Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Breaking What Works

By on June 3, 2011

My school is a very large facility. Upgraded with bond money passed by our local community, it is made up of a new big building here, an even bigger new building there, older wings of classrooms fitting in between, etc…. In other words, it’s sprawling. And our teachers are spread throughout the site, generally grouped by content area, but not rigidly so.

But our preps are not dictated by our departments, which can be frustrating. Therefore, many of us rely on our locale in relationship to one another in order to discuss and solve problems as they arise. In other words, I don’t share my prep with many other ELA teachers, a fact which is not ideal.

Our teachers are diverse in their styles, philosophies, ages, and levels of experience. Which is as it should be in a school because without that diversity of teachers, you can’t reach a diversity of learners. Additionally, without that diversity of teachers, educators wouldn’t learn from one another.

Now, learning from colleagues takes time and consistency, and many of our staff dream of being given the time to collaborate and share. Without common preps per department, we all steal time when we can, where we can, and some of us are dedicated enough to the practice of collaboration to have found a routine and rhythm no matter what it takes. I’ve written about collaborating even in the bathroom.

Sometimes brief minutes is all we have as teachers to learn from each other, ask how someone is solving a problem, or celebrate a victory long in coming. So when you find a perfect storm of collaboration: the people, the location, and the dedication, a school should preserve it at all costs, right?

Let me back up:

I work in one of the older wings in my school. There are four rooms in the building, connected by doors so that when you open them, you can see all the way down the length of the building. After the new buildings were constructed, teachers were put in a lottery to chose their new classrooms, and the four of us who teach in these rooms specifically selected them. We were not the highest nor lowest on the list, but not many people wanted the older classrooms when given the choice to move to the new rooms. The four of us, however, very different teachers all, looked at the new buildings and looked at the older wings and saw the potential in the latter for the collaboration we desired to do our job better. And within a few minutes of selecting, three colleagues and I had created what became known as, “The Dorm.”

Since then, our wing has become a community within the larger school community for the teachers within as well as for our students.

Those of us in The Dorm have been known to teach with our doors open, even while classes go on, in order to speak to one another and model community for our students. We’ve opened our doors like episodes of Laugh-in, interjecting comments and questions on the fly. We model tolerance for the interruption because the benefits so outweigh any possible irritation. We love it. The kids love it. It creates spontaneous discussion and thought. During passing periods, any one of us teachers have been known to run down the length of the building in order to pick up a lost handout or pick the brains of our colleagues about this challenge or that hurdle so that the problem would be solved in time for the next period. We really utilize the building and it has grown a personality in itself, one of warmth and humor for the students assigned to those classrooms.

As I say, all four teachers in The Dorm share a passion for teaching; yet each of us teaches in a very different style. What that equates to is a pocket of learning for us, the teachers, that happens daily and often, and that benefits the learners in our rooms. We have reated a PLC for ourselves based on our similarities and differences. We have created a PLC where there was none before.

And we’re being split up next year.

I know this tendency to break up what works is not unique to education, but it’s just unfortunate to see this easy successful network of teachers come to an end.

I’m sure there’s a reason that one of the teachers is being moved to another room in the school, to another grade level, to another building. It’s possible that with the move will come a rippling of a collaborative philosophy that might benefit others in the school. Or it might create isolation where there was none before.

So this post isn’t so much about criticizing the decision, because I’m sure it is not one that is intentionally separating a pocket of success. There are, I’m sure, valid reasons. This post is, instead, about mourning the breaking up of what works in order to address a different need in another area.

I am returning next week to my school site after my family leave ends, to find a very different environment. I will be greeted by my 4th principal in 9 years, the challenges of which I’ve written about in the past, whom I haven’t even met yet. The Dorm will be in the process of being dispersed to the corners of the school. Our ELA curriculum, rubrics, assessments, and pacing have been changed for next year as well, and while I’m returning as Department chair, many decisions had to have been made without me on-site these past few months. There’s only so much input one can have from afar.

But it is the loss of the ability to easily collaborate, to easily seek advice from my colleagues, that saddens me the most. My hope is that other pockets on the campus may crop up, signaling a new age of collaboration. My hope is that the legacy of The Dorm will one day not be a unique bastion of community on so large a school site. My hope is that more students may benefit from the transparent teaching and enthusiasm for learning lived daily by the teachers who worked between its open doors.

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Posted in: Educational Policy

Comments

  1. Stacey L
    June 5, 2011

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    Heather, I too feel your pain. Our district is undergoing a massive restructuring due to a new elementary school being built. Our 15 4th grade teachers, who previously taught together in one wing of one building, are being dispersed to three elementary schools. They are the most amazing group of people I have worked with in my 15 years of education. As a coach, they sought me out for support and advice, invited me into their classrooms, and shared their students with me. They opened their doors to each other and built great collaborative relationships. I hope that this will continue as they build new teams in the new buildings, and I know this is the hope of the district as well. But it is hard.

    On another note, I have left my coaching position at 4/5 grade and will begin my first year teaching 8th grade LA in the fall! The hope of the district is that I can be an agent for change within the 7/8 grade building. (This was told to me expressly by the Supt.) So, I appreciate you sharing your life here on the blog and will continue to follow you closely! Enjoy the summer, and remember, with all change, there are hidden gifts we have yet to open!

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