We’re brought up in a very competitive culture. It starts from when we are very young, at home and in school. We are often compared with siblings and classmates. From our very first report card, well-meaning relatives ask how we’ve done in relation to our friends and whether we are the class “topper”. Sometimes this competitiveness is overtly instilled in us (“Make sure you get more than your cousin in the final exams, or I can’t show my face at the next family gathering”), and sometimes it’s less obvious (“Oh, her parents must be so proud of her for coming first in class”). We are taught to compete for validation like it’s a limited resource.
In all fairness, many schools are trying to do away with this sort of comparison among young children, sometimes with hilarious results. When my daughter was in class 1, a fellow parent was very upset that “ranks” weren’t being announced after the first set of tests, so she called other parents in the class to get a list of marks. After her research was complete, she declared her child the class topper in the parents’ Whatsapp group.
I’ve often joked that we struggle with cooperation because we are taught to compete from preschool through college and then when we’re hired in corporate jobs, we’re put in teams and asked to “collaborate”, but we’ve never really been taught how to. How can you share ideas and look for joint outcomes when you’ve always been taught not to share notes and your best work with classmates?
The biggest opportunity to change this is at school, where most understandings about social relationships are formed. Teachers are role models and children consciously and subconsciously imitate what they see.
Cooperation and friendship among teachers is a great thing to role model for children and helps their social-emotional learning, but more importantly, as educators, we need to hold each other up. Teaching is a rewarding profession where we get to positively impact hundreds of lives every day, yes, but teaching is also a high stress environment. Most educators I know have long working hours, often limited resources, very high standards to maintain, and (sometimes unrealistically high) results expected by different stakeholders. It’s important to be honest with ourselves, that things aren’t always rosy, and sometimes we can use a hand, or a shoulder.
Unlike in corporate scenarios where colleagues compete for a few promotions, schoolteachers have more job security and scope for collaboration. As an educator, you aren’t competing with other teachers – you are just trying to do a better job for yourself and your students. There is also a lot of alignment in what all teachers want – the best outcomes for children. Teachers with different subject specializations can share knowledge and interdisciplinary ideas. Senior teachers have more experience, younger teachers have fresher perspectives. Both are useful, and when you put them together you are more equipped to handle any situation. You need both for improving outcomes.
At SaPa, we’ve worked hard to ensure we have a culture of friendship, collaboration and community. As educators, and as an organization, we hold the principle of non-competitive excellence very dear. Life is a team sport and things are always better when we collaborate. We know we are so much better together, and we do our best to lift each other up. It does take effort to overcome our conditioning though. Sometimes, when we have a new teacher join the family, they do feel competitive in the beginning. But when you are immersed in an environment where you know there is nothing to gain, only to lose by being competitive, you quickly become a team player. Music teachers are usually expected to be a one
(wo)man army, in charge of creating and delivering a high-quality curriculum, ensuring student outcomes, while also putting together performances for every annual day, festival or special event. This can be stressful and lonely at times.
Educators who are part of the SaPa family are not only friends, but some of them have ended up getting married as well. At the start and end of every teacher’s meeting, we invite people to speak and share experiences. It’s a closed door, no holds barred sharing session where teachers are open, honest, and often vulnerable. The support I’ve seen within this group is something that fills me with pride and hope.
Here are some things that have worked well for us, and if you are trying to build a stronger community of teachers in your school, you’re welcome to try them too:
- Create opportunities for teachers to spend time together informally and bond. It could be a monthly lunch, or picnic offsites, or continuous professional development sessions.
- Encourage open and honest communication and collaboration. Create spaces for teachers to work together.
- Call out positive examples of teachers who are working together, or being brave and sharing, or teachers who serve as mentors to new entrants.
- Consider a buddy system or a mentoring group where people of mixed experience levels can work together.
- Give these groups of teachers opportunities to be creative, develop new material, or even just modify existing practices.
If any of these things work for you too, we’d love to hear. If you’re a teacher, I hope you find your community of friends and peers, because I can think of few things that are more valuable. The next time you’re looking for some wisdom, just take a look around the staffroom.
The author is an entrepreneur, singer/songwriter and educator. She is the co-founder and CEO of SaPa and the lead vocalist of SubraMania and the Thayir Sadam Project. She can be reached at email@example.com.