by Dr. Patricia L. Schall
June 18, 2018
As an English educator fresh out of college, I feel quite in tune with modern strategies for teaching reading and writing as well as assessment. I’m worried about conflicts with veteran teachers who believe their methods to be tried and true. What’s the best way to avoid conflict with other teachers while still holding true to my educational philosophies?
So many of my former students and current early-career teachers have experienced the dilemma you describe in your question. You don’t want to hide your light under the proverbial bushel, but you also want to get along with your new colleagues. So you find yourself walking that fine line between being true to your educational philosophy and making some adjustments to the reality of the new world you inhabit. These adjustments do not require you to “sell out,” but they can help you get along.
When I taught Student Teaching Seminar, I asked my students to participate in an on-line discussion board using our college course support platform. I would post a prompt each week, asking the students to respond without using actual names of people or places. Toward the end of student teaching (now called Clinical Practice, but that is a topic for another blog post), I asked my students to post something they learned about the profession that they would like to share with future student teachers.
One of my students, Jeannie (pseudonym), posted this bit of advice: “Be Switzerland. Well, this probably extends well beyond the teaching profession, but . . . be friendly with everyone—even those who may rub you the wrong way, at first. Sometimes those impressions change. Choose your closer allies wisely–professional people who like to talk about ideas–people who inspire you!” I was struck by her suggestion to “Be Switzerland” and thought she was on the right track. Sometimes you just have to be neutral and diplomatic to get along. Being civil does not mean compromising your ideals. Then, as you get to know your colleagues better, you can identify those you can trust to be your allies. All new teachers need at least one buddy to get through the first year of teaching. That person might be the formal mentor assigned to them or another teacher. Teachers all need trusted partners to survive and thrive during those challenging early career years and beyond. The attrition rate within the first five years of teaching, though some current studies show it is declining, still remains a sobering statistic. This is no time to be the rugged individual who sets out on the trail alone.
Remember that you can find in-person partners in school and virtual allies online. NCTE hosts many groups tailored to your individual interests and needs. I encourage you to explore those options and others, including those available through NEA, NJEA, and in social media forums. Twitter alone offers a wealth of connections and resources. Explore EdCamps and other free or low-cost options to meet people. NJCTE schedules free Coffee and Conversation meetings in different locations around the state. Going to professional conferences and spending time with others who are serious about their work helps you develop a wider professional network of colleagues who are there for you.
Of course as a new teacher, you will also confront advice you don’t need. Some of your veteran colleagues might try to “domesticate” you. Your freshness, recent knowledge, and technology skills can be intimidating to established teachers. Some of my own students during their first year of teaching found themselves responding to unwanted or unhelpful recommendations. I think of one woman who made a habit of staying late after school to do her planning. A veteran colleague would see her in her classroom and urge her to go home since her behavior was “making the rest of us look bad.” She learned to “be Switzerland,” acknowledge his admonitions, smile at him, and just reply that she liked staying late so she could use the copier when it was not in demand and leave some of her work at school. Her response to her colleague neutralized the situation and compromised none of her principles.
And what do you do about those valuable skills you learned in your education courses, those that form the foundation of your practice in school? I would never encourage you to heed the words of colleagues who declare, “Forget all that stuff you learned in college. This is the real world now.” You always can reply by acknowledging how much you are learning in this brave, new “real world” and how you genuinely appreciate being able to apply the strategies you learned in college to the experience and knowledge you are gaining working with colleagues and kids. When the moment seems right, you might even nicely offer to share some of your new teaching strategies with others and invite them to observe your class when you are applying some of the methods you find so useful. You could even offer to conduct a hands-on workshop for colleagues during professional development time or another time convenient to them. Let them know you are willing to support them as they try out a new strategy. You are just making a friendly offer, and they are under no obligation to accept it.
Of course visibility as a bright star can sometimes backfire on you through no fault of your own. One of my more recent students just finished her second year of teaching English in an out-of-state school that will remain nameless. She has been teaching in the school’s English language learner classes. Her students need skills, self-confidence, and encouragement. To help her students gain English language fluency and self-confidence, she initiated a “student ambassador program,” where her ELL students are available for situations that require translation from their native languages into English. She also invited the students to write poems about themselves and their cultures based on the writing of George Ella Lyon. She displayed their final drafts in the hallway and they read their poems at a board of education luncheon, where they received a standing ovation. These activities proved to be an enduring learning experience for the students. Their teacher earned the praise of administrators and was named teacher of the month several times, leading to some professional jealousy. Furthermore, the principal unfortunately made a thoughtless top-down decision and required all the other teachers to replicate the poetry assignment. This hasty edict led to her increased isolation and the domestication of her good idea. One size does not fit all, and dictating a “good practice” guarantees its failure. This new teacher now has few trusted allies at school and looks to people she meets in graduate classes and through other professional connections to serve as buddies.
I have not told this story to discourage you, Conflicted, but just to let you know that I recognize how complex it is to remain true to your ideals as you learn to negotiate the twists and turns of a new work culture. I don’t have easy answers for you. I still can recall how dispirited I felt as a tenured teacher with ten years under my belt when I had complained to a colleague about how the culture of a school I loved had become so negative under a new principal. He responded to me, “You know what your problem is, don’t you, Pat? You care too much about what you do.” I replied that I didn’t know any other way to function. So, you see, Conflicted, even veterans get the blues!
So, to sum up, continue to follow your ideals like the North Star. Do what you need to survive without compromising your belief system. Don’t let the naysayers get you down. Seek trusted allies. Offer to share your knowledge and skills with others. Remain flexible, since you can learn something from others too. Becoming a good teacher is a journey, not a destination. As Leila Christenbury says, you are always on the path to “being and becoming” a good teacher. Be positive and pleasant. Avoid the negative people. Be Switzerland. Continue to let your light shine.
Dear readers—feel free to offer Conflicted additional suggestions in the comments section of this blog post.
New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English