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Teaching in a Tower of Babel

Last week’s teacher workday, held on Election Day, marked a first for my school: We participated in a campus-wide professional development program. The day underscored how difficult – and how important – teaching and learning about about teaching and learning can be.

My school is one of three schools now occupying a single building. Our students wear different uniforms, our hallways are painted different colors, and because of staggered start and dismissal times, I rarely run into my colleagues who work in the rooms above and below me. And yet our schools also have a great deal in common: We serve similar populations of students and are experiencing the unique growing pains of being new schools. It follows then that we have a great deal to learn from one another.

This is the spirit that infused last week’s professional development: learning from each other and making connections with teachers from other schools in the building. Each school hosted and facilitated a 90-minute workshop. The workshops varied in content and facilitation-style, echoing the different cultures of our schools. For example, a few of the students from my school hosted a presentation about our student-led conferences, and then another school offered a seminar on integrating literacy into all subjects through deliberate curriculum planning. In the afternoon I watched as colleagues, some I’ve worked with for years and some I had just met that morning, did jumping jacks and labeled body parts with Post-it notes as part of a workshop on engaging kinesthetic learners.

There was a common drive to get better at our craft; to reach more children and to do so with greater efficiency. As usual, some of the most illuminating moments of professional development were unscripted, the informal conversations with other teachers about working with young people and craft. Later in the day, as I thought about the different workshops it occurred to me that each school presented its own set of answers to the same questions: What is school for? How do kids learn?

Inspired by the questions and intrigued by the search for their answers, I am also frustrated. Jargony edu-speak (which GothamSchools editors often help me try to avoid), turns out to be not only specific to the profession, but localized to each school. How can this be? During the second workshop of the day, groups were tasked with defining literacy. I was amazed at how the same term held nuanced and different meanings from school to school. How can we have created a system of schools and teachers so isolated that the ways we talk about teaching and learning vary from school to school, and even from floor to floor?

There might be some strength in this variability, providing space for the development of many different approaches and programs so that the best can ultimately emerge. But I’m uncomfortable with the current yardsticks we’re using the measure best – namely high-stakes tests taken only a few times a year. Talking is the first step to sharing best practices. Different languages slow down the spread of best-practices.

Teachers need to talk to each other more. We need to get better at talking when we do. It occurs to me that the only reason I share meanings (and practices) with terms like literacy, or assessment, is because I spend a lot of time thinking, talking, learning, and refining my ideas and implementation around both with my colleagues within my school. Furthermore, the time invested in the act of defining collectively these words in definition and practice is the aspect that leads to stronger instruction. The variability of the New York City public school system means that it’s a great place to learn about teaching. Now if we can just leverage that strength so that city schools are a great place for students to learn as well.

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