I remember going to the Reading for the Love of It Conference in Toronto for the first time as a fairly new teacher. I heard Mary Bigler speak in a motivational keynote address. She told a story that has stuck through me through the years. It was about a brand new teacher who was full of energy, enthusiasm, great “new” ideas and some judgement about her “older” colleague across the hall that taught the next grade. This young teacher, (let’s call her Samantha), made sure that students were working in co-operative groups and made the learning exciting and engaging. The teacher across the hall (let’s call her Eunice) had a structured, desks-in-rows, routine program and a quiet classroom. Samantha often stayed after school into her evenings changing her bulletin boards and arranging desks into new formations. Eunice would often leave shortly after the bell and sometimes her bulletin board was empty! Throughout the year this Samantha considered her program to be superior. She had learned all of these “new” strategies in teacher’s college and looked upon the program of her colleague as being antiquated. She loved hearing that she was the “fun” and “best” teacher. However, no matter what Samantha tried there were students who she could not seem to reach. She tried all of the strategies that she had learned and she felt that she had given her all. When it was time to send her students on to the Eunice for the next grade, Samantha was distraught. Certainly the students would not do as well as they had in her engaging program. They would be bored and wouldn’t thrive within the rigid structure Eunice’s classroom. Would those “unreachable” students fall further behind?
Samantha was surprised by what she witnessed in the fall with “her” students. The students that had experienced her “exciting” program were also enjoying Eunice’s classroom. They talked with excitement about what they were reading and writing and referred to Eunice as being the “best” teacher. The few students who Samantha couldn’t seem to reach were thriving with the routine, quiet and structure of their new classroom. Samantha learned a few things during that first year experience:
1. You can’t judge a teacher by the bulletin board. The culture of a classroom can only be truly experienced by the students. We don’t really know what goes on behind the closed classroom door of a colleague.
2. Every teacher has a different skill set. Although Samantha was an engaging and exciting teacher, the students that she couldn’t reach thrived in a routine and structured environment.
3. Children can have short memories. In the primary grades, the “best” and “favourite” teacher often changes each year to their new classroom teacher. It isn’t personal. It is about the reference point of a six year old.
4. Comparing ourselves to other teachers doesn’t serve the students. Working longer hours doesn’t always mean that a teacher is more effective, it might mean that they are less efficient. Teachers with experience likely have a better understanding of the curriculum and can rely on lessons that they have previously prepared. Teachers who have an understanding of work-life balance also may have more energy to offer their students.
5. The experienced teacher across the hall has years of experience with strategies to serve the needs of students. Instead of judging; ask for their help. Most of them would be more than happy to share their strategies and wisdom with a colleague.
It isn’t about being “Teacher of the Year”. It is about being the teacher that your students need.