Are Schools Lost in Space?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the spaces we inhabit as teachers. In my classroom practice as well as my university classes, I keep coming back to the idea of intentional space and how we create it in our lives. Especially with younger students, teachers know there must be a place for everything and everything in its place. There are bins for picking up this kind of paper, boxes for returning that kind of paper, cups for creative materials, and so on and so forth. As teachers, I want us to start asking about our professional spaces within the school. Where do we have PD? Where do we plan? Where do we meet with colleagues to blow off steam or chat?

study spaceWhile possibly seeming pedestrian or even passive on their surface, each of these questions requires us to imagine our daily routines and habits. That shared starting point of “where do I go to do the things I do?” is one that prepares us for learning and practicing new things. In my experience, it is likely that the discussion about where we do things is swept aside rather quickly in conversation in favor of seemingly more pragmatic ones like “what are we doing?“. This is a mistake, I think. Creating a physical space (or a digital one) is the first step to creating mental space for ideas. If my colleagues and I want to expose ourselves to new ideas about teaching more regularly, than we must collaborate to make a place to house those ideas. Once we know where we can go together, be it a bulletin board or a blog, to post those ideas and questions, we will start to accept that we are permitted to improve and discuss those things.

When schools fail to create or identify these kinds of professional spaces, innovation can cease, and practices will begin to stagnate. To share one example, my school recently implemented a new early morning collaboration time each week. Every department was given a day of the week and 30 minutes (it’s better than nothing) before and during our homerooms to work on shared issues. When my department’s day finally came, we were excited and a little bit stressed. We knew carving out the time was an important step for administration to take, but there were new stresses to be concerned with that come any time you leave your classroom.digital art2

We made an agenda and made our way to the meeting room on our Thursday morning, excited to get some adult space to ourselves. We passed out some questions to discuss and dug right in. Not a minute later than we got comfortable with our coffee and notes, the announcements started. Our precious time and space was now polluted, put on pause, and our lips all pursed in frustration.

You can get a fair amount done in 30 minutes of time, and it offers the option of members coming to school a bit earlier if needed. However, when that’s interrupted by announcements that can’t be stopped, nearly everything gained by the space created is lost.The next week we found a new space to convene and the meeting moved forward with only muffled interference in the distance.

Learning to make new spaces is only the first step. Such spaces will bring challenges needing mitigation. The process is never fully complete either; that needs to be understood. Schools, teachers, and principals must all become adept at mastering the use of intentional space in the school and in time. The cycle of improvement must be continuous. Manipulating digital space needs to be added to that list also, as it is something many are not equipped to do. Start by recognizing and evaluating existing spaces: where are certain types of work done? Where are formal and informal conversations really taking place? And what is perceived by the staff as effective among each of those areas?
Starting there, educators can move forward with the knowledge that changes to the spaces around them will facilitate more positive change and allow for the free exchange of more information and inquiry.

So, what kinds of spaces do you see in use? What kinds of spaces are being created in your school?

How Do We Define “PD”?

When do teachers have time to develop themselves as professionals?

A colleague asked me this recently during a brief department meeting, “okay, what do we really mean by ‘professional development’?”. The question immediately sparked thoughts and urged me to respond by reaching for details to breathe life into such an important moment. The sad thing about our profession–as American teachers–is that we don’t ever get to talk about the big ideas we once dreamed about in school. We don’t get to the “why” or the “what if” during cram-your-breakfast-in-while-policing-the-hallway meetings. Our professional time is diluted by empty technical tasks while our hearts and souls are left (the bell just rang…)

I’m leaving that pause in to illustrate what I’m talking about. There really are not enough spaces for pedagogical thought between teachers; my plan yielded enough time for some deep breathing, a necessary trip to my mailbox, and the previous paragraph on this day. We are scrunched between hours, assemblies, impromptu mandatory conversations with administrators or district leaders, and all the while the kids need to be kept engaged and monitored in the background. We’re never really off the hook for their safety and that is reflected in our blood pressure, coffee intake, and personal sanity.

Yes, of course kids need to be taken care of at all times in school. No right-minded teacher would disagree. However, how often do we consider the professional atmosphere of the teacher? What kind of air does she breathe? What sorts of words does she swim through? And what is the general ecology of her professional environment?

These are questions ignored in every day practice in schools because they are too abstract, too theoretical, and too impractical to make it onto official dockets and agendas (especially those emailed at the last minute and with high importance). But really, what are we missing out on when we discount this ecological element of the teaching and learning environment? What is the cost of our current professional pace?

When teachers are given a space to take a deep breath, a sip of coffee, or even take a glance at a professional journal or article, an important psychological (and emotional) development takes place (that’s what I’m calling it at least). They are freed to leave the always-on mindset of the checklist high and email buzzing in your pocket, and can truly think of themselves and their practice. You read it right, teachers need more time to think of themselves. Ultimately, it’s that kind of focus that will lead to better serving the students and the school as a whole system.

What are your needs as a teacher? Principals, what kinds of time do you provide in your building to allow for personal growth and change amongst teachers? Is “systems thinking” a pervasive idea for those around you?