Mind the Gap: My Door Is Open

An inner-city schoolteacher on the isolated nature of his profession.

In positions past, I spent a lot of time working in a cubicle, but I never grew comfortable with the arrangement—too open, too temporary, too Office Space. Now that I lead my own classroom, I’m experiencing the downsides of the other extreme—too closed, too isolated, too Castaway.

Call it naïveté, but I presumed teaching to be a team sport. Each teacher would play his/her position, collaborate on strategy and best practices, and help the team of students make significant academic gains. But partly because each teacher works in a separate space—a room in which the doors are often closed—this is not always the case.

What many of my teaching friends and I have found is an "every-man-for-himself"’ culture, in which teachers are expected to focus (and indeed they do only focus) on what happens within his or her four walls. You are the master of that domain, and for better or for worse, almost no one come to see what you're up to.

As a result, my school and many others do not inculcate collaboration. More perilously, less-than-proficient educators toil unchecked. Best practices aren’t shared because teachers are unaware of what each other is doing. Teachers have become possessive of their fiefdoms, and in such an environment new ideas or approaches are too often viewed with suspicion and resentment. Are you trying to make me look bad? This is my space. You do you, and I’ll do me.

It's not supposed to be like this. For one, an increasingly large pile of research suggests teachers are the key lever to dramatically increasing student achievement. From an administrator's perspective, letting teachers operate unchecked is like never making sure to see if the pilot is awake. Observing poor teachers can also lead to opportunities for professional development, whether an urgent intervention or even encouraging someone to find a new profession. Fom a teacher’s point of view, any of us can learn by observing our colleagues, regardless of how good or how bad.

My school is part of the small school movement, which broke up those mega, monolithic high schools into smaller, 300 to 400 student communities. This approach gave more attention to students, and ideally more attention would also be paid to teachers. My school has 13 classrooms—it’s not inconceivable to pop into each of them during a 60-minute period.

Yet closeness has not translated into collaboration. Most teachers I’ve talked to say their acceptance of the isolated nature of this craft is due to time constraints and skepticism about whether they could learn from a colleague.

The larger issue, however, seems to be that there is no incentive to observe other teachers’ classrooms and become a better teacher. With some 99 percent of teachers receiving satisfactory ratings and many receiving tenure after their third year in the classroom, teachers do not need to exert themselves to achieve job security. Compare that situation to some consulting firms, where new employees work relentlessly to grab performance bonuses and avoid the annual cut of the bottom 10 percent.

I don’t proclaim to be without fault here. I teach the second-year of a two-year global history course, and I interact on a daily basis with the woman who teachers the first year of that course. We’re very friendly, regularly e-mailing political jokes and working on extra-curricular activities together. Yet at almost no time throughout the year are we aware of what the other is teaching—only once or twice has either of us gone to watch the other actually teach. This situation exists despite the fact that we teach many of the same skills and concepts and all of our students could benefit from an increased connection between the courses.

Teaching doesn’t need to be this way. One of my colleagues began an Intervisitation Club this year, which involves teachers pairing up for six weeks at a time and observing each other every other week. We meet regularly over lunch to share notes. It's a great idea and initially about half the staff joined, yet in part because of aforementioned time constraints only six teachers, myself included, still participate.

My school also began learning walks this year in which teachers and administrators make pre-arranged visits to classrooms. So far, the quality of teaching is not as high as had been hoped. Regular, informal observations would have revealed such practices within short order.

Meanwhile many schools, charters in particular, follow an open-door policy in which anyone is free to enter the classroom at any time. Such a policy breeds accountability and transparency and is worthy of replication.

When Justice Louis Brandeis said that "sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he was referring to transparency in government. Yet administrators and teachers literally opening the door to previously closed-off classrooms can be a small step forward for education.

Brendan Lowe is a Teach for America corps member who is in his second year of teaching high school in the South Bronx. His dispatch for GOOD will appear on Fridays.

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