How important is it to like your coworkers?

So much of a teacher’s job is done independently from other people. We are responsible for our own classroom, the designing of our own lessons, and planning our own curricula (based on a set of standards of course). This is something I enjoy about teaching – I am responsible for coming up with a plan to get my students to achieve the learning objectives. Language arts, in particular, allows for a lot of creativity and flexibility in how I facilitate my students’ acquisition of skills and knowledge.

Having so much control over the job I do on a daily basis is a significant positive of the job. I teach in an international baccalaureate program, so I follow the specific guidelines of that program when I design my curricula, and there are a lot of specific guidelines! But in the end, I am the person who figures out what my students will be doing on a day-to-day basis. I love having that freedom to be creative and come up with interesting and thought-provoking units of study.

I work in a relatively small program of about 15-20 teachers within a larger Japanese secondary school. As I already stated, it is an IB program, also known to the students and teachers as the “bilingual program” because the language of instruction for most of the classes is in English. In our school there are several other “streams,” including a regular Japanese secondary school program. The international teachers in the IB program all sit in an office together; because it is a Japanese school, we do not have our own classrooms to work out of. (In Japanese schools, the students stay in one classroom for most of the day, and the teachers travel around to them to teach their subjects.)

This means I do spend a lot of time around my colleagues, since we all have our desks in a room together. This is both good and bad.

The positive of sitting in the same room to do our prep work is that we are able to communicate really easily about day-to-day things and about the students. In fact, we tend not to use email as much to communicate about most things. It means we get a more immediate response if we need to ask someone a question, and we are able to be more clear about what we mean. This helps to avoid communication problems. I think we are also very much in touch with each other about our students. If one teacher notices that a student is having issues, he/she might mention it in the staff office and then we are all more aware of what’s going on with our students in their other classes.

The negative of sitting in the same room with my coworkers is that I feel like I can never escape them. I don’t have any personal space where I can go to and work on my own, in peace and quiet. When I am in a bad mood and I don’t feel like talking to people, I can’t really get away and I just have to deal with them. Of course, this is the situation for many people who work in corporate settings, but I do find it really frustrating sometimes. Also, if people are chatting in the office, it can be difficult to concentrate on my own work. But headphones and a subscription to Google Play music has solved that problem for me, for the most part.

But now to the main question. How important is it to like your coworkers? This experience of working in an environment where I am always in such proximity to my coworkers has made me think about this a lot more than I might if I had my own classroom to escape to.

I realize that your colleagues can really make your experience so much more fulfilling. Having people around you who are excited about teaching, who seek to try new things as a teacher and to share their ideas could be such a motivating aspect of the job. Unfortunately, most of the people I work with are extremely independent and do not seem to want to collaborate very much. One reason for this might be because we work in a Japanese school where the workload is extremely intense. We have very heavy workloads and also the nature of working in an IB program means we have so much to think about and so much paperwork to keep up with. I definitely think that contributes to the lack of collaboration going on where I work. But personality also has something to do with it. Many people I work with are very focused on work being work only – they show up at 8AM, work hard until the end of the day (usually around 6 in our school – we work long hours for teachers!), and then go home. They don’t make an effort to connect with the people around them.

I am sad about this aspect of my work environment. I love my job and my students, but I don’t feel satisfied by the work relationships I have. Also, living abroad can be lonely. It is hard to make friends where I live because it is a very Japanese suburban community. It would be nice if my colleagues were more interested in socializing. I know people like to have their space and to keep work and freetime separate. I totally understand that. But in the past, when I worked at schools where the teachers enjoyed socializing from time to time, getting together for a Friday happy hour now and again, I felt a lot happier.

The fact is, if we are working as islands, doing everything in our own little bubble, we miss out on so much opportunity to grow as teachers. Collaboration is really key to improving your own skills. When I was doing my teacher-training before I got my credential, I was required to log a certain amount of teacher observation hours. And every time I observed a new teacher, I came out of it with a new idea and new inspiration. Peer observation is a useful exercise, in my opinion. But even more useful is just developing a supportive working environment where people value the idea of professional learning communities and are eager to learn from each other and share with each other.

I think that the environment of the school and the style of the managers and administration can play a big part in developing this type of collaborative environment. In Japanese schools, traditionally, students work very independently to achieve academic success. In the IB program, collaboration is encouraged. And as teachers, in my school, we do what we are required to do by the IB in regards to collaboration. But it isn’t the natural environment; it feels forced, actually, since many of the teachers seem to not be happy about having to do the types of collaboration activities we do once or twice a term when time permits.

To conclude, I love teaching but at the moment I don’t love my coworkers. They are lovely people and when we do collaborate, I always enjoy it. But I am hoping that eventually when I move on, I get to experience the opportunity of working in a group of people that is more engaged with their colleagues, more excited by the prospect of learning from each other, and when it comes down to it, more friendly, gosh-darn-it!

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