How Teachers Talk

This evening I have been part of a round robin of e-mails. Technically, I’ve only been copied on the e-mails since the matter of the discussion involved one of my instructors; nonetheless, I’ve followed with rapt attention. Not just as a supervisor, but also as someone who rarely sees instructors from different departments, all of whom have different philosophies, interact and communicate to try to solve a problem.

The problem is this: a student who “arrived” in class late in the semester (recall that I teach entirely online, and so arrival is a relative term), and who has had various complications during the last weeks – I gather she was sick, and that a nephew was killed in a car accident – is now asking for an Incomplete so she might have a good chance at passing her classes. Three separate classes, three different instructors. Each of the classes, of course, places unique demands on its students; likewise, each of the instructors has his or her own requirements for satisfactory performance.

Apparently, the student has not done well in either her social sciences or her physical sciences class; however, she’s done satisfactorily in her English class. During the flurry of e-mails this evening, some of which half-accused the student of indolence and dishonesty (the student was “confused” – not my quotation marks – and the nephew’s death was apparently convenient to missing a make-up test), the English instructor has contributed very little, saying that the student is welcome to her Incomplete if she really can see no other alternative. The Social Science and Physical Science instructors have been less accommodating, primarily – and not unreasonably – based on the student’s performance in their respective classes.

As much as I’d like to ask the questions that burn in my brain about whether or not the sciences courses are designed truly with the student in mind, or whether there might be reason for confusion and poor performance, I’m much more interested in this other question that’s picking at me: When we have to, how do teachers talk to each other?

In my experience, teachers like to be more autonomous even than artists. In fact, I can only think of one other group who enjoys more self-authority than teachers, and that’s parents. Generally, we don’t like to be told what to do with our “kids,” and I’ve heard seniority, philosophy, even wages thrown around the room in order to defend an instructor’s authority when that authority is threatened. I have been at peaceful conference breakfasts and confronted by an instructor who believes she is the only one who knows how to teach that cornerstone of composition, the research paper. What’s more, she insists, “if you ask me to teach it any other way, I just don’t think I’ll be able to.”

Not that I can’t sympathize. I absolutely can. Please, please never tell me I have to teach Intro to Creative Writing based on someone else’s syllabus! Please never ask me to use quizzes in my composition classes! And rubrics (with a nod to Mr. Burrell)… You may as well ask me to clean toilets for a living (which, by the way, I’ve done). The point here is not whether or not I can sympathize with instructors who don’t want to teach in any way besides their own. The point here is that I don’t know what happens when these folks who are so used to being autonomous suddenly have to cohere.

It’s been almost painful this evening, watching the two sciences instructors verbally wrestle the student to the ground while the English teacher vanished into the e-mail background (perhaps feeling a bit verbally wrestled himself). When the dean finally stepped in, hours after the volley began, it was to recommend a solution; but until she made this recommendation, the fusillade showed no signs of letting up.

The example here is a hard one, because there has been no real resolution; there’s been only a confused flow, staunched by a verdict from on high. Not unlike a playground tussle nipped in the bud by the playground monitor (that pesky adult you have to obey no matter who you think is right or wrong).

It’s only gratitude I have for Clay Burrell (and now Mr. Watson, too) for letting so many people know I was out here in the ether writing my little fingers off; but to be frank, I find myself wondering now that I’m out in the public sphere talking about teaching: how do teachers talk? When I wasn’t a supervisor of them (of us?), I tended not to talk to many of my colleagues – that is, until I found those colleagues whose philosophies agreed with mine. As a supervisor, I find that expressing my philosophies in an attempt to get dialogue going only results in murmurs of agreement or online silence.

I’m like any teacher I know. I want to talk about teaching – how would I not want to? – and I also don’t want my mind changed. Beginner’s mind? Sure, no problem, in the isolation of my own classroom. In a crowd full of otherwise-opinioned teachers? Hm.

Any thoughts from the ether?

Some Resources:

Corporate thoughts?


How Can Kids Do It?

Teachers Teaching Teachers


7 thoughts on “How Teachers Talk

  1. I have realized that I am more tolerant of my students who have different points-of-view than of my colleagues. Like you, “I tended not to talk to many of my colleagues – that is, until I found those colleagues whose philosophies agreed with mine.” Maybe it’s a result of having to be “the expert” when you’re teaching, and getting used to being “the one who knows how to do it the right way”. Maybe it’s just difficult to discuss something you care deeply about with someone who appears to hold very different views, especially if you have to see them regularly for who knows how many years!

  2. Hi there,
    Thanks so much for your thoughtful post!
    I agree with you that we teachers struggle to talk to one another. I meet once a week with a group of other teachers from various disciplines and so often when discussing the importance of grades, the necessity of vocab tests, the role of the computer in the classroom I find myself fidgety in my seat and mute.
    I think:
    “Well I’m stuck in this meeting now, but I can get back to doing things my way in my classroom soon enough.”
    In Carmen’s infamous words: “Screw you guys, I’m going home!”

    However–exposure helps. Just forcing myself to listen to these discussions, even if I can’t bring myself to utter a word, allows other teachers ideas to seep through my thick skull.

    The things I run from most (videotaping a class, making time to sit in on other teachers classes, and inviting other teachers to observe my class) are what I need to run towards. As soon as I get that fidgety feeling I know that it is because my beliefs are under question. That in its self is worth my attention.

  3. This is such a huge question, not only, I think, for negotiating a situation such as the one you describe, but for adopting schoolwide initiatives, fostering collaboration, and working together across disciplines in the best interest of students.
    I’m not sure it’s the same situation, but I thought you’d be interested in a conversation that happened last year when my school first introduced blogging. The link will take you to my Department Chair’s blog post with comments:

  4. I really resonate with the statement “teachers like to be more autonomous even than artists”- as a music teacher, it’s amazing to watch the folded arms, gritted teeth and the “I dare you show me something new…” look from a roomful of artists and musicians at a professional development meeting. The hostility is thick and I try to avoid these meetings as much as possible.

    At what point as “professionals” did we decide to stop learning, or act like we know everything? I think fear is the motivating link in regards to unhealthy discourse among teachers: fear of looking stupid, of being incompetent, of change, and just plain failure. If we spent more thinking about our profession as a journey we take together, maybe our fears could be relieved…

  5. I talk easily with those I share views with, even if its not all of them. We eat lunch as departments, so I see and talk to other social studies teachers all the time. Often on non-professional topics, of course, its lunch. We do technically have common planning with our same subject teachers (I have planning at the same time as other world history teachers) but whether or not people take advantage of it depends a LOT on personality. Some of us are perfectly willing to share with others but not interested in change ourselves, some are loaners, and some are always looking for new ideas.

    I think a lot of my reluctance to take from others in my building is that so many of them are practically Luddites and I am trying to make better use of technology in my practice. I want a smartboard and they ask how is that better than overheads? What can we even talk about? Which is frustrating, because so many of them know so much more than me in other ways.

    I think there’s a lot of fear, as mystro2b said. A chance to talk with others about how we can change our practice sounds like a chance to judge and be told we’re not good enough. No one likes that.

  6. Hi everyone,
    Wow, a lot of really great responses here. Thank you all for taking the time! Let’s see if I can formulate some kind of answer…

    I was, I suppose, a little surprised to see how common a concern this is (although the teacher-to-teacher dynamic seems to present in different ways). I think Ms. Davis captured it best for me. I sit in meetings like the ones she describes pretty regularly, and I often want to squirm down in my seat until my eyes are level with the table… which would shortly thereafter be followed by playing with my food, I’m sure, or chewing on my pencil.

    I was happy to hear that Penelope feels pretty darn comfortable talking to her colleagues, at least until their Luddite streaks surface. Technology is a particular sticking point, I think, but really on both sides of the smartboard. As an entirely online teacher, I find the lack of interest or concern with pedagogy just as terrifying as Penelope finds her colleagues fear of the unknown, expensive, or otherwise “smart.”

    Once again, though, no real resolutions here. Chris Watson’s observation is pretty sobering: this is an issue for the construction and delivery of education on every level. How do we bring instructors together, most of whom have differing viewpoints on instruction and pedagogy, to create a seamless, cohesive educational experience for our students?

    In the spirit of beginner’s mind, I would ask: do we need to? As Americans, we tend to believe that diversity is a good thing (while simultaneously encouraging homogeny), so perhaps an institution that operates under a theory of a kind of (this syntax is no mistake) pedagogy of chaos, of disruption rather than cohesion, would actually prove to be the most successful? Would our students be able to survive an environment where no attempts at homogenous pedagogy were made? Would all fall into dissolution? Could a perpetually decomposing pedagogy work?

    Maybe this sounds terrifically horrible, this idea. Or maybe it’s exactly in keeping with our move into a less controlled, necessarily less safe, but ultimately more public and available world? What if, as Chris Watson’s Department Chair ponders, school isn’t a place of shelter, but a place of exposure?

    And here’s another thought to stack on that one (or those several): if, in a pedagogy of disruption, teachers tended toward celebrating instead of resisting their colleagues’ alternate veiwpoints and practices, what role could/would/should students play in their own educations? Once we disrupt this idea of a single important authority in the room (because, at least theoretically, we’d share our authority with the other authorities marching about in front of chalkboards), then don’t we invite students into their own kind of authority?

    Show of hands for how many of us want our students teaching us how to teach. Anyone, anyone?

    Which is better? This frightening new world of a pedagogy in flux, or sitting through meetings gritting our teeth?


  7. I missed this party, sorry. Too busy. And rushed. Damn. I mean darn.

    Three things:
    1. (Off topic: please find me on Twitter. I’m cburell. It’s how I talk to teachers. One way, anyway.)

    2. I love letting students have input on how I teach. I set up an anonymous Moodle username and password (Alfie Anonymous – cheesy moment when I chose that name, but so what), and tell students to all use it to give 24/7 feedback on how our course is working for them. I respond to these to either agree, compromise, or “veto” – at least if they can’t rebut to change my mind. And they seem to respect me more for this. And this has such metacognitive value for all.

    I can’t recommend highly enough the value of having Alfie in your classes too.

    3. Maybe it’s because I was an ESOL-in-the-Mainstream team teacher in Shanghai for my first two or three years of teaching; or maybe it’s because my fairly direct (but good-willed; just no-nonsense) personality requires the concomitant ability to UN-ruffle feathers by inviting people I anger for walks outside the building to have a sit and talk things gently through – I don’t know. But I’ll say that I love talking shop with teachers.

    But I teach a stand-alone class this year, and don’t have to compromise.

    Last year, though, I collaborated with Chris Watson on the other side of the globe, and Jason Spivey on the other side of the hall, and found it good bloody fun.

    Like getting together to jam in the basement. Only we were talking “Slam Teaching,” in essence.

    Man I like your blog. Glad Chris found it. I like Chris too.

    And I’m sounding as whacked as Taylor the Teacher on an uppity day.

    I’d better sign off. 🙂

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