Monday, May 25, 2015

From isolation to inspired collaboration: How global education is transforming teacher relationships in my school (and lessons learned along the way)

I love the humanities;  I actually find it strange and unnatural to teach the social sciences and the language arts in isolation from one another.  I went into teaching with global education in mind, many years before global ed was a buzzword and a Twitter hashtag. 

Much to my disappointment, however, during my first year teaching in my rural high school in northern California, I quickly learned that the English and Social Science Departments had a history of animosity and virtually no positive experiences with collaboration in recent memory.  But I was new, and I had nothing to lose, so I approached my principal and superintendent one afternoon to inquire about linking the social science and language arts curriculum.  I'll never forget the look my administrators gave each other immediately after I inquired, as if this was the moment for which they had been waiting for years. 

The story of the birth and evolution of an interdisciplinary, collaborative Global Studies humanities program spanning two whole grades and eight teachers in two departments is truly a story of overcoming some significant personal and professional barriers.  We made many mistakes along the way, but here's what we learned:


1.  Start small in order to build trust.   

We realized that it was unrealistic to successfully globalize every classroom at once and ask everyone to proactively collaborate without seeing what it would actually look like on a smaller scale.  We started with two teachers, one social science teacher and one English teacher (strategically chosen by our principal), and we started with just two sections of Global Studies at the 10th grade level.  We spent three years working together in a team of two before we truly trusted each other and felt ready to expand the program and bring more teachers on board.  It also took a couple years for other teachers on campus to see the results and successes of our work and want to join the team.  You want people to want to be a part of it.


2.  Be patient. It's not a race.   

We tried to grow our global program too quickly, and it was almost disastrous.  Starting on any kind of collaborative journey can be overwhelming.  When we tried to expand the program from two teachers to eight teachers (two sections of Global Studies to two entire grades consisting of Global Studies I and Global Studies II) in one year, we learned that sufficient trust had not been built among the expanded teaching teams, and as a result, the 9th grade program has been struggling to build trust and find success.  We are actually going to have to go backwards and try to repair the damage done by trying to grow the program too quickly.  One way to try to rebuild is to set the goal of collaborating on one unit per semester (or whatever feels manageable) to help rebuild the trust.  It has taken about 5 years for our 10th grade Global Studies II team of 4 to really gel, so we have learned to be patient.  Allow the roots to grow.


3.  Be flexible.  

It was not easy to marry my more Englishy, thematic, and risk-taking teaching style to my teaching partner's more historical, chronological, and measured approach.  We both had to let go and adjust a lot.  We also had to open our classrooms up to each other, make mistakes together, consider our different approaches and passions as we planned curriculum, and admit when things did not go as planned.  We had to be okay with not always agreeing, but commit to finding ways to move forward despite disagreement.  We also had to be open to learn new content and skills ourselves.  I'm learning how to make history come alive, and my teaching partner is learning how to teach complex narrative structure.  Since we're incorporating a lot of current global issues, we're all learning about the context of current events as they happen, and we don't always have the answers.


4.  Let go of assumptions.  

It's so interesting that we are asking our students to let go of assumptions and single narratives of peoples and cultures, yet we teachers hold fast to our assumptions of each other, and we always assume the worst.  Real trust was built in our Global Studies team through making mistakes and not judging each other for those mistakes.  I have noticed that people who are not actively collaborating and teaching together are very quick to judge each others' mistakes and make presumptions about each others' competency.  The idea of "Understanding + Communication = Trust" is not only valid in terms of breaking down barriers between cultures, but it is also highly applicable to teachers' relationships.  When we understand each other, communicate with one another, then we can trust each other. 


5.  Build in collaboration time and space 

Common prep periods and/or regular release time is absolutely necessary to be able to plan, build curriculum, talk about what worked and what didn't work, and even to vent.  Although my teaching partner and I do not spend the entirety of every prep talking about our class, it is so helpful to be able to pop into his classroom and see where he is on our timeline, talk about how we're approaching a certain assignment or skill differently, and check in about day-to-day things as they come up.  

It also helps that our classrooms are right next door to each other.  That is strategic and incredibly important. Moving classrooms can be a major sticking point for teachers.  We get incredibly attached to our rooms and even more attached to our department buildings/floors.  But there is nothing more divisive and counter-collaborative than keeping physical barriers between teachers.  Although we're not there yet, I am looking forward to the day when there are no more "departments."


6.  Be proactive during administrative shifts.  

We started our Global Studies program when the administrative conditions were quite supportive, and unexpectedly, we had an administrative shift.  Overnight, our program went from being highly supported to seriously in trouble.  We definitely had to sell it through each of the administrative shifts, but we quickly realized that we didn't have to do too much to sell it.  There was a buzz about Global Studies from students and parents, and we had been doing end-of-the-year surveys that were highly favorable.  Still, having a conversation with the new admin at the start of the year about what Global Studies is all about has been important.  We are in a place right now where we have administrative support and stability, but we definitely don't take it for granted.  We make sure that what's going on in Global Studies is in our school board reports, on our school website, and part of our staff meeting announcements.  When we present at meetings and conferences, we present ourselves as Global Studies teachers rather than English or history teachers.

 

Here's where we are now:

We have a lot of work to do, but global education is slowly becoming the norm at our small, rural, northern California high school.  Students take two years of Global Studies, which consists of linked and collaborative English and social science curriculum at the freshman and sophomore levels. The Global Studies I program focuses on cultural/physical geography, movements/migrations of people, colonialism, introduction to globalization, and indigenous issues worldwide.  Global Studies II focuses on current and historic global conflicts, historic and contemporary Arab and Middle Eastern Studies, and revolutions worldwide.  

Exit surveys and essays show that students not only believe they have learned a lot about the world, but they have become more tolerant individuals who are capable of recognizing perspectives (including their own), communicating cross-culturally, and understanding how people are addressing issues of global significance.  We have an Act Global student club, as well as a competitive student Academic WorldQuest geopolitical team.  Music and science teachers are inquiring about being part of our Global Studies team.  Once skeptical teachers are acknowledging successes of the program.  


Slowly, our journey on this global education path is bringing together a once highly-fragmented and distrustful group of teachers.  And it's happening organically.  We have had no school-wide global professional development, we have yet to collaborate with NGOs, we have hired no consultants.  We started small, built trust, learned flexibility, let go of assumptions, created time and space for collaboration, and advocated for our program.




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