*This post was originally published on the Teacher Voices blog at mathforamerica.org. It was co-authored by myself and the awesome Courtney Ginsberg.
Teaching is the most complex job in the world. We shape the future. We motivate students, deal with ever-changing expectations, and tackle mounds of paperwork. Through it all, we operate within a system that champions test scores over learning. This is a mere subset of the demands placed on us every day. If you’re a teacher reading this, you can no doubt think of many more.
Given this backdrop, no one would blame a teacher for focusing solely on their own classroom and their own students. Thoughtful teachers understand the urgency to serve the 30 smiling faces that walk into our classrooms each day. With that said, there is danger in not acknowledging the role we play in the larger context of teaching. When we fail to see our colleagues, both in our own school and out, as necessary partners in the work that we do with students, we become an island. Isolated, we create everything ourselves, work through problems alone, and have difficulty seeing beyond our classrooms. In this way, our potential, and our students’ success, is inherently limited.
As teachers of mathematics, the hallmark of improvement is the meaningful connections we make with other STEM teachers. These connections drive collaboration and inspire us to rethink what’s possible for our students, our classrooms, and our schools. Naturally, this is the setting where teachers become teacher leaders. We are empowered and unafraid to volunteer our time to lead professional learning courses or simply start a discussion on an interesting topic, like we do at MƒA. Occurring with little to no help from outsiders, these are the most meaningful types of professional development experiences.
This line of thinking contrasts the message that is often promoted from the top-down, which is for us to lean on “experts” to help us become better teachers. We are reminded to seek out these specialists and incorporate their models to better serve our students. This is a linear, straightforward approach to the challenge of teaching development. Go to the expert, learn from the expert, case closed.
While this sounds great and makes a lot of money for those in high places, knowledgeable teachers understand the reality: no matter how much success or experience you’ve had in (or out) of the classroom, no one is an expert at teaching. Many will claim otherwise, but becoming a better teacher isn’t linear – it’s more piecewise than anything. Different strategies are effective in different contexts with different kids. This is why teacher leadership doesn’t hang its hat on expertise. Instead, it relies on the collective knowledge and experiences of all teachers to push the community forward.
This type of collaboration amongst teachers happens every day. For example, several years ago, while co-facilitating an MƒA PLT with MƒA Master Teacher Mike Zitolo, Brian learned of their shared passion for classroom inter-visitations. Excited to learn from one another, they made unsupervised, grassroots plans to visit each other’s schools. The result was something that deeply impacted Brian. Mike’s methodical, know-why-this-is-important approach to physics was very different from the mathematics classrooms that Brian visited in the past (as well as his own). By immersing himself in Mike’s classroom, he not only gained a deeper appreciation for the STEM work that happens outside of mathematics, but learned how science can enhance how he teaches mathematics. The experience influenced Brian to publish a lesson that integrates a microcontroller into regression analysis.
A few years ago Courtney took former MƒA Master Teacher Phil Dituri’s workshop, “Making Group Work the Norm.” It sparked a real desire to collaborate more with her colleagues, so she spent time working through ways to incorporate them into her larger school community. She ended up designing PD for her STEM team to implement similar strategies. Shortly thereafter, Courtney heard MƒA Master Teacher Shannon Guglielmo speak at the annual MƒA MT2: Master Teachers on Teaching event. Courtney and Shannon attended graduate school together so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to reconnect. They talked and shared resources on her subway map theory, which led to collaboration around using statistics to solve community issues. This also allowed for deeper collaboration within their building as Courtney is working to set up inter-visitations for the 10+ MƒA teachers working at different schools within her larger building.
In both instances, teacher leadership wasn’t defined by the level of expertise of the people involved. It was developed through a genuine interest in learning from other teachers and a willingness to openly share knowledge amongst each other. This is the beauty and power of communities like MƒA. They are filled with teachers inspiring other teachers to be lifelong learners of STEM, who invariably work towards delivering the most meaningful and authentic instruction possible. In short, we lead each other.
To expand on the interdisciplinary STEM work that already has so many MƒA teachers engaged, many of us will come together next month for three days of growth. We will lead one another through a series of workshops that share our resources and best practices, all with the aim of leveraging big ideas in and out of the classroom. This teacher-designed, teacher-led conference, the Summer Think, will be the first of its kind at MƒA and will provide teachers a relaxing atmosphere to think in ways that is so hard to do during the school year. From exploring the social, economic, and ethical issues of climate change to infusing the design process into our classrooms, the conference will use mathematics and science as entry points to high levels of collaboration. With in-depth, multi-day workshops and a variety of support sessions all happening smack in the middle of the summer, this unique experience will embody teacher leadership.
Despite the resounding needs of our own students, our influence can and should extend beyond our classroom. Experiences like ours as well as those that will happen at the MƒA Summer Think demonstrate one simple fact: we’re better together.