In Praise of Colleagues

When I reread my last post, it hit me like a ton of bricks: I had left out something important. It’s easy to overlook something so pervasive that you come to take it for granted. My mother goes to a new doctor, and forgets to mention the mobility and visual impairments that define so much of her present life (along with her continuing eagerness and whimsy.) I write about resources for understanding student writers, and don’t actually mention the sturdiest resource of all–my peers.

After school, teachers gather in each others’ rooms and talk shop. Not every day—there are a few other things to get done: meetings and parent conferences to attend, notes to write on the whiteboards, math manipulatives to locate, photocopies to make, plain old ordinary messes to clean. Still, at the end of the afternoon, for many grateful years I could go stand in Susan Doty’s doorway. ‟Help!” I could yelp. ‟What’s going on with this kid? Why is he so afraid of writing?” I knew she would stop and think carefully about her answer, giving me the same kindness she gave children.

farmer in Crete croppedWhen Marian Hazard taught her own class, before she became the school’s garden wizard, she would wander down to my room and share insights provoked by the most recent book she was reading, about how to help children move forward as thinkers and writers. She often had more patience than me, for reading about education, and, later, for the work of cultivating both plants and gardeners. I gained, always, from sharing what she discovered.

For a while, Kate Keller taught in a room very near my room. When she was trying to describe a breakthrough in the writing of one of her students, she could easily invite me across the hall and produce evidence. ‟Look!” she would say, pulling a file from a pile of folders. ‟Can you believe this?”

four potsOur endeavor, in teaching writing, and in all things: to meet kids where they were, to travel with them as far as they could travel, to help them recognize and celebrate triumphs, and then move forward again—all that was collaborative, in a way not necessarily visible to students or parents.

A thriving faculty conversation is a living thing, like yeast in good bread dough. Over the years I came to see how hard it must be, how delicate, for a principal or head of school to trust and support and strengthen that conversation–and how essential.

three gourdsI also learned that I had to nourish myself, because any individual teacher has to punt, again and again. On the September day when I guided a new class through their first writing fluency exercise, and one child sat in her place at one of the tables and wept for the entire five minutes, and beyond, while everyone else counted the words they’d just written—on that day, like most teachers most of the time, I was the only adult in the room. The student had only recently entered my school; nobody knew her well. So she and I shared something: both of us were stumped. I wasn’t just stumped; I felt awful.

I didn’t scold, since I knew that she was doing the best she could. We talked briefly in the privacy of the hallway. I told her that I wasn’t worried. (I lied.) I told her what was true: that I would ask her to do the same thing again the next day—to brainstorm ideas, to choose one, to write for that little chunk of time that I knew could feel like forever. She would have another chance to try.

redblue turtleI also told her that she could do what I’d done in college: write about why she couldn’t write. If she had to—and she wouldn’t be the first to resort to this at least once—she could write one word again and again, until the second word came to her, and the third.

The next day she did brainstorm and choose; she did write. Not a lot, but some, and that was all the exercise asked for. She went on, that year, to write some pieces that took my breath away. ‟Look!” I said, to whatever colleague I shanghaied that afternoon. ‟Can you believe this?”

I’m telling this story, before I really describe that exercise (next time, probably), because I don’t think there’s any guaranteed approach, exercise, bypass strategy, or technological support for writing difficulties–and because, in my experience, the best source of wisdom, the best source of quality control, came from my fellow teachers. Also the best source of energy to keep going.

Knowing the results of testing or external observation can help, but parents and teachers both can easily make too much of such things. We need to know, by asking the child and by intuiting with all our senses, what challenges a child faces; we also need to offer the bypass strategies that can help. Ultimately, though, we have to do the same basic thing again and again: ask a child to keep trying, and give her credit for everything it takes to try.

I loved my school and my colleagues because our support for each other, so consistently, was support for our highest mission. We supported each other not by blaming the child—even though that’s sadly common in situations in which teachers are hard-pressed (and teachers tend to be hard-pressed.)

pinecone with mushrooms croppedWhen Julie Olsen, having seen me in the hall with a student, asked what was going on, she wasn’t looking for a chance to commiserate about those awful kids we were stuck with. If she knew the child, she always helped me see the world of the classroom from that child’s point of view. If she didn’t know the child, she asked questions that would help organize whatever I’d been able to observe. She laughed her wonderful raucous laugh with a particular twist that acknowledged the profound challenge of teaching—but it was never a laugh at a kid’s expense.

The colleagues I’ve named taught near me, literally or in the sequence of the school’s groupings, for many years. Others, not named here, taught older or younger children in other corners of the school, and helped me understand where my students were coming from, and where they were headed.

We supported each other by honoring each others’ efforts to know each child; by holding firm, together, on the issue of class size, so that knowing the individual child was possible; and by understanding, always, for each other, that all our hearts were doing hard work.

Last but never least, in moments grabbed from the ongoing intensity of our lives, we cheered each other on by sharing our euphoria about progress. I could not have asked for more.

wire sculptures narrowerThe sketches are in thanks and praise for another teacher, Marjorie Weed, who came to volunteer at Touchstone after a long career as a public high school art teacher. She helped me encourage my students as creators and composers, by working with them herself, while I watched and learned along. Mrs. Weed inspired me to give kids time for sketching during our settling time, almost every morning. I was her “oldest and most improved student,” one of many who still value her influence.

4 thoughts on “In Praise of Colleagues

  1. LOVE your drawings, Polly. You are indeed a Polly-talented. And I totally relate to the necessary, mutual nurturing of colleages. That was a cornerstone of my teaching career. I doubt that I could have survived those 33 years without their humor, insight, wisdom and support. When we came into the MTA (from our early years as an alternative program under the mayor’s office), we even got a paragraph writeen into our contracts, ‘allowing’ us to work longer hours so that we could continue with our five hours of afterschool meeting time to develop program, case-conference students, and generally communicate with one another.

    • Thanks so much for appreciating the drawings–I was nervous about including them, but for various reasons photos weren’t going to work. I’m learning so much about how to scan and scale and position illustrations–with still a ways to go!

      And I’m chuckling over the idea of being “allowed” to work extra hours. It’s so good, always, to hear about your different / similar teaching situation.

  2. As always, love your column Polly. I’m struck by not just having the time to talk and consult with your colleagues but also the non-judgmental quality of their (and your) response. Letting the assessment/judgment that forms in the mind take second place to the actual present opens up the possibility of movement. Sketch time first thing in the morning is just brilliant, as it provides a space for experimentation, for growth, without any assessment. Not that much can’t be learned from those sketches, from what happened in the notebook, but the present tense of doing, of sketching, was removed from judgement. That’s the whole theory behind Peter Elbow’s free writing, letting space for just doing something take first priority — and only later thinking about the ways it might change, the ways it might be evaluated, the ways it might point to future interests. Love the drawings, love your willingness to reveal yourself, love the doing alongside the kids, alongside colleagues.

    Since the world can clamor so hungrily for assessment, for solution, I’m in full agreement that it can seem dangerous to allow any activity to continue without immediate judgment, perhaps particularly the conversations of colleagues & students, who, in that doing present, must navigate their own feelings, awkwardnesses, negations — without judgment — in order for change to happen.

    • Such a wonderful comment; so much to chew on. I love your perspective on “the doing present” and can feel in that exactly what we so often have wanted to offer. Not that judgment doesn’t have its role, but you’re right–it’s that space stepped even a little aside from judgment, even just briefly, that can mean so much.

      I’ve been thinking about you because I was so moved by the multi-generational singing on Friday, and I’m thinking about a future post about singing at Touchstone. Way back to Pat Budde!

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