This post was contributed by current Mentor Teacher, Meagan Arango. It is part of a series on the Boulder Journey School Professional Qualities.
There was a time early in my teaching career when I felt deeply isolated. Each day I set up, cleaned up, and closed down my classroom by myself. I spent lonely nights and weekends hunched over my computer, planning lessons. Left alone with my thoughts, I suspect that sometimes I went too far. I began coming into school on Saturdays to prep. I used my free time to watch videos of myself, scrutinizing my teaching for errors. I spent hundreds of dollars purchasing books and toys and supplies. And during those lonely times, I felt a strong and mysterious aversion to seeking help from others. I felt that my success was up to me. My colleagues were friendly and supportive, of course, but our brief conversations were most often just exchanges of complaints. And the fact was that I cherished the few moments of solitude I had in my room–it was the only time during the long work day that I didn’t feel like a performer on stage.
This was my reality before I joined the staff of Boulder Journey School. My classroom was an island. I was the lone intrepid explorer, taming the wildernesses of early learning. I wonder now how many others have felt like I did–so all alone in a field that is, at its core, about relationships.
That is why, when given the opportunity to reflect on our school’s Professional Values, I felt compelled to begin with the quality that challenged me the most when I began the Teacher Education Program: Communication and Collaboration.
Communication & Collaboration – These qualities speak to your capacity for articulate and effective communication that will ultimately support your ability to work effectively with children and adults. You will know how to engage others, as well as who to engage. You will see value in the process of gaining the perspective of others and develop social and cross cultural skills that will enable you to better take on the perspective of the other. You will be able to clearly articulate and defend a vision for the future and how your work supports that vision. You will view teaching as a collaborative process among children and adults and understand that relationships are a cornerstone of education. You will take ownership for being responsive and proactive when difficult conversations are needed. Your approach to communicating and working with others will be inclusive and empathetic, and you will have a sense of intimacy that is translated to the children. You will also be effective in written communication.
For me, the key challenge here was understanding the value of engaging others. And this is where I have to make a confession: the isolation I felt in the past was partially the result of the system I was working in, and partially the result of my own habits.
I’m one of those people who likes to feel in control. Maybe you know someone like me. We like predictability. We like getting things “done right”. And we often prefer working by ourselves–I, after all, I am the most reliable person I know! The fact is, I like doing things my way because I know I can usually succeed! Trying things somebody else’s way carries a lot more risk of failure.
When I began the Teacher Education Program at Boulder Journey School, I suddenly found myself up to my neck in exactly that kind of risk: I knew how to teach my way, and relinquishing that control was deeply uncomfortable. I was used to delivering lessons; now I was expected to offer provocations. I had been trained to identify measurable learning objectives; now I was observing the children and seeking to understand the many possible interpretations of their behaviors. I was comfortable with my rigid and consistent schedule; now I was asked to maintain a constant state of flexibility, open to the opportunities that each child, each teacher, and each chance encounter might offer us. These differences fundamentally undermine the traditional image of the teacher as the “sage on the stage”–re-positioning them, instead, as a participant whose contributions are one part of an educational project. As my notion of the role of the teacher began to evolve, I began, slowly, to give up the idea that I was in charge of things.
This was how I came to understand what collaboration could be. And it scared me. Sometimes I felt adrift. Sometimes I craved structure. And yet–never once did I sense the desperate pressure, the sink-or-swim feeling that I have had working in other settings. On the contrary, I felt supported by the network within our school. I understood, intuitively, that my mistakes, my questions, my uncertainties were good, because, for the first time, I was positioned as a learner alongside the children. The research tells us that learning is a socially mediated process–that our brains are wired to connect and we learn best with and from one another. This is the belief that motivates every person in our school to be generous with our time, our thoughts, and our resources.
And so, as I stepped beyond my comfort zone and began looking to others more, I found myself asking for help in new ways. Can I observe your classroom? Any time! Can I borrow this material? Of course! Can I pick your brain? Let’s meet! I marveled as people at every level–children, peers, families, directors, professors, and mentors–generously shared their time and ideas with me.
But even as I benefited from these generous acts of collaboration, deep down, I still believed that I could work better and more efficiently on my own. My coursework as a graduate student finally forced me to set down that final, isolating belief.
During my second semester of the Teacher Education Program, I was working with a group of peers to advocate for the creation of a “Boulder Children’s Day” to be recognized officially by the local government. Wanting to engage our school community in the project, our group proposed creating an interactive hallway display at Boulder Journey School. We needed permission. We got it. We needed approval for our content. We got it. We needed to execute a professional-grade, aesthetically-pleasing, succinct and on-message display. Here, things got tricky.
The controlling side of me was not optimistic. I knew that, alone, I could put together something that would meet expectations. And so, when we met one evening after school, I arrived prepared to lead my group in creating my vision. But as we worked together, discussing ideas, experimenting, and sharing solutions to unforeseen problems, I made a startling discovery: my idea wasn’t that good. In fact, when we tried it out, it didn’t work at all. But because we were working together, what would have been a huge setback to me alone was a minor hiccough in our shared process. As a group, we moved seamlessly past that idea, creating in its place a product that we were all proud of. The work we did together was, without a doubt, much stronger than anything I could have created alone. What’s more, at the end of the process, instead of feeling exhausted, uncertain and lonely, I felt energized. I felt proud. I felt confident in our work. I wondered: did I ever truly feel confident when I was working alone? Or did I always question–how will this really be perceived?
That, ultimately, is the strength of collaboration. Working alone, you can only see with your eyes, hear with your ears and think with your mind. Even as I write this post, I find myself wondering– am I communicating my message clearly? Will my tone hit the mark? Can I really convey my experience to this imagined reader? So here’s the truth: by the time you read this, many, many eyes will have passed over this post. My collaborators will have cut words, asked for clarification and suggested changes. And this post will be better for it. I am beyond believing that isolation leads to success. If my goal–as an educator, as a communicator, as an advocate–is to reach as many people as possible, then I must collaborate. I must ask for help. I must share and give and receive.
In a setting where collaboration is the rule, we stand to gain immense benefits when we share our work. Whether it’s planning, writing a difficult email, tweaking an area of the classroom environment or researching a complex topic, collaboration enriches both the process and the result.
Armed with what I have learned at Boulder Journey School, I hope to never find myself on an island again.