By: Lorna Baniaga-Lee
It’s Thursday, 11 A.M. on another hot and humid day. The three of us, team content teachers, are looking forward to the long awaited weekend. It was a challenging week for all of us, our students included. As we sit to eat our lunch, we casually talk about our families, which leads our conversation about a particular student who seemed removed the last few days.
During first period, my class, she came in late-- again. Just like she has every day, so far this week. She has that faraway, glazed look and only responded when spoken to. Jamie, another teacher, shares how she seemed more focused on the new math concept they are learning, but was still distant. Renè mentions how she chose to work alone on an assignment-- very unlike her. Jamie recalls the red scratches on her arm that he noticed. Our lunchtime conversation becomes about our next steps: I will talk to the student immediately after school today to ask her what is going on. Jamie will contact the counselor to give him a heads up of the situation and request additional support. Renè will call home and let parents know that we are concerned. We end our lunch with an unspoken understanding how we will help our student. It is this deep relationship we built as colleagues over the last ten years that helps us get through our long days so we can help our students get through their long days.
We teach in isolation. Our classroom is our world. We have the power to create the environment and space that we want. In doing this, though, we begin building walls from others as well. It is easy to engulf ourselves in our lesson plans, assignments, and our students’ lives. We may not do it intentionally but when faced with prioritizing our time, we will put connecting with other teachers last on our list. While that may seem effective because we think we are focusing all of our energies within this world we created, it can get lonely and can lead to complacency.
Such complacency can lead to ineffective teaching. Creating and being part of a professional learning network, or PLN is a crucial piece for both students and teacher to thrive. We need to surround ourselves with others who will be that sounding board, who will be that resident expert, who will be our cheerleader and most of all who will be a friend.
I have been fortunate to be surrounded by amazing colleagues who are a part of my educational journey. They play just as much of a role in my students’ successes as I do-- the immediate success of winning an essay contest, the academic achievement of graduating with honors from high school, the impactful accomplishment of being the first in their family to graduate from college or being commissioned as a Naval Officer.
Ironically, teachers’ days are filled with so many “things”: fulfilling mandates, meeting due dates, attending various mandatory meetings-- all of which are supposed to increase student success. Prioritizing our energy to meet those expectations puts relationship building last on our list. It is a challenge for administrators to carve out time in the school year to balance what needs to be done and what should be done to provide meaningful and purposeful opportunities.
Some teachers may be lucky to have an administrator who will invest time to create a supportive culture for all; however for those who are not as fortunate, I encourage you to take advantage of any occasion that allows you to make connections with other teachers in and out of campus.
If you are a new teacher and your school, district or union organizes an event for you, make time to go. It may seem like another thing on your already filled plate, but there are benefits to these events. As a new teacher being surrounded by others who recognize and empathize what you are going through can be the greatest gift that one can receive in the beginning of their teaching career.
Additionally, seek out professional development sessions that interest you. Meeting and collaborating with other teachers is a great way to exchange ideas and share similar experiences. Being around other educators who are open to new ideas and are excited to grow as a professional can be very inspirational.
Lastly, don’t allow time and distance to be your biggest obstacle in making these connections and building relationships with other teachers. Utilize social media like Twitter and Facebook as your professional medium to exchange ideas and be inspired by others. Seek out professional development that can be done virtually. It is just as effective as face to face meetings. As teachers, we teach in isolation, but in this age of technology, isolation is now a choice.
Our goal as educators is to improve student success, no matter what it takes. Success doesn’t just mean grades or graduation rates, but creating a network of teachers that know how to care for our students. But it is important to know that in order to build successful students, we need to build effective teachers. Strengthening teacher-to-teacher relationships should be a part of that foundation. Making connections is fundamental. Engaging in professional dialogues and working collaboratively on meaningful projects will bring greater value to our work. Build teacher-to- teacher relationships to improve student success, no matter what it takes. It will make a difference, just like it did it with our student.
Lorna Baniaga-Lee is National Board Certified and has been an English teacher for the last 20 years at James Campbell High School in Ewa Beach, Hawaii. In addition to being a classroom teacher, she leads the school’s Induction and Mentoring program to support beginning teachers and provides professional development courses to help build teacher leaders. She is also a 2016 Hope Street Group Fellow.