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.
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.