Rising Above School Politics (#Teach2Teach Question 2)

This is a response to #Teach2Teach Question 2 from Carrie, about school politics (full question below). Special thanks to Amy Lenord (whose response is here) and Karen Tharrington for starting the #Teach2Teach movement and to those who have responded to their call!

Here is Carrie’s question:

“How do you stay inspired and not get bogged down by the politics of teaching?”

First, I’m thankful never to have been a victim of “school politics.” My main teaching job has featured the most supportive administration and colleagues I could imagine: I was hired to create a foreign language program from scratch however I saw fit. I was allowed to change the curriculum whenever it seemed right to do so. I was handed the reins of a growing world language department in which teachers are encouraged to experiment and to continue their training. Faculty and staff regularly meet for Happy Hour, host parties for each other, and convene at Denny’s or (in the Golden Age) Borders during exam week to grade papers.

So, when it comes to giving advice about navigating school politics, I may be the proverbial unmarried marriage counselor. But I still have some pertinent thoughts and experiences, which I’ll place in three categories: (1) Stuff that is good to do no matter what, (2) Inspiration, and (3) “Industry” politics.

1. Stuff that is good to do no matter what

Regardless of where your situation falls on the spectrum from the Elysian Fields to Tartarus, you can be someone your colleagues and administrators want to be around. If everyone else is a posturing jerk, be a guile-less friend. If everyone else is an instigator, be a peacemaker (without being self-righteous). If a colleague’s students are successful, join the celebration, even if you think the success came in spite of, not because of, your colleague. Live the Golden Rule and all that stuff you learned in kindergarten.

I know many jaded teachers whose careers have been refreshed by a combination of being treated well and seeing good teaching practices in action. I know many teachers who have refreshed others by treating them well. You can be such a teacher.

2. Inspiration

In my response to #Teach2Teach Question 1, I claimed that great teachers know their students, their subjects, and each other. Here, I’ll substitute love for know: Great teachers love their students, great teachers love their subjects, and great teachers love each other.

Even when teacher-teacher or admin-teacher love feels weak, sheer love of students and subject goes a long way in providing inspiration. When I feel crushed by expectations–others’ or my own–or by conflicts (see below), my classroom is a safe haven. So many times I’ve said to myself, “I can’t wait to get back to my students, who know and trust me.” Student and parent testimony suggests that the sentiment is mutual. When I have to deal with edu-conflict or with meetings and paperwork that are a source of stress and only marginally related to my students’ growing proficiency, I can’t wait to get back to the classroom and live in the target language with the students.

I’ve devoted my life to helping people experience joy and success in learning languages. That devotion is more powerful than office politics, and that goal is more worthwhile. Thank you for pursuing it!

3. “Industry” Politics

Although my relationship to my at-school colleagues has been almost idyllic, I’ve witnessed and felt the immensity of conflict in academia and in the education industry. I’ve been called in to other schools to mediate when departments are in crisis. Email groups, discussion forums, blogs, publications, presentations, and social media abound in vitriol. Your willingness to tough these out depends on where you are in your search for resources and comrades and on what your role in the profession is. I first started participating heavily in email groups and conferences about ten years ago, and was desperate enough for help that I was willing to put up with the bewildering level of conflict. Becoming a regular contributor made me and my ideas fair game for discussion, which can be disconcerting.

In the industry at large, the same principles from (1) apply. Try to make your delivery and your question-asking gentle and generous. Here, too, I’ve seen people changed by experiencing good treatment by good people doing good things. I’ve even seen the tone of entire groups and movements change for the better by the presence of relentlessly positive participants.

Check out this article from musicuentos.com for more tips about being a team player in the language-teaching world. Oh, and when you find a group or environment that is supportive and congenial, hold on tight!

I don’t mean to make all this sound easier than it is. I have friends who have been forced to make the terrible decision between teaching well and keeping their jobs. I don’t want to make light of their experiences, and I’ll let these teachers speak for themselves. In the meantime, #Teach2Teach friends, I hope your workplaces are harmonious and invigorating in the first place and that you find something useful in this post!

See also Preparing a Lesson vs Preparing Yourself (#Teach2Teach Question 1) and “I don’t know how to teach” (#Teach2Teach Question 3).

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