Stormy Weather Ahead
Becky Bair teaches the intermediate grades in a Pennsylvania public school district. She’s passionate about incorporating technology as one of many tools to help students view learning as an exciting, lifelong endeavor. She writes the blog Teach ‘N’ Life, contributes to the group blog Voices from the Learning Revolution, and can be followed on Twitter @becky7274. In a series of posts here at MiddleWeb, she’ll write about school climate, teacher culture, and lessons learned about professional collaboration.
In my first post, I shared some of the story of our new intermediate school (grades 4-6) launch last fall and the concerns I and two of my colleagues had about the negative impact our initial schedule and student assignment plan had on some rising fourth graders and students with special needs.
Our story continues here.
After getting the administration on board with our teaming idea, our next step was to go to our grade level team and get them involved in the conversation. We were very excited to share our ideas with them. While the 12 classroom teachers and six itinerant teachers had never worked together prior to this year, we had come together pretty nicely. Sure, there were some philosophical differences that had yet to be hashed out, but if you accept Tuckman’s stages of group development, we had formed quite nicely. And we believed that people would be very open to talking about our teaming proposal and how it would benefit kids and adults.
We felt our proposal was a win-win situation for all. Students would be working with teachers whose instructional and management strengths matched both student needs and the subjects they would be asked to teach. Some students would also have fewer transitions and fewer teachers throughout the day, helping them feel more comfortable and confident.
After years of not having a voice, the adults would be in a better position to evaluate their teaching strengths and weaknesses and work with a team and students they felt were a good fit for them. Parents of the most challenged learners would have one contact person rather than three or four.
And the same would be true for our push-in teachers: Our ELL teacher, our math enrichment instructor, our autistic support teacher and our gifted teacher. Instead of having children scattered across all three teams, these teachers would have one team with whom they would work.
The storming phase begins
Even with all of these positives, we decided to first talk to our teammates individually or in small groups. Every group has more vocal individuals, and we wanted to make sure that each team member had the chance to listen as we shared all of our information. We also wanted to make sure that people who were not as comfortable speaking in large groups had the chance to ask questions or make comments.
So early one morning, with our main idea points neatly copied, the three of us headed out to talk to our respective groups and make plans for a large group discussion. The responses were not exactly what we had expected. I suppose Tuckman would say that we were beginning the “storming phase” for our group.
Our initial contact with our fourth grade teacher colleagues gave us a mixed bag of responses. Some people loved the idea. Some people really didn’t say much of anything. And some people got very, very angry. We assured each teacher that we were just introducing a possibility and that there would be group discussions about it so everybody could have a voice. Our goal was an open, honest conversation about strength-based assignments and what would work best for the kids.
“Open and honest” is not exactly what happened in the wake of our first sit-down chats. Stormy discussions, to which we were not invited, took place. The conversation often stopped as we walked into the room. We were blamed for “ruining” the positive spirit and the good year that our team was having. Our teaching methods were questioned in meetings where we were not in attendance.
All of this was terribly frustrating because we felt we’d done nothing wrong. Some people accused us of going behind their backs to administration. That was the furtherest thing from our minds. We simply believed there was no reason to bring the idea before the whole group and have everybody invest time and energy mulling it over IF there was no way any change could even happen.
Some other teachers felt that we were criticizing their teaching ability. How could we? Sadly, we don’t get to see each other teach, so we have no right and no basis for saying that anybody was a good, bad or mediocre teacher. And even if we were lucky enough to learn from each other through visitations, we would never judge our coworkers based on our time in their classrooms.
Trying some damage control
In response to many negative comments, each of us, individually, went and talked to people in an attempt to have open and honest communication. We apologized for making people feel as though we went around them to higher-ups — or that their abilities were being judged. We might have handled that better, we said. But that is all that we apologized for. We were acting in what we deeply believed was the best interest of the most vulnerable kids in our new school, and that is what we constantly reminded ourselves as we went through the remainder of a suddenly very prickly school year.
Additional meetings were held with our entire grade-level team and the original administrative team that we’d met with. People were not open and honest in the meetings, and at some meetings insults flew. It also seemed like very little got accomplished for a variety of reasons — the biggest one being a fear of change.
While our grade-level team could agree that groups of identified students should be on one team to best meet their needs — and to make things a bit easier for the teachers providing special services — little else got accomplished.
Even though it was evident to all involved that there were teachers working with identified students who didn’t have the skill set to best meet their needs, nobody would volunteer to move. “But I love my team!” “My team works so well together!” they said. Our mantra was: “It’s not about the adults, it’s about what’s best for the kids.”
As the end of the year rolled around, we still hadn’t made it through Tuckman’s storming stage. Even though we wanted teachers to have a voice, that didn’t end up happening because people at all levels struggled with and sometimes openly resisted the change process.
Next: Action from on high