Don't Teach Alone

As a new school year starts, one teacher reflects on the essential value of collaboration and community

August 11, 2017
Cartoon of teacher, standing in a circle with students and other teachers, high-fiving one student

Two years ago, I drove out to the cradle of the American Industrial Revolution and set up my classroom in a sprawling public high school nestled alongside repurposed textile mills and the Merrimack River.

I had taught before — to college students halfway around the world in Southeast Asia, and to middle school students in Boston, just across the river from my home. But this was my first foray as a full-time high school teacher. For these last two years, I have tried to capture my experiences on this blog.

As I look back on the challenges and small wins I’ve recorded here, a common theme emerges: the crucial importance of connections and collaboration.

For teachers new to the classroom, and for veterans with years of experience, the important work of raising and supporting students cannot and should not be done in isolation.

For teachers new to the classroom, and for veterans with years of experience, the important work of raising and supporting students cannot and should not be done in isolation.

Teachers need partners. Specifically, we need to engage four groups of partners:

Teachers need other teachers.
It should go without saying that our fellow teachers should be our first partners. Whether brainstorming ways to teach the Vietnam War or devising new approaches to engaging a challenging student, we are most effective when we learn from one another. It is non-negotiable that schools prioritize creating and fostering the space for teacher collaboration.

Teachers need to partner with families.
No one knows our students better than their families. Meaningful engagement with families can help our students succeed academically and socially. Research reveals it can also improve students’ attendance and grades, as well as their likelihood of graduating from high school and attending college. 

I have written about strategies for fostering relationships and maintaining connections with families throughout the year. But schools and teaching programs too rarely provide guidance, strategies, support, or time for teachers to effectively build these relationships. Such guidance needs to become a more explicit part of all teacher training.

Teachers should get to know their communities.
My students, working with the action civics organization Generation Citizen, ran a citywide Gun Buyback program this spring, collaborating with local police and more than 50 city organizations, businesses, houses of worship and nonprofits to collect unwanted guns from homeowners in the hopes of making their city safer.

With adequate time and support, there are ample opportunities for students to contribute to these kinds of city projects. And our communities are filled with powerful teachers — artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, attorneys, doctors, nurses — who can work with our students and speak to our classes. By building these connections, we can help connect the dots between what students are learning in school and what they may do as adults.

But to be effective connectors, we need to know our communities. Make this investment. Start the year by introducing yourself to local organizations — learn about their work, plans, and initiatives for the coming year, and explore ways that you can connect.

Teachers need to collaborate with students.
Last year, I had the opportunity to create a seminar on American diversity, and the format allowed every student the chance to design and teach a full 45-minute class to their peers. Sitting in the outer row of chairs, I would watch as peers leaned in, asked questions, and engaged. “This is one of the best lessons I’ve ever been in,” exclaimed one student.

Peer-to-peer teaching is powerful, as I wrote earlier this year. I’ve seen my students help peers with their editing and writing. Seasoned immigrants are quick to provide help with translations to the newer arrivals. Seniors provide advice on summer programs and advanced courses to freshmen. 

We need to tap into our students’ eagerness to lead. Knowing the strengths of my students has helped me to try to create opportunities for them to support each other — often in ways I could not do myself.

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Over the last two years, I have grown to know an army of educators: sisters, cousins, and grandfathers; former students and fellow teachers; local nonprofit directors and small business owners. It is with this community — with their expertise, generosity, and talents — that I find success in the classroom.

About the Author

Jessica Lander
Jessica Lander, a high school teacher and a 2015 graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes about education for Usable Knowledge, the Boston Globe, and other outlets. For two years, she wrote a regular series of blogs for Usable Knowledge about her experiences as a new teacher. With Karen Mapp and Ilene Carver, she is a co-author of Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success.  Follow her on Twitter at @jessica_lander
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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.