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You Had Me at "Hello": Creating Collegial Communities

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Can you remember being the new person at your school? Whether it was the beginning of your career and you were completely green or you switched schools and were learning the ropes of how this little community functions, each of us has been there. Hopefully, you were greeted by at least one person with a little more time than you, who just wanted to help.

Teaching is an incredibly complicated job. It is physically and emotionally taxing at times requiring us to be on our game as much as possible. When we work in a collegial environment, it is one that is nurturing and supportive.

There are 4 predictable stages of community that I learned about early on during summer training at my current school. (As a College Board school, we were required to meet over the summer for several weeks to team build and learn about a new way of teaching.) They are: pseudo-community, choas, emptiness and true community. Fluid phases that can often move quickly, until achieving true community, but it takes work. The definitions below are adapted from M. Scott Peck.

First in pseudo-community, we all pretend to get along, avoiding conflict wherever possible. We are kind because we want to be liked. When we first enter a school, we are eager to find out how the community works and so we, watch and agree to a lot of things. This never lasts because a lot of personalities in one place can't stand the facade.

Then we transition into chaos, which is when particular individual personalities start to emerge and try to "help" others in a controlling sort of a way. The congenial platitudes that existed in pseudo-community no longer do and the environment can grow hostile. This is a necessary step, however, in growing into a true community. This step can't last long though because of the lack of organization and hostility that grows.

Me and colleague hang out at our senior prom. Attending school events that happen outside of school are a great opportunity to get to know colleagues better.
Me and a colleague hang out at our senior prom. Attending school events that happen outside of school are a great opportunity to get to know colleagues better.

Emptiness, the essential step isn't what it sounds like. It the opportunity to clear oneself of the communication boundaries and truly open oneself up to existing in a true community. It requires humility and honesty and trust.

Lastly, we move into a true community, which is the ideal. It's where we function in a collegial manner -it is a realistic and optimistic view of a community that embraces the differences in its members, harnessing the power of those differences to learn and grow. Staying here is a challenge and takes constant work, like in a good relationship. It is easy to fall back into chaos or pseudo-community if major changes happen in a school.

Working in a small school community as I do (less than 700 kids, grades 6-12, approximately 3 sections of students per grade), I've experienced all of the above. In other schools, never getting past the pseudo-community phase, I have learned that I want to help new people assimilate into the culture.

This year, a new colleague joined our ranks. We share a classroom and therefore a lot of time together. Over the course of this year, we've learned a lot from each other, never competing, only helping and sharing. To me, it is essential in a school environment where so many personalities exist, to be a friendly helping face.

Here are some tips for creating a welcoming environment to new-comers and developing a collegial true community:

  • Genuinely invest time in getting to know your colleagues- in the classroom and out. Consider intervisitation if they don't mind and/or plan a happy hour or invite them to lunch.
  • Sit next to someone new at a staff meeting and engage them in a dialogue, help them learn the ropes.
  • Be a friend to the new person
  • Be available to answer questions in person, via email or phone.
  • Share your resources and the secrets that took you years to figure out
  • Keep your door open during class periods and prep periods.
  • Try not to compete or feel threatened by them - learn from each other
  • If a conflict arises, rather than talk to others about it, go straight to the source and end it before it becomes a disease.
  • Never go over someone else's head before you talk to them directly, this only causes more resentment.
  • Treat others as you would like to be treated.

Working in a hostile environment can be taxing; if we are all working toward a common goal of establishing a strong school community, then we all benefit from those changes. Cliques naturally happen, but that doesn't mean you can't genuinely take an interest in other colleagues, particularly those in your department.

What challenges have you faced in your school and more importantly how were they resolved?

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Starr Sackstein currently works at World Journalism Preparatory School in Flushing, N.Y., as a high-school English and journalism teacher. She is the author of Teaching Mythology Exposed: Helping Teachers Create Visionary Classroom Perspective, Blogging for Educators, Teaching Students to Self-Assess, Hacking Assessment, The Power of Questioning and Simply May . She blogs for Education Week Teacher on “Work in Progress” in addition to her personal blog StarrSackstein.com where she discusses all aspects of being a teacher. Sackstein co-moderates #sunchat and contributes to #NYedChat. In speaking engagements, Sackstein speaks about blogging, journalism education, throwing out grades and BYOD, helping people see technology doesn’t have to be feared. Follow her @MsSackstein on Twitter.
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Guest Monday, 24 October 2016