How Teachers Can Support Each Other

Q&ALarry Ferlazzo, an Education Week blogger and award-winning classroom teacher, recently addressed concerns from the teaching community on how to create a more supportive work environment.  In the wake of high-stakes testing and high-pressure evaluations, morale in the teachers’ lounge appears to have taken a nose dive.

One reader asked Ferlazzo how to address “unhealthy competitiveness” that stems from the “zero-sum game” of current education policies and practices.  Ferlazzo, though deferring to guest responses from Bill Ferriter and Parry Graham (authors of Building a Professional Learning Community at Work: A Guide to the First Year), reminds teachers that success is not a “finite pie—that if you get some that means I will have less.  The reality…is that the more I share with you, the bigger the whole pie gets.”

Ferriter, a 6th grade ELA teacher, touches on the push in many districts to use standardized scores to rate teachers.  Assigning numbers to individual teachers, as opposed to recognizing progress and contributions to the collective improvement of the school, inevitably creates competition.  A way to address this is to establish a “team norm,” in which “collaborative efforts AREN’T about studying successful people.  Instead, they are about studying successful PRACTICES.”  Focusing on practice, instead of people, can ease the implied “why can’t you be more like so-and-so?”

Ferriter goes on to emphasize, “You’ll have to militant about language in order to cement this norm into your collaborative work.”  Due to the traditional compartmentalized structure of schools and relative autonomy of classroom teachers, it is easy for “competitive, teacher-centered language [to] slip into our conversations.”  Rather than commenting on teacher Mary’s apparent mastery of the profession when her student’s scores steadily increase, we should be focusing on what teaching practices she is using to encourage such results.  Changing the language that frames discussions from individual recognition to professional learning can “erase the competition and defensiveness that is destroying [our] collaborative work.”

Graham, a middle school principal and adjunct professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, looks at the question of competitiveness from the “team level” and the school level.  At the team (or department, or grade) level, teachers can model what they believe is positive behavior—no gossiping, giving due praise, etc.  Second, address any negativity issues head-on at meetings.  Ask if anyone else perceives negativity, and brainstorm ideas that could help increase morale.

At the school level, teachers should get involved in the groups that influence school culture.  Volunteer on the school improvement or leadership team, on curricular committees, hospitality groups, etc.  Host social events for teachers to meet outside of the school building, such as a Friday “happy hour” or weekend barbeque.  In other words, it takes work to improve the relationships between colleagues, and leading by example is a good way to get everyone on the right track.

To read the full Q&A , please visit