The Secret to Being a Better Teacher? Find Your People

column | Personal Learning Networks

The Secret to Being a Better Teacher? Find Your People

By Farhat Ahmad (Columnist)     Dec 13, 2017

The Secret to Being a Better Teacher? Find Your People

On November 20th, 2015, I received an email in my inbox that would change my teaching career. It was from a stranger.

A few weeks earlier, I had won the Georgia Governor’s award for innovative teaching. My principal noticed how much work I was putting into redesigning my curriculum and had nominated me. I secretly hoped I would win. I wanted validation that I was doing right by my students.

Shortly after I received the award, it seemed like everyone wanted to visit my classroom and sit in a room with me to understand how I was getting my kids to learn. I had been working alone behind closed doors for so long that I didn’t know how to share the work in a meaningful way. On a recent interview with a local radio show, I was asked how other teachers can do what I do in the classroom. It made me reflect on my relationship with the stranger who emailed me.

My entire career has been an uphill battle and at the risk of sounding bleak—I’ve always felt professionally lonesome.

I’ve been working with at-risk youth for 11 years. I landed my first job as a teacher because I was a hulking, stone-faced ex-cop who could “keep the kids in line.” I quickly figured out that my administration and the other teachers didn’t care if my students were learning. They wanted my students to stay out of the hallways, off administration’s radar and to appear somewhat engaged when it was time to be evaluated through standardized testing.

That has been the status quo in most of the schools I’ve worked in. I was to stay inside my classroom at the end of the hallway and work with the curriculum I was given—the same curriculum that all of the other teachers were using with the general education population. But my students had different needs.

In the beginning I played ball, but it wasn’t working. My students were frustrated, I felt guilty and nothing got done. That’s when I slowly started doing things my own way. I went into hiding, kept my head down and steered clear of the general education teachers so I wouldn’t be asked to take care of anyone’s discipline problems or move heavy objects.

Breaking Out of My Rut

In 2014, when I started teaching English Language Arts at McClarin Success Academy, an alternative high school, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Eight years into my career, I was frustrated and welcomed any change. I hoped I’d find a home at this school for kids who hadn’t found success at their prior schools. After all, I was a teacher who hadn’t found success at mine—it seemed symbolic.

It was the fall of my second year at McClarin when my principal nominated me for the Governor’s award. Two months later, I won and I was getting phone calls and pats on the back. I accepted the award, took some photos with my administrators, and then got back to it with my students like it has always been. That’s when the email came.

It was from a local third grade teacher named Alex Larson who was working with a similar population of students. She worked at an elementary school in my district. In fact she had taught some of my high schoolers when they were younger. Alex had also been nominated for the award and her email was a letter of congratulations. She was glad someone in our region had finally won.

Image Credit: Farhat Ahmad

It seemed genuine but I had been burned by my colleagues so many times in the past that I almost didn’t respond. But I wanted to find a “teacher-friend,” so I decided to reach out. I figured the worst thing that could happen is that she’d ask me to move some furniture or fix her computer, and things would end there.

That initial email turned into a dozen more, back and forth. Alex felt the same way I did about at-risk learners. We agreed that the system was broken and it wasn’t just curriculum we wanted to change, it was our relationships with students. We wanted every student to feel valued and respected—not like a number on a spreadsheet.

She talked about professional development and change management. I talked about rewriting curriculum and changing the way it was delivered to students. Our emails led to phone conversations and eventually an in-person meeting—then another one.

Suddenly, we were having work sessions every Saturday. We presented ideas about the classroom, professional development or experimenting with technology to each other for feedback. We were both way past figuring out how to modify a lesson plan for struggling readers or how to download an app.

You Can't Do Everything Alone

In addition to our regular role as classroom teachers, Alex and I were both considered educational technology specialists by our schools. I worked on the fly and troubleshooted when necessary; Alex’s approach was more calculated. She wanted to make big change with a lot of teachers at her school; I was just looking for something that worked because everything was broken.

Our conversations were rich and our relationship pushed me to see teaching and learning through a wider lens. Instead of just considering my classroom, I was now thinking about school and district-wide practices.

Alex shared new tools with me, and helped me make the ones I already used more accessible for my students. She put language to my work and gave my efforts a name. I didn’t know what “personalized learning” or “mastery-based grading and assessment” meant. But as it turns out, that’s what I had been doing in my classroom for the past two years. She put the pieces together like a puzzle and suddenly I was able to see the bigger picture.

Together, we took our Saturday sessions on the road,heading to local conferences to learn from others or to present. As our practices evolved so did our presentations. We started to make meaning of our classroom data and standardized test scores to show how our practices were making a difference, and collaborated to think through what went into our classroom redesign so we could help other teachers.

Meeting Alex changed me from a resentful and cautious teacher to an active and involved participant in my community. She has been a true partner, providing me with alternative perspectives, new technological innovations and constructive criticism when needed. More importantly, she taught me how to share my practices.

The truth is, I’m a difficult person to work with because I’ve got a huge chip on my shoulder. Because of my uphill battle, I built a wall to protect myself and my students from the systemic discrimination that exists, fighting battles I never thought I could win. Through building a relationship with a peer, I actually started winning them.

So when that radio show host asked me how other teachers can do what I do in the classroom, a lightbulb went off. It’s not about replicating what I do. It’s about finding someone, or a group of people to make change with.

It may sound cliche, but I learned the hard way that you can’t do everything on your own. You have to find your own “tribe” as a teacher, even if it starts small. Your tribe may be right next door to you, or you may need to venture beyond the walls of your classroom or school. And sometimes you find it when you aren’t even looking, like I did.

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