What's the most important part of a teacher's job?
An informal poll of the first six teachers I came across today elicited a variety of great answers: Alexandria said 'a genuine interest in the students', Roger 'preparation', Rachel 'assessing your students needs', Gomer 'teaching from the heart', Keith 'staying sane', and Samantha 'classroom management'. No consensus.
In episode 97 of the Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Jennifer Gonzalez tells the story of her worst experience as a teacher. In case you are not inclined to listen, she tells of the time she was shunned by her colleagues and became the focus of tangible antagonism in the teachers' lounge. She ends the story with an exhortation that there is probably nothing more important as a teacher than your relationship with your colleagues.
As a manager of strangers in a strange land, for me Jennifer's message rings true. Let me consider some of the possible reasons why good relations in the teaching team is important.
First, colleagues are an immensely useful resource, both professionally and personally. Working at a school with other experienced teachers has been a really important part of my development as a teacher. Some of the teachers I've worked with over the years freely shared ideas and materials, and demonstrated admirable teacher traits that have been worth emulating. I can honestly say I learned more from colleagues than I did from my education degree. Working in schools with teachers who are professional and positive is something I'd highly recommend.
Second, staffroom chat among colleagues serves as an invaluable opportunity for reflection. Broadly speaking, reflective teachers are effective teachers because they are constantly on the watch for how their lessons impact their learners. Having a bad lesson (or a problem student) is part of our job: rather than complaining or panicking about it, a reflective teacher considers what's really happening and why, and extracts development opportunities from it.
One way of reflecting is by sharing your problems and exploring solutions with other teachers. To be clear, unrelenting denunciation of a class or its students as arrogant or uncontrollable isn't reflection. But discussing problems and sharing possible solutions with other teachers (who might have had similar problems) is, and it's thought to have important developmental benefits for teachers. More on reflection another time perhaps.
And then there's the strange case of teachers who have to share classrooms. It's here that I see the most urgent case taking time to get to know your colleagues. To contextualize, let me tell a story.
Sally has been teaching fourth grade for 9 years. This year she is teaching 4/2, and it's been a tough group. The class is rowdy and difficult, but she has finally imposed some order. The class finally understands the classroom rules, she has got them into the habit of putting up their hands before shouting out, the boys have started doing their homework and following instructions, and the classroom is starting to feel like there is some structure.
Last month, however, a new Spanish teacher was hired to teach the entire grade group, including Sally's class. The teacher hardly speaks English, which Sally understands is useful because it forces the students to use Spanish in class. But Sally is having trouble with this teacher. She doesn't know his name because he hasn't introduced himself. He walks into the class and completely ignores her. That's aggravating, but worse, he seems completely oblivious to any suggestions of the classroom routines that Sally has worked hard to establish.
He blithely watches the class to descend into chaos, and seems to encourage, or perhaps revel in, the most outrageous behavior. Then, when things are completely out of control, he expects her to step in and sort things out. Sally heard from the department head that he had complained about her, saying he wasn't getting enough support from the 'assistant'. This upset Sally – she spent 4 years studying for her bachelor's degree, and to be called an assistant is a professional slap. In fact, she wonders when she watches this teacher in class, what exactly his qualifications are.
The Spanish teacher's perspective? Well, Juan has upset the teacher in 4/2 and doesn't know it – he's just going into the classroom and doing his job, which is to teach language. There's a teacher in every classroom, and it's too much bother to learn all their names and try to get to know them when none of them can speak any Spanish. Why isn't she supporting him? Well, that's clear – she wants her period off, and doesn't seem to care that the children in that class are out of control.
Whether it's Sally and Juan, or Supaporn and James, or Sakada and Jessica, the story doesn't really change. Perhaps you too have heard a teacher complaining about their Thai 'assistant' teacher? She doesn't help enough. She helps too much. She translates everything for the children. She's too strict. She's not strict enough. She always shouts at the children.
Ego power struggles
So begins the professional ego contest. On whose side is the supporting manager? Where can we expect the children's loyalties to fall? At the end-game, who will be the ultimate winner?
I've come to believe that putting two teachers in the same classroom needs careful planning, and even then, the clash of egos is a minefield. It only takes one wrong step. With the cultural dimension added in, especially for a newcomer, things can become noxious frighteningly quickly.
There is a strong argument in favor of listening to Jennifer's advice. Getting to know the teachers who you share your classroom with is a genuinely good investment of your time, and particularly so in our 'foreign language' teacher role. In fact, for a new teacher in a Thai primary school who has to co-teach (or enter another teacher's classroom), getting to know your local colleagues probably ranks as one of the most useful ways you can spend your first week. Once you know their names, understand that for many of these teachers, the inside of their classroom constitutes the majority of their daily input. To them, breaches of classroom etiquette are not trivial.
Is there an easy solution? I feel there is – getting to know your teacher is the start. Learn her name and use it. If your teacher is supposed to co-teach with you, sharing your lesson plan and indicating where and what kind of help you'd like will make a difference. Sitting down for a cup of coffee together and sharing 'how I teach' stories might be useful too so you can see where there might be a mismatch. In fact, just sitting down and sharing a cup of coffee together might be exactly what is needed.
We come to Thailand for the local experience, right? Getting to know the local teachers in your school is at least a part of that journey.
Steve Louw is the lead trainer of the popular Chichester College TEFL Course in Bangkok.