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Crucial Conversations Among Teachers

My first day as a teacher, I was astounded by the number of decisions I made on my own. What questions do I ask? Who do I call on? Should I laugh at the funny remark from the student in the second row? Should I walk forward or backwards down an aisle? (Forwards, I discovered when I hit the deck a week later.)

Fortunately, this was the last time I would be making these decisions on my own at Our Lady Queen of Angels.

I remember my colleagues asking me how I was doing that first day. It was more than a pleasantry. They did not respond with a “Hang in there” or an artificial series of steps to follow to make the class run smoothly. That day and many after, they listened and shared anecdotes of what they had done in the classroom as something to consider the next time I made a similar decision. They left the conversation in such a place that allowed us to pick it up the thread the next day in the recess yard or heading back to our classrooms after dismissal. They were also central components of our more formal conversations at our weekly faculty meetings.

Those ongoing conversations supported me and pulled me into the community. And they were a major reason why, on the last day of school that year, when I was cleaning Room 306 for the summer, I remember thinking, “This is one of my favorite places in the world.”

Now, with the school building closed due to the pandemic, I miss those conversations.

But just as the relationships we built with students in the classroom continue to be the foundation on which our distance learning has occurred, this essential part of our school culture has endured during distance learning–and continues to help our teachers support our students in these trying times.

The joy we get from sharing our work of striving to find better ways to serve our students and families together is the driving force behind these conversations. That’s why we continue to find ways to have them, even though we no longer have a few moments waiting for copies to finish. We still have our cellphones and our weekly faculty meetings, and we still look for chances to learn from one another.

For example, in a Zoom faculty meeting, we looked at the impeccable clarity of pre-K teachers Tiffany Santiago’s and Saramarie Colandra’s descriptions of the work students are doing at home–descriptions they send to the parents of their students. Middle school teachers then shared their thoughts on how they could apply the lessons from these examples to their work. Because despite the differences in students’ ages and lesson content, the bonds that make us teachers are stronger than the distinctions stemming from the different grade bands we teach.

In another Zoom conversation, an example of Pauline Hyatt’s efficient feedback to one of her third graders in an email highlighted a way we can provide students with a scaffold to think about what they already know when they are confused instead of just supplying a right or wrong answer:

So a few days later, when Corey Kuminecz’s seventh graders encountered some difficulty finding the surface area of an irregular shape on a Zoom class, he patiently jumped back a few slides to a different problem that addressed the concept causing the confusion. After asking a few questions about it that students answered correctly, he advanced to the problem that had tripped up the class, and correct answers flooded the Zoom chat. Corey did not just give his seventh grade students the answer. He provided a scaffold that showed them that they knew enough to figure it out–the way Pauline Hyatt had done in the email we had analyzed together.

When I asked about the moment after class ended, Corey responded with a chuckle, “Yeah, that really felt like teaching there for a minute.”

No wonder during parent-teacher conferences, one of his students told Mr. Kuminecz, “I really understand the math the way you are teaching us during distance learning,” or another commented in a class Zoom chat, “There’s just no feeling like the one when you get three straight math problems right.”

At Our Lady Queen of Angels, we lean on our root belief that guides people into the building on the banner that flies over the school’s entrance: Children and learning come first. As teachers, we are best able to live up to this lofty goal when we support one another in concrete ways.

The practice of supportive peer conversations handed down from teacher to teacher for decades at our school, and at so many others, has built a habit in our faculty strong enough that the constraints of distance teaching cannot take it away. And for teachers like Corey Kuminecz and students like his, our determination to keep the conversations about good teaching going is making all the difference.

While I would much prefer teaching in Room 306 and thinking through possible teaching moves with a colleague on the playground rather than on Zoom, it is gratifying to discover that the culture of supportive peer reflection that filled the halls at OLQA has migrated online–and that our students continue to benefit as a result.

Will Beller is the Dean at Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem. He also teaches social studies.