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Why I Am a School Teacher (Instead of a Classroom Teacher)

05/09/2013 01:12 pm ET | Updated Jul 09, 2013
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Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Jada enrolled as the only black student in a school of 140 Latino students when our independent charter school opened its doors in 2009. She lived in the projects that encircled the district campus where our charter school borrowed four classrooms. As a ten-year-old, she towered over every other kid in height, personality, and confidence. She could cross her arms across her chest and scowl in a way that made you feel like she had practiced this pose in the mirror for maximum effect. I adored her from the moment we met. But it was clear that this was not the case for the teachers at her previous school. I could practically hear the sighs of relief from her former teachers when she showed up in our uniform polo shirt on the first day of school. From day one, Jada was "my kid," and I would do anything to build her up.

I had no real reason to believe Jada would achieve more in my class than in her previous classes except for the powerful fact that I truly believed she would. I was a first-year teacher who started this work with the same perception of teaching shared by most people have who have never taught. I believed that if you valued learning, you believed in children, and you worked hard, you could lead your class to glorious success.

If we want sustainable change for our students, then we cannot rely on isolated great teachers. Instead, we need vast networks of really good teachers who, in working together, make each other great, and make students successful year after year. -- Abra Sussman

But this is not a story about my success with Jada. This is a story about how my failure with Jada proved what I now know to be unwaveringly true about teaching and about student-teacher relationships. By making Jada "my kid," I made it impossible for her to be successful with other teachers.

In other teachers' classrooms, Jada would resort instantaneously to distracting behavior. I regret, but openly admit, that I felt a small amount of pride that she would behave for me. I didn't know that I was ultimately hurting her chances of forming real, lasting, and positive habits.

Why do we, teachers or otherwise, cling so closely to the image of the teacher as a lonely savior?

From the outside, the ability to build good relationships with kids seems like something teachers either have or don't have, like magic. We can think about teachers -- often the most charismatic or funniest--who built great relationships with tough kids at our own schools and who stood out from the others. We can rely on mainstream, clichéd models of teachers who reach out to students who struggle -- the Dangerous Minds Michelle Pfeiffer and Stand and Deliver Edward James Olmos types. No doubt these individuals are great teachers but they are merely that--individuals. When the movie ends with the culmination of the school year, we're left with a major challenge: how do we make positive student-teacher relationships sustainable? This was the root of the problem I created for Jada. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to be part of a very different type of school.

My failure with Jada illustrates a mindset that my school director shares with our team repeatedly: "We are not classroom teachers. We are school teachers."

Building a school staff that embodies this does not come automatically. It requires long and intimate professional development. It is built in everyday, shared moments amongst staff. It is built by a team of teachers who believe it is worth cultivating adult relationships first so that student relationships grow. Teachers' schedules must make room for collaboration not only for curriculum but also for problem-solving around our challenging students. Most of all, in order to make progress and build trust, this collaboration must happen constantly -- even daily.

Today, the stories that make me proud of my profession aren't the dramatic ones of single teachers reaching out to a kid in need, but the everyday occurrences in which that mostly invisible web of support appears momentarily. Just this week, my 5th grader, Diego, proudly displayed a Post-it note that had been placed on his desk by a 4th grade teacher. That teacher had never once taught Diego, but she had learned that Diego had finished all his homework the night before. At my school, I'm proud to say that our toughest kids -- all our kids -- are purposefully surrounded by love. Because students are surrounded by messages of support from many teachers, not just their own, positive behavior becomes their habit, not their exception.

To the extent that teachers have been elevated in their craft at all, teachers have been elevated as individuals. But ultimately this isn't elevating; in fact it's dangerous for the kids who really need these teachers. If we want sustainable change for our students, then we cannot rely on isolated great teachers. Instead, we need vast networks of really good teachers who, in working together, make each other great, and make students successful year after year.

In that first year with Jada, I learned that a great teacher is only as great as her team. But a good teacher (or even a struggling one) can be made great by a great team. Our students, especially the Jadas, need vast networks of support, not single lonely saviors.

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