Sunday, July 16, 2006

Isolation—What Does It Look Like, and What Do We Do About It?

Mike Schmoker has an interesting new book out through the ASCD called Results Now: How We Can Achieve Unprecedented Improvements in Teaching and Learning. ASCD books have been hit-or-miss for me over the years, but this one’s a definite hit in that it’s highly readable, makes sense, and he sticks to his points instead of getting bogged down in minutia the way some of ASCD's authors tend to do.

One of his central ideas is that teacher isolation is still a pervasive force that keeps us from improving our schools. This isn’t a surprising view for him; he’s a disciple of Richard DuFour and contributed a chapter to one of his books on Professional Learning Communities a couple of years ago. In his own words:

Isolation ensures that highly unprofessional practices are tolerated and thus proliferate in the name of…professionalism. “What works” morphs easily into what feels good, or keeps kids occupied or “what I’ve always done and gotten good evaluations for.”

Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I don’t think that isolation is nearly as prevalent as it used to be 20 years ago. For the five years I’ve been teaching I’ve always met with my team to talk about curriculum; we’ve also shared our DRA test results with each other to get the big picture of how we’re doing as a grade level. My district also has a mandated curriculum for math and reading, so as long as everyone is teaching out of the books we’ve been given you can be assured that the kids will be getting mostly the same concepts.

It helps that we get along. I’ve seen teams before where a teacher has been forced into isolation because of stupid, petty bickering. I’ll admit that there’s been times when I’ve just wanted to give the world a big FU, close the door, and make obscene faces through the window at passers-by.

Where collaboration falls short, and it’s something that I can’t quite figure out how to do, is when we’re asked to compare our scores and “help” our peers who aren’t doing as well. Schmoker makes the point that it’s hard for administrators to get around and do this with all of their teachers, and that we are the experts, but I’d still have an awfully hard time telling someone else how to do their job when I’m their peer. In the elementary schools especially it’s hard to look at two different teachers and say that one is clearly better than the other; if the discrepancy is so large that you can see it, then the principal should be able to see it too, and they should be the one to take care of it.


Blogger Spangles said...

Your topic of isolation gives me some food for thought. I teach 4th grade and at the end of the year, my team had a bit of a fall out. I co-teach a special education inclusion class so I know that I have a colleague to rely on and collaborate with already.

But I hate to close my door on my colleagues and the other 4th graders in my school. I care very much about working with my 'professional learning community' and will have to put some thought into how we work together.

Thank you for your ideas. It's nice to know that other teachers have the same things on their minds that I do.

5:47 PM  
Blogger The Science Goddess said...

I, too, got this book in the mail...but it's still sitting on my desk. Guess I'll have to dive in!

I work with lots of very entrenched isolationist teachers---they have very particular ideas about how things should be done, but don't have a lot of justification for what they do. It's really frustrating.

7:43 PM  
Blogger NYC Educator said...

The principal should be able to see such things, assuming that the principal has classroom experience, knows the difference between good and bad, and most importantly, cares what's going on.

Unfortunately, that's not always the case.

8:17 AM  
Blogger Ryan said...

Spangles: Inner-team strife is one of the hardest things I think any of us have to deal with. That's part of the reason why I think the idea of sharing scores with each other is a tough one; if there's already stress in the relationship, having to open yourself up like that can make it a lot worse.

Goddess: I think "justification" is a great word; you'll see that Schmoker talks about it in the book some. If the answer to "Why do you do that?" is "I've always done that" or "My evals are good, so that practice must be good too!", I'd be frustrated too.

NYC: Too true.

Thanks for all the replies!

12:34 PM  
Blogger Andrew Pass said...

Face-to-face collaboration is certainly not the only collaboration that can take place. Obviously, I mean virtual collaboration can also be very helpful. I am an independent educational consultant who was previously a doctoral student. Since a large part of my work is writing, I'm often alone. As a doctoral student I could collaborate with my peers. However, now I don't have that opportunity. A few months ago I was a little upset that I no longer had people with whom I could collaborate. But now I've found the blogosphere. I really feel as if people will read what I write and comment on it. It's pretty incredible and if you work in a school where collaboration is minimal, you now have other options open to you. As I'm writing this comment, I'm thinking about the new website, and's collaboration with the site.

Andrew Pass

7:56 AM  
Blogger Dan Edwards said...

Years ago, when the first talk about PAR (Peer Assistance and Review) were being bantered about, I though it would be interesting to invite my fellow teachers to visit my classroom for an informal observation. I provided a simple form for them to fill out, if they choose to. The main points of the form were to let me know if there was anything in particular they liked, if there were any things they saw that they would be concerned about and if they had any suggestions for improvement. Only one of my 37 fellow teachers came by for a visit. Granted, it involved giving up a few minutes of prep time, but still, I was hoping for more.

I have also tried to provide assistance to any new teachers in my department. Over the years, of the six or seven new teachers we've gotten, only one has taken me up on my offers of help (just informally talking about how things are going, use of my resorces, etc.). One even went so far as to snootedly retort to me that "HE didn't need any help". (and this was his first jr. high teaching experience!).

IMO, too many teachers WANT to be isolated. And IMO, this is sad.

11:32 AM  
Blogger Ryan said...

Polski: That guy sounds like a winner :-P

I've seen it in the elementary level too. It's their first assignment and they think that since student teaching went so well (or their mom was a teacher) that they've got it all together, they don't want your help, and they're not going to take it.

Sometimes it works.

Most of the time, though, there are serious flaws in what they're doing that could be fixed pretty easily if someone showed them how. In my district every first year teacher has a mentor whether they want it or not, and I think it's helped quite a bit.

On the classroom visit front, I had teachers from out of district come through my room this year to watch some of the things I do in reading and calendar (it was a professional development thing their district was doing). I think it made me better, too--I became a lot more intentional and thought things through. We were doing the TESA process a couple of years ago where we'd get a peer buddy and switch off watching each other, but the money ran out.

12:45 PM  
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5:04 AM  

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