12/04/2012 11:29 am ET Updated Feb 03, 2013

Listening to Teachers

By Julia Mason

At 5:00 p.m. on a recent school day, 200 new teachers in groups of a dozen fill the available conference rooms of our local district office, even spilling into the hallway, where my group must continually morph to make room for office workers on the way to the elevator. The teachers are here for Way of Council, a component of Los Angeles Unified School District's Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment Program (BTSA) that encourages newer teachers to come together and share their stories, in order to build community and elicit support. Each year, upwards of a thousand teachers participate in Council sessions.

Allowing teachers to tell their stories is critical. We know new teachers are hemorrhaging from urban classrooms, and the effects on students and school cultures are disastrous. We need to support practices that build healthy schools, modeling with adults what we hope to provide for students, and we also need more teachers' perspectives to inform the policies we're enacting to improve schools and raise respect for the teaching profession. One way to help heal the school system is to encourage teachers to tell their own stories. Sharing stories and listening with empathy builds connections among the listeners. The public does not often hear personal stories about the realities of teaching, and these stories add essential data to discussions about education policy.

I have been teaching at Wonderland Avenue Elementary School in the beleaguered LAUSD for 16 years, 12 of them as a support provider for newer teachers. I love my job. I know from my own experience that teachers are too isolated. We need to talk to each other, tell our stories and connect. In Council sessions, that's what we do.

"Oh good, we're doing Council today," one young teacher comments when he sees circles of chairs in our conference room. Today we are talking about a recent moment of joy - realizing every student is absorbed in a book during independent reading; a visit from an alumnus to thank a teacher for his help; the quality of fifth grade presentations on the digestive system. Teachers from an inner-city downtown high school tell us about the Saturday field trip they organized, a nearly seven-mile walk from their neighborhood to a famous tourist destination. "Does one family live there?" asked one student, who had never seen a private, single-family home. "I'm going to stay in school so we can live like this one day too," another told his teacher.

We hear about challenges, too, such as a conversation with a promising middle-schooler who confides she is pregnant and will leave school. We wince as one teacher comments on her annual Reduction in Force notices - "I feel like a number." Another teacher has changed schools due to RIFs every year of the six she has been teaching, but says, "I lost my job and packed my boxes, but I didn't stop hoping - I can't imagine doing anything else."

We know that it is vital to make opportunities to hear what matters to our students--this practice is at the heart of healthy school communities. At my school, our students write each day about small moments in their lives and the things that matter. Student storytelling helps us get to know each other, to care, to note what we have in common and respect the differences. Teachers need to model this relationship-building when we meet together, and so should principals and administrators.

New teachers arriving for BTSA seminars are often exhausted and preoccupied when they arrive, but as the hour progresses, we hear groaning and laughing. The atmosphere of the room transforms. From hearing hundreds of urgent stories, I know teachers want to feel respected and appreciated. Both new and veteran teachers believe that the quest to improve our craft doesn't end, and we share the need to connect, to collaborate, to feel that our work has value. I have often heard someone speak in Council and gained a new understanding of the values they bring to teaching.

Making time to hear teachers' stories has a two-fold positive impact: Like listening to students, listening to teachers promotes healthier school cultures; and it also offers a window into what matters to teachers and what teachers think can and should be done to improve schools. How do we mend schools and build school cultures that can nurture great teaching? Listen to teachers.

Julia Mason has taught in Los Angeles Unified School District for 16 years.