Becoming Better Together: Re-Thinking The Faculty In-Service

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The academic summer vacation is a long, tranquil mix of relaxation and productivity. Murder mysteries vie for attention with monographs, time with family alternates with professional development, and the active badgers the contemplative to get up and out, exploring and doing. Active, we’re nagged by a feeling of intellectual irresponsibility, while contemplative hours feel physically slothful. For three months we strike an easy balance, made all the more sweet for being finite. And each August announces the end of the idyll with an ivory-colored envelope containing the beginning-of-year faculty meeting agenda.

Twenty years in education and I remain, embarrassingly, a child-like optimist about these meetings. I work with outstanding people at a truly excellent school. Surely our time will be used well and productively and we won’t be kept from our classrooms and planning for degrading,  time-wasting busy-work. I earnestly believe that this year we’ll emerge from our in-service time invigorated, inspired by our colleagues and ready to meet the new year as a collective force of indomitable, positive, intellectual and emotional energy.

And every year in my late-summer flip-flops, it dawns on my vacation-lazy mind that I’ve been naïve. For as I’d relaxed on the porch catching up on old issues of The New Yorker, an administrator labored under fluorescent lights to design a scheme for the ritual humiliation and degradation of faculty members as ineradicable as kudzu, inevitable as the rain, and always called a “valuable team-building activity.”

This year’s letter cut through my credulity in words that no tasteful ivory stationary could mitigate:

“Faculty Scavenger Hunt”

Dammit.

It could have been worse. In two decades of teaching I’ve endured roughly eleventy-billion team-building activities. I survived a faux “maker space” that required a table of six teachers to create….something….out of Styrofoam cups, pipe cleaners, and a small motor. A windmill. It had to be a windmill. Every one of the nine tables ended up with a pointless windmill and every one of them ended up in a landfill, forever. “Wasn’t that FUN!?” seemed to be the immediate purpose of the exercise, which in a larger sense, it turned out, was designed to get us to buy into the conversion of a big part of the school library into a maker space.

I’m hugely in favor of allowing kids the time and resources to tinker, but being forced to make something unique RIGHT NOW under limited time and then immediately show the results to your bosses for approval seemed exactly opposite to the point of creative tinkering, and everyone seemed to realize that except the designers of the activity. I would have appreciated just being told about the new maker space, shown what was available in it, and then maybe talked about its potential. You know, treated like an educated adult who can understand things.

I once participated in an obstacle course in which the teacher-participants were blindfolded during the entire event. (“Tasks are difficult when you lack direction!”).

There have been pair-and-share conversations too many to mention; they run together, but I recall always being cut off by the main speaker while my partner and I were amidst the most fruitful and interesting part of our discussion.

I was mercifully out of town on a family emergency when our entire division was subjected to the appalling appropriation of the Native American concept of the Medicine Wheel in an effort to identify four distinct “personality types” in the workplace. Evidently, my colleagues were forced to describe themselves as workplace eagles, bison, bears, or some sort of small rodent, and then discuss the weaknesses associated with their particular spirit animal.

I can’t even with that.

Can’t.

Even.

Spare Us From The Well-Intentioned.

It’s important to note that in most cases that I’ve experienced this sort of “collaboration,” I don’t think the intent was ever deliberately malicious, authoritarian, or controlling. Rather, these sorts of team-building activities are expressions of a particular sort of hierarchical culture present within many schools. They betray an earnest belief that because faculty members are the “subordinates” of administrators, they are essentially less capable, less professionally ambitious, and less reflective about education than their administrative leaders. Teachers must, therefore, be deliberately prompted by their superiors into reflection.

But a vast lacuna separates the way teachers and administrators view these collaborative endeavors. Deans and division heads, having “moved up” the professional ladder, tend to adopt the paternalistic attitude that informs quite a lot of internally-designed professional development. Teachers experience these activities as something imposed upon their time, but also their dignity and autonomy. “Look what I can make you do” is the received message.

Even worse than being a competent, educated, middle-aged professional forced into infantilizing activities that have no bearing on one’s work is that these activities demand overt cheerfulness.  It is never enough to simply participate in the scavenger hunt, one must remain relentlessly cheery and positive during its entirety or risk the assumption that one is not a team player and perhaps even does not adequately support the school and its mission.  It may seem hyperbolic to describe a scavenger hunt as ritualized humiliation, but it is a coerced activity and its demeaning nature reverberates through the culture of a school.  Teachers who are mistrusted are fearful, and fearful teachers can become defensive, which compromises their creativity.  So we swallow our dignity and smile through the obstacle course, scavenger hunt, or whatever else is demanded of us because we’re afraid to jeopardize our jobs, but each time, it diminishes us a little.  There are better, more genuine and productive  ways to foster collaboration and teamwork.

 

Making Space for Real Collegiality

If independent schools wish to promote real, meaningful collaboration and collegiality, rather than the ersatz camaraderie of the typical in-service, the place to begin is with the agenda.  School leaders must create time and space for teachers and administrators to have substantive, open-ended discussions.  Those discussions can be continued throughout the year, but beginning with a significant chunk of time prior to the start of school allows for major themes to emerge.  And it sends a strong message that collaboration is genuinely valued.

Relatively unhurried discourse among teachers in the same division can yield immensely positive results for teachers, parents, and students.  Teachers can be the most powerful, eloquent advocates of a school and its mission.  Nobody knows and cares for the students, curriculum, methodology, and programming the way teachers do, and a faculty is a group of people who are hugely invested in their work and their institutions. As a group, we value the autonomy we have in our classrooms while at the same time craving interaction with our peers.

Meaningful, ongoing discourse allows teachers to strengthen connections between subjects, hear what their colleagues are doing in their classrooms, and learn about effective techniques and technology.  It allows for mentoring relationships to develop organically, and allows teachers to support and inspire each other.

The scavenger hunt was a demeaning waste of time, but it was well-intentioned.  The good news is that well-intentioned leaders genuinely want to do better.  I will always remain hopeful for next year.

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