In a recent conversation with a friend who is in quality control at a local steel plant, he described a process he and his colleges from other plants engage in called “best marking“. Officials from one plant (or many) visit another for the express purpose of learning from their peers. Whenever the guests discover a practice or procedure that is done better or more efficiently than at their home plant they ask lots of questions. The officials at the home plant “give” their innovations to their visitors. This spirit of collaboration always pays off because each plant inevitably learns many lessons in return for each development they share.
As the 2014-2015 school year begins, I am filled with hope due in no small part to the fact that I see a ground-swell of “best marking” in my school, our system and this profession. Never before in my professional career have I seen so many teachers finding ways to make collaborative connections. We have stopped waiting for someone to give us permission to learn from each other and are forging bonds on our own.
I work at a middle school that moved into a building already occupied by an elementary school six years ago. We brought one wing of classrooms with us, but more than our share of traffic. And classes. And hormones. In our struggle to work out how make things work we mostly forgot how privileged we are to work under the same room. We know there are superstars down the hall but we have never taken advantage of that fact.
We decided near the end of last year that we are going to be a family. We’ve got sharing the bathroom and squabbling over who took who’s stuff down pretty well. Now we are going to love each other and have each other’s back and learn from each other like a family does. We’ve been working this summer on some pretty cool plans for this year based on that new commitment. I can’t wait to see how they play out.
For the last ten years, I have worked in a school system that’s probably not that different from yours. We love children and we work very hard every day. We do RTI and IEPs and HALT and CIPs (although we phased out BBSST and ARMT and AHSGE). We want to “do what’s right for kids” and we write our plans to make sure that we do. And what we seem to have missed is that students are not numbers. And that not even the numbers that are true about them are THE truth about them. And we have especially forgotten that among us we have profound insights; and between us we have rich experience; and together we have immense strength and an iron resolve.
Many of us decided to begin learning from each other. We have started driving across town to ask questions. We use social media to share ideas with each other. We work together to plan timely, profoundly relevant professional development. Connections and partnerships are forming across the city. We mean to continue this grassroots effort to learn from each other. I can wait to see how our collaboration plays out.
Until about two years ago I knew less than ten educators from outside my school system. I was part of a landscape of educational silos: most people working in virtual professional isolation. We were all so busy revising our Code of Conduct or our mission statement or the testing schedule that we forgot that the school system in the next county might have an incredible insight to share about a problem we were trying to solve if we would only ask. We went to lots of conferences to hear the experts pontificate on the newest ways to solve the oldest issues but we missed the simple genius of the professional right next door or just across the state line. And we were content to come home and keep our own council about the giants we were facing.
My eyes began to open much later than many of my peers, and it seems to me that more and more educators in this part of the state and across the country (and around the world) are simply and quietly choosing to stop being an island. I have connected with and had incredibly rich professional conversations with teachers and principals through social media. Through the power of technology, I have participated in “live” conversations with my peers. And my story is not unique. Educators are becoming “connected”. We are establishing relationships with a whole web of folks who are passionately connected to being better at what we do – we call them professional learning networks.
Our school year begins tomorrow. We will be granted the opportunity to once again pour all our sweat and wisdom and love into young lives. For many, we will have the best year of our career specifically because we have finally understood that it does take a village. Not a conglomeration of loosely affiliated (though geographically contiguous) independent contractors; a tightly woven community of inter-dependent, highly collaborative, philosophically and missionally aligned partners. It may take us a while to figure out that we all need to make best marking a priority. From my vantage point, though, the future has never looked so bright.