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Engaging Teachers: Supporting teachers so they can do their best work for students

Updated: Jul 19, 2020

I was getting ready to reply to a tweet sharing a great, practical idea for this maybe in-person, maybe virtual school year when it dawned on me that I had been so busy with the raging debates about school reopening that I really hadn’t started thinking about or setting goals for the new school year. There’s only seven business days before I’m back in the classroom. Usually by this time I’ve done some intense online PD, collab'd with my department, prepped resources and made some classroom purchases. The times I have sat down to plan, I’ve found myself worried, easily distracted, and questioning the point of planning when so much is unknown. So I dug in. What do I need in order to be able to do this job? And not just how do I “do this job,” but do the work of inspiring the young people that will look to me to model the commitment I expect from them?

Committed to Education
Committed to Education

When we look at how educators engage in work, the Schlechty Center sees educators as fully engaged when they are committed to:

  1. the beliefs and values of their institution;

  2. their colleagues, as evidenced through their collaboration and “collective passion;” and

  3. their work, as a task which interests, challenges, and satisfies.

Teaching will never NOT challenge me. It’s the principal reason I picked this profession over the ones my family advised me to pursue instead. Each day, lesson, and child brings a renewed sense of urgency to meet the needs of my learners in that moment, in that context. Tomorrow, next month, or next year I will still feel that way because teaching is dynamic and learning can only happen as long as you can connect with those children on that day. It is because of this I don’t particularly stress about “my plan,” because I know my content, and I know my teaching is more about responding to my students than getting students to respond to me.

Just as my colleagues are committed to this work because they find it satisfying, we are committed to each other because collaboration makes us better at what we do. As with any professional team, our varied talents with technology, communication, innovation, or even project management mean that we can accomplish more success through interdependence than if we all try to tackle the same challenges with only our individual skills and tools. I thought I collaborated extensively before school closure, but our sudden change in circumstance and lack of time, tools, or training forced all of us to really rely on one another in new ways. Even after the school year ended, educators have continued to prepare resources, participate in professional development, and critically reflect on what the pandemic has meant and will mean to education.

The collective frustration of educators now is not because of their commitment (or lack thereof) to their work. Nor is it a lack of “collective passion” for coming together in the name of students. I believe our mere compliance, retreatism, or outright rebellion is a reflection of our commitment to our beliefs about education. Does our institution believe in the fundamental importance of safety to learning? Do we believe our institution is moving in a direction that will ensure equity and access for all learners? Is our institution committed to acknowledging and dismantling systemic racism? Are the decision makers committed to the needs of students and teachers, or are they beholden to other idols?

One of the descriptors for educators and systems in “Rebellion,” the lowest level of engagement, states, “Our culture is one of fear.”

I’m afraid for my health. I’m afraid for my students. I’m afraid for my children. I’m afraid for my colleagues. I’m afraid of the amount of time I have and continue to invest in serving others, while managing financial insecurity. I’m afraid of making the wrong choice and speaking up at the wrong time or in the wrong place. I’m afraid my leaders don’t hear me, or don’t want to hear me. I’m afraid the public can’t see me. I’m afraid we won’t confront racism, or sexism, or poverty and make any meaningful difference.

Fearful teachers cannot be fully engaged in their work, and if teachers are not fully engaged in their work, how can we expect our children to even have a chance at being fully engaged in learning.

I am committed- to my work, to my colleagues, to my belief in education. For me to serve our children, I need you to be committed to me. If we want teachers to do their best work for students, it’s time to assess our values and then stand by them.

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