Teachers Work in Isolation
“In general when we look at what makes people happy and effective at work, it’s being able to spend time with a close group of people. You need to structure work in such a way that people have those opportunities,” according to Ben Waber, president and CEO of Sociometric Solutions, a workplace consulting company.
In her “Workstation” column in the New York Times, Phyllis Korkki adds, “Taking frequent breaks allows worker to recharge their internal energy. Individual breaks – a walk around the block or quiet time alone in a conference room – enable a worker to return, refreshed, to arduous pursuits.”
Consider the teacher. A walk around the block? Quiet time alone in a conference room? A lot of teachers – elementary in particular – are lucky if they can find someone to cover for them for a two-minute run to the bathroom.
When I was a middle school teacher years ago, we were all divided into teams, each composed of an English, math, reading, and social studies teacher. We had about 100 students assigned to us and a 4-hour block of time during which we could schedule our respective classes. We had daily common planning time. I consider it my Golden Age of Teaching.
It turns out, of course, that my experience was not common. A recent study by Scholastic and the Gates foundation found that teachers collaborate with colleagues less than 5% of their day. While the study also found that almost 90% of teachers believe that finding time to collaborate with one another is essential to retaining good teachers, the majority of them teach, plan, and reflect on their practices alone.In addition, numerous recent studies conclude that isolation of new teachers is detrimental to their learning their craft and a leading cause of leaving the profession.
So if we know that time to work collaboratively is crucial to developing effective teachers, how does merit pay fit into the equation? Jeffrey Mirel and Simona Goldin, both professors at the University of Michigan, consider the question in an Atlantic article entitled, “Alone in the Classroom: Why Teachers Are Too Isolated.” Mirel and Goldin believe that Common Core is a step in the right direction in that it will align scope and sequence and teachers can collaborate on common lessons provided they have the time to do so. But, they ask, if teachers are competing with one another for merit pay, why would they want to collaborate with one another?
I think they make an academic point as befitting their work, but honestly, I think teachers would collaborate regardless of merit pay if they had the opportunity to do so. Working together improves everyone’s work and provides teachers with greater intellectual engagement. I’m not sure merit pay will ever work in the relatively flat organizational structure that exists in a typical school anyway.
What is ironic and unfortunate about the reform movement is that efforts to “professionalize” teachers to make them more effective have focused on metrics like test scores and calibrations of teaching performance. Collaboration – working together to improve instruction – is never mentioned, as if teachers’ professional knowledge doesn’t matter. Instead, teachers continue the decades-old pattern of closing the door and working in isolation.