphasize 21st century skills. Mrs. Smith was not enamored with the changes. This was a different type of education.

I was asked to support Mrs. Smith, to work with her to teach a class. We co-taught 8th grade social studies. I would create unit plans and discuss opportunities for students to collaborate, create and use technology. I shared ideas for projects and alternate assessments. We agreed to lessons, grades and assignments after working through multiple revisions, discussions and feedback sessions.

Unexpected Success

Somehow our situation worked out. It was never perfect, and we struggled to understand each other at the beginning. I wanted her to dive into project based learning and alternative assessments. She wanted me to be strict and tough, to lay down the law. But we stuck with it.

We knew we came at things differently, but looked to each other’s strengths (and weaknesses). For example, the whole staff collaborated on Google Drive. I asked her to do the same so we could plan remotely. No matter how I tried, she seemed to ignore my documents. One day, she came to me with a simple computer question. Although it was basic, I patiently answered her question and showed her how to do it by herself the next time. She then surprised me by asking how to use Google Drive.

She told me she always wanted to use it, but no one had taken the time to show her. She was often up very late into the night trying to figure out Google, and other “new” technology. In fact, she was often up past midnight trying to work or prepare for other classes. When many of us thought she was lazy, she was actually over working. She wanted so bad to be a great teacher, but was overwhelmed. She just needed some support.

When she figured out Google Drive, she felt empowered to make changes and contribute at higher levels to both our class and the school. She felt comfortable with email as a way to communicate with me. I unknowingly unleashed an email machine. She emailed me after each class, followed up about student needs and shared ideas. All the sudden, we had an authentic feedback loop for our class. Our communication allowed me to reflect more on this class than any other I taught. To think people thought she didn’t care.

I relied on her ability to create deadlines and move through projects. She pushed me to create more structure and incorporate more assessment, both summative and formative, into lessons. I learned from her ability to conference with students, to meet them one-on-one. She was able to work with students when she didn’t feel so overwhelmed by the many demands of teaching. I marveled with her ability to try new things. When I first suggested certain technology lessons or projects she would skip them. She didn’t feel comfortable using devices or computers. By the end of the year, she routinely used technology even when she didn’t quite understand it. She became a facilitator, asking students about their intentions and ideas.

To my complete shock, I genuinely enjoyed opening her emails, teaching with her, and bouncing ideas off each other.

What I Learned From Her

There are things Mrs. Smith and I will never agree on. We have radically divergent philosophies of education. Putting aside our differences, she pushed me to really think about my core beliefs about education. What did I need to defend? What could I let slide? Where could I compromise? Where could I not? Where could we collaborate? Where could we support each other?

I learned how to be vulnerable. It couldn’t have been easy to accept support from a teacher in the nascent stages of their career. Nevertheless, she was willing to learn from me. She valued my experiences, even if people did not value hers. She appreciated being listened to, she appreciated working collaboratively. She asked for help when she needed it. She shared her thoughts and opinions.

I learned that she cared deeply for the students. She pulled students aside and worked with them individually. She was an excellent listener. She called me to her desk to bring up concerns I saw right through.

Teachers are humans, too. Mrs. Smith works hard, she wants to do well. She is also stressed and feels undervalued. She is overwhelmed with the changes she sees in the classroom. Mrs. Smith wants people to listen to her concerns, to help her move forward. There is still a great teacher in Mrs. Smith. She is more than one of “those” teachers.

Tim Monreal is a middle-school teacher and blogger. An earlier version of this post appeared on his blog, The Bearded Teacher.

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