Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Why I’m Jealous of Teach For America or Collaboration on the Can

By on September 24, 2009

I don’t mean to whine, but I’m feeling neglected. For all my questions about the eventual impact on education with TFA, I find myself a little pouty that they get all this professional development and I don’t.


I feel like I did when I realized that MTV was no longer shooting for my business as its prime demographic. Somehow, according to outside sources, I have grown out of needing support and am too experienced to need further training.

But we all know that teaching is about continuous support: getting it, giving it, finding it, sharing it. How is it that there has become this clique of new teachers rich in support while the rest of us scramble for minutes to collaborate while we figure out how to do our job, a job that redefines itself year after year?

Four years ago, my department and I had a common prep. According the counselors, this was playing havoc with the master schedule, but everyone understood its worth, and made it happen. Many of us sat down together daily during this time to plan, share, problem solve, and strategize.

We used data to tell us what was working. From that, we could see who was clearly having a success with teaching what skill and ask that person for help in our own lesson planning. We could jigsaw our own lesson planning, so that one teacher developed this unit while another teacher was responsible for developing the lessons in another. We supplemented each other’s curriculum, bringing in ideas and advice about what worked. We shared what didn’t work so that others could learn from our mistakes.

It was bliss, and it was effective.

Then the school voted for a “collaboration day,” one day a month of early student dismissal that would allow for an entire community of collaboration. The thought was that then everyone could meet for the single day (3 hours) a month and do what our department was already doing for 45-minutes daily.

The staff voted, and it passed. But unfortunately, this caused our ELA common prep time to dissolve. Yet with a Pollyanna sense of optimism, we accepted this all in the name of a common, collaborative community.

(Cue Deep Sigh) But collaboration was not meant to be: these early dismissal days became ones of great directives from the powers that be. The district needed departments to analyze this. The state needed us to give evidence of doing that. We were even given directives of what to discuss in order to justify the early-dismissal collaboration days.

In other words, our collaboration days became filled up, not with teacher-driven and designed agendas, but with gathering evidence of our collaboration.

And then, if a teacher taught more than one subject, they had to split their time between two departments.

And then our department meetings began being folded into this time.

And our precious collaboration time drifted off into nothingness…

Until my department discovered that there was one place we could collaborate daily once again: the john. toilet

That’s right. The bathroom. It’s become our go-to place for quick, on-the-fly curriculum design, development, and support. It’s sharing what’s in your head while hittin’ the head. It’s professional development on can.

A teacher sits there, holding court about the lesson they just tried mere minutes ago. They do their business, sharing what worked and what didn’t with the lesson. Then they flush and exit the stall, giving it to the next member of the department who asks questions about the lesson as the first teacher washes her hands. The next teacher comes out of the stall and there is a sharing of advice and tweaking over the supportive sounds of the hand dryer.

If a teacher’s lucky, there’s been time for an exchange of innovative ideas. But, of course, we only have 4-minute passing periods so we don’t have a lot of time to do any kind of business, much less curriculum development.

So, yeah, I’m a little jealous of Teach For America.

Now, I’m not saying I want to be a new teacher ever again. It was like being a teenager, sans the awkward school dances. Tears, laughter, highs, lows, painful learning. But they were formative years of struggle that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

No, I certainly don’t want to go back there, but I am jealous of the support that exists for these newbies, not because I didn’t have it then, but because I don’t have it now.

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  1. dan
    September 25, 2009

    i enjoyed hearing this perspective on professional learning. after a move to a new city i left the middle school classroom after 11 years and started working in professional development. it’s been a bit like a sabbatical, in that i have had the time to read up and share with others ideas and concerns about our practice. the district i came from was just implementing Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) when i left, and the district i now work in places an emphasis on the time you describe and they don’t even have to find an empty bathroom 🙂 i hope you get your time back, it seems a shame that those with experience and perspective aren’t given the time they need to continue to refine their craft.

  2. Tweenteacher
    September 25, 2009

    I think many non-education people believe that somehow learning stops after a certain point. As with anything in life, the longer you remain a student of your craft, the more able you are to keep with with those younger then you. Outside of education, being a life-long learner is about keeping your brain young and agile. But inside education, it is vital in order to continue to be effective in our job.
    Thanks again for the comment! Keep checking in!
    aka Tweenteacher

  3. Susan Graham
    September 28, 2009

    As a Family and Consumer Science teacher, I have always been blessed/burdened with collaborative resource of a kitchen. Until today it never occurred to me that my growth as a teacher leader might be directly connected to the single stall staff-only bathroom in my FACS suite. We shout through the door a lot.

  4. Susan Graham
    September 28, 2009

    As a Family and Consumer Science teacher,I am blessed/burdened with the collaborative resources of the only faculty restroom in our wing of the building and a kitchen. I had never really thought about how much collaboration takes place over the kitchen counter and through the bathroom door. Heather has brought one of the great truths of highly effective PLCs out of the water closet and into light of ASCD. I’m thinking that I need to start posting discussion prompts above the sink.

  5. Elaine Keysor
    August 24, 2011

    I can sypathize with the top down collaboration mandates interfering with true teacher-driven collaboration. To make matters worse, all our bathrooms are one-seaters!

  6. Jennifer
    August 24, 2011

    Loved your comments. I’m recommending your blog for all the teachers at Meadowbrook. You’re an excellent writer!

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