Breaking Down the Natural Isolation and Insulation of High School Teachers

A good friend for many years and guest blogger (see here and here), Jerry Brodkey has taught social studies and math for over 30 years at Menlo-Atherton High School  (MA) in Northern California. He currently teaches Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus and Integrated Algebra. Well-respected among his colleagues–he has been a member for many years of the union negotiating team that  bargains with the district when a contract expires–Brodkey sent out the following email to his colleagues just before the school year ended.


One of the best parts of the school year for me is after the AP test. In addition to some other activities, each student in my AP Calculus classes is asked to speak for approximately 15 minutes about themselves. They may talk about their families, travels, hobbies, sports, college decisions, etc., Some of these presentations are light-hearted, some very serious.  We all learn about each other in  a gentle, supportive environment.  Students seem to love this, and so do I.

I’d like to try this with staff members, too. Even though I have been here many years, I realize that there are many staff I simply don’t know, and even among the members of my own department,  I’d like to know them at a more personal level. So I’d like to try this.  Some of the best moments I have had at MA have been the results of feeling a sense of community, a deepening of relationships with all who work here.

Although my room is open for students almost every day at lunch, I’d like to dedicate  Thursday lunches to this small initiative.  I’ll simply tell my students that Thursday at lunch I won’t be available. Instead, I’d like to invite all staff to my room  (or some other place ….) for this experiment.  We might have a pretty good crowd, or I might be eating lunch by myself.  If my room is too small we’ll find another place. I’ll be happy to organize a schedule.  Since lunch is short, I think one or perhaps two speakers per week.  No obligation, no memberships, come when you can.  Bring papers to grade if you want. Come late, leave early if you need to.  Classified, certificated, administrative, everyone.

If we need a moderator I’ll be happy to do so.
I am thinking each presenter can begin (if they’d like) by addressing these  questions.

1. Who are you?
2. How did you come to be at MA?
3. Why are you here and what are you trying to achieve?
4. What are your biggest challenges and frustrations?

5. What do you like to do away from MA?
6. How would you hope to be remembered?

So that is my idea. Nothing complicated, nothing to do now. I’ll bring this back up  in August, I just thought I’d present the idea now.

Best wishes for a successful conclusion to this year.

Jerry Brodkey

Brodkey’s invitation to get to know colleagues, I believe, comes from at least two impulses. First, it is what he said it is–an effort to get to know his co-workers, many of whom he exchanges pleasantries with as they pass one another on their way to and from class or in monthly faculty meetings. Second, it is the beginning of an effort to build a community among those with whom he works daily. High schools are hard places to develop any sense of community teaching five or more classes a day, meeting with students individually, grading homework and tests, and dealing with unpredictable crises that arise. Brodkey and others have, at best, one non-teaching period a day to prepare for the next class and rush through homework that has to be returned to students that day. Sure, there are and have been “professional learning communities” of teachers teaching the same subject or across disciplines, but the fact is that such PLCs are the exception rather than the rule. Why is it so hard to build community in a high school?

The setting itself provides one explanation. Housed in an age-graded school (grades 9-12), organized by departments, with a daily schedule that leaves little time for teachers to plan, congregate, or get to know one another beyond the chance meeting in the same corridor–that is the modern U.S. high school. I do not mention faculty meetings since they are often set up and run in ways that discourage camaraderie.

If you wanted to isolate teachers from one another, no better way is to organize the school by grades, have departments, and a daily schedule that leaves little time for teachers before, during, and after classes to work together in a community focused on better teaching and student learning. These structures left unattended insulate and isolate teachers from one another. The dilemma is plain: How to create a community of teachers working toward common goals within a structure and culture dedicated to keeping teachers apart from one another?

Here is a veteran teacher in the sunset of his career  with “school smarts” and wisdom gained from decades of experience in a high school who knows that building community begins with knowing who sits next to you. He wants to do the same thing among MA’s teachers. I wish him and his colleagues well.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching

8 responses to “Breaking Down the Natural Isolation and Insulation of High School Teachers

  1. Using the VIA Character Strengths survey as a way to talk about “Who am I at my best” would provide a framework for some of these questions.

    Also, how about an appreciative question? Instead of focusing on frustrations and challenges, ask “If 5 years from now MA was everything you ever hoped, what would a day look like?”

  2. I just spent the last two days in an in-service on Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). One of the primary focus topics of the PLC model is exactly what Jerry is looking for, teachers developing a community where they work as a team, not as hermits in their room. After the training I am not a screaming advocate of the PLC model, it does not really fit small schools with very limited resources, but there are some very useful concepts in the model.

  3. JMK

    Sorry I’m late to respond, because there are two different aspects of this that interest me.

    One, that teachers are isolated. I think for many teachers, this is an attraction of the profession.

    Two, that we teachers don’t get enough time to hang out and get to know each other.

    What I like about this idea is that it picks up both strands, leaving the reasons open for the participant to decide. Teachers who feel isolated will have some place to go on Thursdays. Teachers who just want to get to know other teachers, ditto. For what it’s worth, I’d go–even though I never really eat lunch. My preferred time would be right after school at a local joint on Friday.

    I’m about to start my sixth year of teaching. I am a cranky introvert; however, in all my schools I have reached out to colleagues to collaborate, talk, sympathize, whatever. At my first school, I made a connection with another teacher that not only led to some really interesting collaboration, but also helped us both as we went looking for our next jobs. At my second school, I was particularly successful at reaching out to two brand new teachers (one of them, Dave, is a blogger who has had his work posted here as well), and our little trio had a great time socializing and sharing. We went for coffee every week, had beers after work every so often. I like to think I was helpful to them; just having them around was fun for me. I still am in touch with both–just saw Dave a few weeks ago, saw the other, Don, just today.

    At my current school, I am starting my third year. I have made a real effort o reach out to all the math teachers. We’re all friendly, and I’ve had really good long discussions with a number of them, but I’ve not had any luck with collaborations or even regular down time outside class. I’m not disappointed or upset, but it underscores that sometimes reaching out isn’t enough. We have a couple new teachers coming in this year, and I’ll try again.

    It’s not just math, though. For someone who’s about to start year 3, I don’t know more than six or seven teachers by name outside the math department, and it’s relatively alarming how often a student will mention a teacher’s name and I can’t summon up a face. I have literally never talked to a good half the teachers at this school.

    I don’t feel isolated, and am not unhappy about this. But I came from computer programming, one of the most introverted, anti-social jobs in existence, and I’m fairly stunned by how rarely teachers interact simply as co-workers, not support or collaboration. In comparison, programmers are social butterflies.

    Anyway. I think this is a good idea, and I hope you’ll report back.

    • larrycuban

      Michele, you nicely point out the tension between autonomy and collaboration that exists in so many teachers, including myself. Thanks for the detail of your experiences over the past few years. Jerry said he and I would talk after the school year began to see what has transpired at his high school.

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