Jacob Gourley

In my dozen-plus years as a social studies teacher at Thornton Fractional South High School in south suburban Lansing, Ill., I’ve become well practiced in the art of doing more with less. Most of my fellow public school teachers, I’m sure, know what I’m talking about. With budgets tight and resources scarce, teachers learn how to stretch everything from supplies to classroom minutes.

But two years ago, the current principal at Thornton Fractional South offered me and my fellow teachers a remarkable gift: The opportunity to do more with more.

For the first time in my career, my fellow teachers and I were given common collaborative time by subject. I was able to trade ideas, troubleshoot problems, and craft innovative lesson plans with other social studies teachers on a daily basis. It was probably the best year I’ve had as a teacher.

We tend to think of classrooms as sealed environments. And we idolize the heroic teachers who can go into their rooms, shut their doors, and mold young minds.

That Lone Ranger model may have worked in decades past. But these days, teachers are charged with preparing an increasingly diverse student body to make its way in an increasingly complex and competitive world. And none of us can do it alone.

Reforms won’t help if teachers stay isolated

In recent years, Illinois has joined a growing number of states around the country in passing strong education reforms. The state is ramping up more meaningful teacher and administrator evaluations. It’s changing the way teachers are prepared and supported and better equipping principals to be instructional leaders.

But in order for these reforms to bring real-world results, we have to change how teachers work. We can no longer afford to leave teachers isolated in their individual classrooms, wasting in-house expertise that they could be sharing with their fellow teachers.

I’m part of a group of about 20 award-winning educators that Advance Illinois has brought together from around the state. As a member of their Educator Advisory Council, I’ve had the chance to delve more deeply into how best to improve the teaching and learning that goes on in our classrooms.

And in our recently released report, “Transforming Teacher Work,” we talk about how to ensure we attract the best minds to teaching, and give those teachers the opportunities to use all of their talents to help our students. 

Of all the ways to do so, collaboration is nearest and dearest to my heart. When you have a disease, you want a team of doctors pooling their brainpower to help you get better. If you’re in serious legal trouble, you might hire a group of lawyers. And when you’re trying to improve the state of American education, your best bet would be to bring educators together.

During the year of collaboration, my fellow teachers helped me implement a simulation of the Electoral College in my classroom. My students got to work through a presidential election state by state. It was something I had never tried before. My peers, in turn, adapted a mini-project requiring students to research landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases – something I had done for years – into their classrooms.

People were more willing to take risks because they knew they weren’t going it alone. They had support from their peers across the hall. There was a willingness to figure out what worked… and what didn’t.

But budget cuts forced us to go from an eight-period day to a seven-period day following that one year. We lost a dozen and a half teachers to layoffs. And the common collaborative time became a luxury we could no longer afford.

This year, I’ve been designated a division leader. I’m supposed to guide collaborations with my fellow social studies teachers. But these days, I’m lucky if we get sufficient time together twice a month.

Although our structured collaboration ended after just one year, the payoff has lasted. Teachers communicate now in ways that they didn’t before. And I can’t help but imagine how the benefits would multiply if we could find a way to restore that collaborative time.

In the summer after our one-year collaboration experiment, nine of the 13 social studies teachers in my department traveled together to Washington, D.C. We went because we wanted to continue to learn. The pictures of us together, taken in front of the U.S. Capitol, hang in our classrooms still.

Jacob Gourley is a social studies teacher and division leader at Thornton Fractional South High School in Lansing, where he also serves as President of the Federation of Teachers Local #683 (IFT/AFT).  He is a 2010 winner of the Golden Apple Award and was recently honored by Illinois State University’s History Department with the Frederick Drake Teaching Excellence Award.

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