Teachers in Their Own Words: “Life in the Classroom–An International Teacher’s Room”

Posted: January 10, 2014 in Education, Teachers in Their Own Words
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One of the goals of “Teachers in Their Own Words” has been to give teachers a voice in the “education reform” debate. It has been a place where teachers can talk about what’s important to them as professionals. For some that has meant the larger issues of curriculum, evaluation and training; for others, the day to day challenges and delights of the classroom. Whatever the topic, each contributor has spoken as a practitioner, as someone “on the front-lines.” They are the ones who spend their days with students and so know what real, hands-on education looks like, feels like; what works and doesn’t.  Along with that variety of viewpoints and concerns the educational settings have been diverse and wide-ranging—reservation high school, release program for young offenders, community college, kindergarten, juvenile detention, independent learning, ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), middle school.

Now Hillary Greene, who has written for the series in the past, has opened the 2014 conversation even further in her guest piece, “Life in the Classroom: An International Teacher’s Room”. The piece serves as a great introduction to a shared blog, “Instruments of Change: The World’s Teachers,” that she and two other teachers from other countries have begun as a way to explore the big question, “What does it mean to be a teacher?” As in everything Hillary writes, “Life in the Classroom: An International Teacher’s Room” isn’t afraid to challenge not just the ideas of reformers but her colleagues as well. But she does it with a gentle and practiced hand, just what you’d expect from a middle school teacher (she has taught middle school for three years in independent, public, and public charter settings in Massachusetts and New Hampshire) who recently wrote in an email to me that “it’s never the kids that are the tough part of this job…” I’m looking forward to reading “Instruments of Change: The World’s Teachers” as it evolves and invite you to stop into their International Teacher’s Room to hear the latest in this global conversation.

Life in the Classroom: An International Teacher’s Room

Last summer, I was sitting in an art-filled café in Exeter, New Hampshire reading Linda Darling-Hammond’s The Flat World and Education. Page after page, I dutifully read and made my margin notes about the successful performance of students in places like Finland and Singapore when a simple question dawned on me, “I wonder what it’s like to teach in other places?” I wanted to find out.

Since becoming a teacher three school years ago, I have reflected daily on the challenges of this profession. I know that my job is much different than the one I envisioned my teachers doing back when I was a K-12 student; like anything, it’s hard to imagine until actually living through it.

Then last year, I started to write about teaching. It was a way to think aloud about my experience in a way I couldn’t do at school. I wrote about the need to nurture teachers and create environments for collaboration rather than isolation (The Coffee Crisis), and another piece about how teachers’ ignorance of big-picture policy changes in education causes our autonomy in the classroom to suffer (Not Enough to “Just” Teach).

Despite the challenges of being a teacher, one aspect consistently sustains me: my relationships with students. I teach middle school, a fragile age where, above all, kids want to feel like someone “gets” them. They’re looking for unconditional acceptance as they try out versions of themselves, some combination of which will one day stick. They possess a refreshing ability to be vulnerable and open in ways that adults have often left behind.

Even in my relatively short amount of time as a teacher, I see that although this openness and availability flourishes in middle school relationships, it remains in short supply among the adults in a school. I’m not without blame; sometimes it’s easier to shut my door, work through lunch, and breathe a bit rather than seek out colleagues, collaborate, or, basically, be available. But there’s certainly something about this profession that makes us close ourselves off, both regretful of the isolation but reluctant to open up.

So this brings me back to that café in New Hampshire. I wondered if teachers in such paragons of educational achievement as Finland and Singapore have the same challenges I have experienced. I wondered if their professional relationships are different from mine. I wondered what their lives are like outside of school compared to teachers’ lives here. I wondered how others in their culture perceive their choice to join the teaching profession.

With the help of my brother who has lived abroad, I reached out to public school teachers that he knew around the world, and I found two willing (and available!) volunteers: Thom in France and Emily in Australia who like me teach 5th through 7th graders. We launched our comparative teaching blog in August, and we write every few weeks about our lives as teachers. We have written several diary entries of a “typical” day in our schools, and we’ve written on other topics including our teacher preparation programs, our choices to become teachers, assessment in schools, and more. We will write until May and continue to discover what it means to teach, whether in the US, France, or Australia.

Ironically, we’ve never met each other. Yet, through this shared experience of written reflection, I am able to visit them in their classrooms and host them in mine. Just like our students, we want someone to “get” us, and now we have each other.

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Comments
  1. Jeff Nguyen says:

    This is a great idea, the sharing of ideas and perspectives from teachers globally. I like the St. Francis of Assisi allusion, as well. Teachers are, indeed, instruments of change for better or worse. In order to overcome some of the pressing problems we face, we will need to think in these terms, rather than simplistic or nationalistic terms, and tap into our the collective power of our shared humanity.

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