On Teacher Culture

Culture is an important component to any well-functioning classroom. Because of this, we’re often discussing methods to create a more supportive, responsive environment for our students to learn. One that respects and values each individual, giving them room to experiment and learn from their mistakes.

The time we spend developing this culture for our students is well spent. The endeavor is certainly one worth devoting our energy to, as it supports the growth of our kids.

But what about the culture among educators?

In my mind, the school culture for teachers is equally important to the one we create for students. It’s vital that we feel a system of support in our buildings as well, especially during times when we are wading into the waters of new, innovative practices. It’s so important because teachers, like other people, also need to feel this sense of value and belonging. We also need to feel the support and have the room for failure in order to feel confident in our new (and old) endeavors. As we all know full well, especially during this time of year, teaching is exhausting. Mentally, physically, emotionally… teaching takes a toll on it all. When there is a supportive culture in place, the extent to which this impacts us can be minimized.

I am so fortunate to work in a school where a positive culture is evident. It has had a huge influence on how my career has progressed, and has motivated me to attempt (and share) much of what I have in my classroom. And from my experience, I’ve found that there are some pretty clear indicators of positive teacher culture.

1. School leaders are approachable.

Administrative teams and building leaders have a tough job. They are often dealing with the most nerve-fraying parents and biggest behaviors, usually on a daily basis. But what I’ve seen from our building leaders is a dedication to positivity and partnership, resulting in our teachers feeling comfortable going to them for guidance and support.

This is huge. When you have a principal who not only supports you, but also encourages and welcomes teachers into his office, who is visible throughout the building, and who makes himself or herself available, the culture of openness is contagious. When evaluations feel like a practice designed to help you grow as a professional rather than a “got ya” situation, they become a valued aspect of the career. The influence from the top is crucial and sets the tone for the rest of the building.

2. Educators view one another as partners and confidants.

I’ve heard of places where teachers within a building are in fierce, unfriendly competition with one another, and I can’t help but think of how stifling the atmosphere must feel within those walls. Education is a profession that relies so heavily on collaboration and teamwork. Our partnerships are necessary to our success, and frankly, to our sanity. We need one another.

When you have an off day or a student who you are struggling to reach, you need someone to listen and be there for you. After a difficult parent conference, you need someone who’s just going to get it. When you forgot to grab breakfast, you need the teacher who always keeps a stocked file cabinet drawer of snacks. The intensity of this job is unique, and we need to surround ourselves with people who will empathize and understand what we’re going through. This starts by creating culture that flourishes in a system of support and not cutthroat competition.

3. Sharing resources is common practice.

We’re all thieves. We are constantly stealing resources and ideas from each other and taking them back to our own classrooms. It is absolutely necessary for us to have a culture that thrives on this sharing of minds because one human being is absolutely not able to come up with an engaging activity for every single Common Core standard every single day. We’d sleep even less then we already do. We each have different areas of expertise, too, so when we combine those it results in better learning experiences for our students. Within a positive teacher culture, it matters much less whose idea something was because what really matters is the benefit to our kids.

4. Professional respect exists—no matter what.

There will always be naysayers and disagreements. It’s inevitable in a group of people, especially ones as passionate as educators often are. The disagreements themselves are not the enemy of a supportive teacher culture. In fact, a healthy skepticism and honest debate among us is beneficial to our growth and success.

The problem exists when there is a lack of professional respect; when one side of the argument begins debating the person and not the idea. Above all, we are all experts in our field who work hard to show up for our kids every day. We cannot lose sight of the fact that we all have the same goals in mind, and at the end of the day we have that very important common ground. Even if we have differences in methodology, instructional practices, or philosophy, it’s important to retain that level of respect for one another as professionals. There’s already enough people looking down on teachers—we don’t need to look down on each other.

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