I vividly remember my first day as a 24-year-old new teacher at school. The students refused to listen, screamed a “boo” for a full 15 minutes while banging at their desks. After a while, they threw things at each other and at me, to let me know that they hated me because they wanted their old teacher back. I was reduced to tears. On the first day itself, as I pleaded with my grade 4 class in a government school in Pune to just hear me out, I recognized that teaching was one of the most isolating jobs.
In a noisy sea of 40 students, the loneliness that I felt was indescribable. That day, during the lunch break when I stepped out of my classroom, my life had changed but the world continued about nonchalantly. No staff member asked me how my day was. No one noticed that I was a new teacher and had bawled my eyes out in the washroom because the children in my class did not “like me”. No one seemed to care except one person – a teacher who had been teaching for the last four years in the school. She shared her lunch and joked about her blunders of the day with me. I managed to smile at her through gritted teeth. She looked at me with a calm but empathetic face that seemed to convey that things will get better.
Over the first few months, my misery continued. What response should I have given when that first fight broke out in my English class while I desperately tried to teach reading fluency to a bunch of violent children who could not read beyond KG level? What could I do to make students interested in even showing up at school? Why was there no one to applaud me when I finally managed behaviour in the classroom, accomplished my lesson as per plan, and also witnessed many engaged student actions? These were questions that I grappled with as a novice teacher daily.
My “friend” from school who had shared her lunch with me on the first day, would eventually also contribute to my growth as a teacher. She continued to be my pillar of support for the next two years. She was my friend, confidante, and in many ways my mentor too – she observed my classes and gave feedback on my instruction, allowed me to observe her teaching, and also gave pointers on my lesson plans.
Looking back, I realized that even though my school did not have formal structures of collaboration as part of its culture, I was lucky enough to chance upon a mentor and a friend in my colleague. The relationship that I shared with my colleague is what research calls a “critical friendship” at the workplace. “A critical friend is a trusted person who offers a critique of another’s work. The friendship comes from a stance as an advocate for the success of the work; the critique from the deep questioning.”Burnout, reduced motivation, and eventual dropout are very high among new teachers due to the nature of the job and they can benefit immensely by having a buddy at work who will help them with institutional knowledge, be a safe, venting space for them and also mentor them to improve classroom instructional practices through a relationship of mentorship.
My experience as a struggling new teacher was echoed by another recent new teacher I spoke to. He mentioned that he felt intense isolation in the first few months of teaching. Initially, he was unable to break the ice with other teachers in school. However, teacher union meetings and monthly meetings called by the principal were some of the formal structures in his school that promoted collaboration. In these spaces, he not only understood the school-wide systemic problems, and got information related to processes and operations, but also got to know the other teachers better in terms of common interests and hobbies. “I invest in the share market and I became friends with another teacher who also does the same. We got to know each other in one of the ice-breaking sessions in the staff meeting and became good friends. I looked forward to going to school because of that friendship.” These meetings were also a place where teachers would share best practices related to culture, parent engagement, and instruction. This helped him try some of these practices in his classroom.
Other teachers I spoke to mentioned structures such as teacher study circles, formal staff meetings, informal staff lunches, planning events together, and teacher action research groups as some of the spaces where they built these collaborative friendships.
Critical friendships between teachers can develop organically or through formal collaborative structures that I have already mentioned. However, in either case, the effects of the professional friendships between teachers are felt not only at a personal level but also have a positive effect on the overall culture of the school. I spoke to another teacher who has been teaching for the last eight years. She mentioned that formal collaborative structures like planned peer observations and exchange of feedback have helped her build relationships with many of her colleagues. Over the years, regular professional development sessions coordinated by the supervisor and conducted in turn by the teachers, in her opinion, have created a culture of mutual learning. The teachers and leadership have a safe space where they share knowledge about topics of their interest. She has observed that the collaborative structures that exist between teachers have also translated into the classroom where the teachers are using structures like circle time, class meetings, peer teaching, and feedback on assignments to create a culture of collaboration between students. This has led to an ethos of collaborative learning at every level in the school. This reiterates the philosophy that effective schools are a community and a friendly learning space for all.
Building collaborative and critical friendships between teachers requires that the leaders believe that nurturing these friendships between teachers will help them cope with the nature of the job, reduce isolation, create a safe environment of learning where feedback is accepted and implemented. It will also contribute to the professional development of teachers, help new teachers understand school and institutional context, support teachers to identify discrepancies between self and practice, and build a space of joy where everyone feels like working together toward the vision of the school. These outcomes will have trickle-down effects and will eventually affect the culture and achievement at the classroom level.
I spoke to an educator who has worked in senior leadership roles for the last four years. She revealed that a culture of collaboration and friendship at the workplace is a win-win situation. Not only is it beneficial for the teachers and the overall culture of the school but it also reduces the burden on the Senior Leadership to spend time on conflict management, and convince teachers to take up additional responsibilities (because the teachers have such strong bonds, they love taking up additional work with their buddies), and sustain a culture of respect, friendship, and joy in the school.
We talk so much about promoting collaborative and joyful learning leading to increased student achievement. If we as teachers and educators want to see that happen in the classroom and in the communities that we work with, we must start with ourselves – work toward a culture that is inclusive, friendly, fun, respectful, and stimulating. After all, teachers who are engaged and learn together would love coming to school. Children being around and learning from happy, enthused adults can never be a bad thing.
Note: My sample for this article consisted of educators teaching across grade levels from class 1 to class 12 in Pune, Sharjah, Delhi, and Mumbai. They also belonged to different boards – SSC, CBSE, IB and ICSE.
The author holds a Masters in Psychology and has been an educator for the last nine years. She is currently working as Assistant School Leader at a school in Pune. When she is not teaching or writing, she loves reading, cooking and long-distance running. She can be reached at email@example.com.