Teachers Need a Village

To do our work well, we need support. All too often, our administrators are overburdened with other issues; they're rarely able to offer the ongoing support and feedback that teachers crave.
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By Lisa Niver Rajna

We've all heard the proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child." When Hillary Clinton used it as the title for her book, she wrote that she chose it because "it offers a timeless reminder that children will thrive only if their families thrive and if the whole of society cares enough to provide for them."

As a teacher, I can tell you: Teachers need a village, too!

Since 1990, I've taught in public and private schools. I have learned that teachers might as well be Olympians: Our work, like a competitive sport, is a "live performance under pressure," as the author Tony Wagner puts it. Even when the lesson is not quite right or the smart board no longer works, the students are sitting there and something must happen. We've all heard friends in other professions comment that on a day when they don't feel well, they just close their office doors and play zone out -- but there's no such luxury when thirty students are walking into your room every hour.

To do our work well, we need support. All too often, our administrators are overburdened with other issues; they're rarely able to offer the ongoing support and feedback that teachers crave.

There are exceptions, of course, and they provide great models for what teachers need to thrive -- like the principal I worked for who walked the halls of our Blue Ribbon middle school every day, offering an incredible level of attention to detail, to the students, and to our personal and professional well-being.

But the responsibility for creating positive, supportive school cultures cannot rest on principals alone: Teachers, too, must take the lead in creating our own villages.

Here in Los Angeles, I've built the Los Angeles Science Teachers Network (LASTN). I originally created LASTN because I was teaching new grade levels and needed support. I invited all the science teachers I could find to a meeting at my house. I brought in dinner and twelve of us chatted for nearly three hours. The group was friendly, inspiring and helpful. We're still meeting today, and our membership has grown to more than 70 science teachers.

Over the past three years, different schools have generously hosted our meetings, shared their campuses -- and fed us lunch. These teachers have jumped at the opportunity to be part of a community that provides a sounding board for ideas and best practices. One participant said, "Hearing and observing what other science teachers are doing in their classrooms really motivates me to bring my skills to a higher level."

Across grades, subjects and school types, teachers crave and deserve the kind of support that often, administrators alone can't provide. Teachers, especially specialist teachers who may be the only teacher of a subject at their school, need to provide learning communities and create professional development opportunities for themselves. All professionals need time to collaborate, to think and to re-energize, and each of us must strive to be the linchpin we are looking for.

LASTN has been a great compass for me, continuing to lead me and other science teachers in the direction of our chosen village and in support of great teaching and life-long learning for our students.

If you're a teacher looking to build your own professional support network, here are some things you can do:

1. Join your professional association and go to the conferences. I belong to the CSTA (California Science Teachers Association) as well as the NSTA (National Science Teachers Association). I try to go to a conference with one or the other each year.

2. Find teachers at your school who you want to collaborate with. You can start by sharing great books about teaching or another low-intensity learning opportunity, or by working together on a project. When I taught 8th grade science at Culver City Middle School, the English teacher and I collaborated on a project for Women's History Month. The integrated projects hung in the hallway and the 6th and 7th grade teachers brought their students to visit our "museum" of great women.

3. Find teachers outside your school to collaborate with, and make the effort to see where they teach. Visiting other schools can be incredibly inspiring. One way to meet teachers outside your school is to join the Teach Plus Network and learn from their events and online resources.

Lisa Niver Rajna is a science teacher in Los Angeles, a 2012 nominee for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, and a member of the Teach Plus Network. She is also the founder of the Los Angeles Science Teachers Network and can be found at www.WeSaidGoTravel.com.

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