"A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops." Henry Brooks Adams

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Continuity, Community, and Change

Our school had a retirement party last week. We had a great time celebrating the careers of two wonderful teachers and visiting with school staff that had moved on. What our celebration really got me thinking about,though, was the nature of a school community and how change and continuity can act on that community. Our two retirees were kindergarten and first grade teachers who had taught at our school long enough to now be teaching the children of some of their former students. They are well-respected and beloved by both staff and members of the community. Aside from being great, enthusiastic teachers, Bobbi and Cheryl have influenced a generation of teachers with their generous hosting of student teachers and their mentoring of new teachers in the building. Our school community will be the poorer for their loss, but their influence will live on in our school. The same cannot be said for schools in the Philadelphia School District that are losing their entire teaching staffs to the Renaissance process. A school community is a delicate and intangible thing, and wholesale change of people is not usually healthy. The longer I teach, the more I realize that relationships with parents, families, and students are a crucial if ineffable part of teaching. Having everyone in a school change at the same time will leave a huge gap in the kinds of relationships that help students thrive. As I have been at my school since 2001, I am now teaching many brothers/sisters/cousins of students I have already taught. My seventh graders love telling me if I have taught their siblings, and I enjoy reminiscing with them (and sometimes teasing them) about their brothers and sisters. This familiarity means that my relationships with parents (and theirs with me) are already established--and that we have a level of trust that can help us work together to benefit the child. Sometimes, when there is difficult information to convey to parents, a long-standing trust is what wins the day. This year, a colleague needed to recommend a student for testing for a learning disability and the parent was understandably worried and unsure. But because the teacher recommending the testing was someone the parent knew, trusted, and had taught the siblings of this child, the consent was given. Trust is crucial in schools--parents need to know that the teachers have their children's interests at heart. They do not just need to be told this, they need to have experienced it firsthand. Trust and caring take time to build. When school staffs change naturally, through age and attrition, the parents can see new and experienced teachers working together and come to accept and trust new faces. When schools are faced with an almost totally new staff in September, I wonder how isolated the community will feel? Where will that teacher who knows all the members of a family and taught most of them be? Where will the counselor who always asks about your older son or daughter be? How will the level of trust that students need to learn and grow be established? I believe that continuity is crucial to building trust with parents. How will it feel to students and parents to be in the old, familiar school with none of the old, familiar faces?? Change is good and sometimes necessary, but I do not think decimating whole school communities is good for kids or parents.