The public school system in the United States is set up to reward competition in many ways. Students are ranked, scored, and graded; their behavior and academic progress put up on the walls and tracked using color-coded charts. Sadly, teachers don’t escape these value judgements. In many public school systems, teachers are monitored and tracked just as obsessively as their students, with administrators and businessmen seeking to attach a numerical measure of value to judge every teacher’s worth. Teachers are assigned labels based on test scores, sometimes resulting in bizarre situations where teachers are evaluated solely on the scores of students they never taught; for the non-testing grades of early elementary school, this unfair system can result in many very good teachers going overlooked, or even leaving the field of education entirely.
The truth is, if we want our students to meet these goals; if we want them to be happy and successful at school and in life, and yes, even if we want them to score well on those critical tests that are so much the focus of our school year, we won’t get there by engaging in competition. Even young children can tell you that in any contest, there are winners and losers. And most teachers would tell those very same young children not to call any of their classmates a “loser.” We all know that that kind of name-calling hurts feelings. The same thing that is true for young students is also true for adults: being forced to compete or measure up to some arbitrary goal based on other’s judgments produces very little motivation and creates a lot of resentment instead. It actually runs counter to the goal of producing excellence in the learning environment, by any measure.
Of course, when you ask a good teacher what kinds of qualities they want to instill in their young students, you’ll hear a lot about the kinds of traits that make up a person of good character: kindness, cooperation, respect. After that, you might hear some academic goals: a student who can read fluently, or who asks a lot of intelligent questions. Many teachers will say that their goal is to inspire children to love learning; they want their students to genuinely enjoy reading, or science, or to see the beauty and usefulness in math. Some teachers, aware that their jobs may depend on it, will mention something about test scores near the end of a very long list. Most won’t mention them at all.
Just as our students all have different strengths, weaknesses, interests, and goals, we teachers are the same way! When we work in competition with each other instead of working with each other as a team, we lose out on a lot of great ideas. Not only that, we lose out on the chance to be the best teachers we can be, simply because we aren’t getting support from the people most qualified to offer it: the teachers who work with the same students we do, in the same school, and often even at the same grade level. Newer teachers especially can benefit from the kinds of mentoring relationships offered when teachers work together. Such a system does not have to be very formally structured; often, it is enough to know that another teacher has encountered a similar problem in the past and probably has an idea of how to overcome it.
Just as we often place students in learning groups because we know that doing so allows each child to shine, we can take advantage of similar arrangements among teachers. Not every teacher has a passion for creating creative and colorful classroom displays or bulletin boards, but if you can find the one teacher in your grade level who does, you can get ideas from her. You might be able to offer something you’re great at in exchange, like an organizational system that can keep track of the endless piles of required paperwork, or some new ideas to breathe new life into old and tired homework assignments, projects, or required reading lists. When teachers work together as a team, they not only work better, it’s likely that they also have more fun. When everyone knows they can count on their fellow teachers to support them, they’re more likely to be willing to lend a hand, and staff meetings will become more relaxed because the people attending them are genuinely willing to spend time together. How often do teachers approach grade level team meetings as just one more thing that they have to do? It’s easy to think of those meetings as a time stealer, where you are forced to sacrifice something else you could be getting done. And if everyone on the grade level is in competition with each other, that’s often exactly what those meetings become: time stealers. But just think what would happen if you knew going into those meetings that you would be able to both give and receive help, ideas, and support. You’d be a lot more willing to spend a few minutes – even an hour or two – talking to other teachers if you knew for certain that you’d leave the meeting with fewer problems than when you entered, wouldn’t you?
Teachers have a lot to do already, but collaborating with other teachers doesn’t have to be complicated. Just try this: the next time you go into a staff meeting, enter with one problem you would like help to solve, and one idea you would like to share with your fellow teachers. And ask everyone else on your grade level team to do the same.