Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Opening the Walls

One thing I have really struggled with as a teacher over the years is a sense of isolation. Even though three other teachers may be teaching the same year level, doing the same unit and are timetabled at the same time usually the only "collaboration" that takes place is at the meeting outlining the unit and making sure everyone knows what the assessment is.

This situation tends to lead to teachers become very autonomous in their classrooms and striding through the unit teaching in their own manner. The follow on from this is that teachers then tend to become quite secretive and protective about their resources, their planning and their assessment results.

I've never been comfortable with that. It just feels...lonely and as though I'm constantly being judged and scrutinised. Yuck!

I have been lucky enough over the last twelve months to work with staff who trust me and each other enough to try some of my crazier ideas (the hypertext unit for one), and I have been privileged to be part of some activities that have seen the walls between classrooms start to break down.

Half of our Year 11 and all of the Year 12 English classes have in the last few weeks had sessions where the walls between classrooms have been opened, they have worked collaboratively with people from other classes, they have worked with different teachers with different styles, and they have worked independently. There's been mixed results, but overall it's been a positive thing for the staff and students involved.

For the staff it has forged stronger working relationships with the people involved, with realistations that each other's ways are no better or worse, they're just different. This is making moving into different units easier as people are less worried about being judged and are far happier to ask questions. It's also helped to give them new ideas, new inspiration and confidence to try some of the other activities they've seen other teachers working on.

Students have commented that they've enjoyed getting a range of teaching styles and being able to get different information from a range of places. They're also more confident asking questions of staff who aren't their direct classroom teacher. I've witnessed Year 11 students independently start taking notes, ask each other for help/clarification - it's been fantastic to see the majority rise to the challenge of a different approach.

Admittedly, there are some students who haven't particularly benefited from the opportunities - these are the students who took advantage of the situation to socialise more than focus on their work. But at the end of the day I suspect that these are the students who would have found a way to avoid work in a regular classroom setting too.

Today I had my Year 11 class and for a variety of reasons we closed the doors (mostly - it was our first day after holidays and we wanted to reconnect and refocus our individual classes). It felt odd for me - I knew that next door there was a teacher teaching similar content and I wanted to see what they were doing. I kept thinking - would they be able to answer some of the more detail oriented questions some of my students had, would they be able to explain this so that the two students looking blankly at me would miraculously "get it", what resources did they have that I could have used instead of this? Don't get me wrong I love my class, they're a great bunch as a whole, I just don't enjoy feeling isolated and disconnected and that's how I felt today.

Opening the walls has been an incredible experience for me as a teacher. I've grown and I've seen my students grow. I'm not ready for that to finish just yet.

Picture credit: "Crack", by only alic @flickr


Pam Thompson said...

Great post Nic. thihs was something talked about at the IB conference in Adelaide on the weekend. Greg Whitby talked aobut some schools in his area who are breaking down the barriers and Marcia Behrenbruch & AnneMarie Denton from St Leonards College operate in this sort of open environment and see great results. I think it will take a while though before the majority of teachers see the walls as barriers instead of security.

Nic Mobbs said...

Thanks for the comment, Pam. Unfortunately I have to agree with you that most teachers will see walls as security for a long time yet. But all we can do is keep offering the support and opportunity to try new things. It can be draining sometimes to constantly offer yourself and your ideas, but we have to stay the course.

It's so sad that in an occupation which involves working closely with people everyday so many shy away from "sharing the load."

Shane Roberts said...

Nic, another thought provoking post. We are finding that providing time for the conversations is a key ingredient to success. Your students are lucky that you provide them with a range of teachers to work with, and a choice of how they learn. Well done.

Talia said...

Opening up your classroom sounds great! It would be so good to see more teachers doing this- particularly in the high schools...