With Appreciation: Welcoming the Experts

While I taught in Helsinki, I noticed that my Finnish colleagues seemed to invite one another’s classes into their classrooms somewhat regularly. These gestures were often small, but they seemed meaningful, bringing joy to them and their students.

Once, one of the physics teachers invited my class into the middle school science labs for an introductory lesson on electricity. Graciously, he taught this lesson during of his free blocks. On another occasion, I was teaching a lesson on the pH scale, and I hoped to use the same lab. After school, another of my middle school colleagues helped me to prepare materials. That afternoon, she also taught me a little lesson on chemical compounds, which I used the following day.

When I felt uncomfortable about teaching a biology unit on sex, a female colleague volunteered to host a private Q&A with my female students in her classroom, while I met with my male students. Beforehand, she helped me to set up a question box, where the children could ask anonymous questions about sex. Later, the same colleague invited me into her classroom, where I shared about my experiences living in the United States. Her students were studying the concept of budgeting and seemed shocked to hear that, during my last year of living in the Boston area, one-third of my gross income went toward paying for health insurance.

Predictably, I wasn’t comfortable with the practice of welcoming my colleagues into my classroom until I had seen this strategy modeled. But by the end of my second year of teaching in Helsinki, I had become a convert. I invited several of my colleagues into my classroom throughout the year, and they spent hours of their time investing in my students’ learning. Sometimes they visited during their regular teaching hours, while on other occasions they came during their free time. It wasn’t difficult to arrange—ultimately, all I needed to do was invite them.

I found that the more I welcomed experts into my classroom, the more I began to view myself as a resource manager who could design great learning experiences for my class by tapping into talents outside of my own. This new way of thinking took pressure off my shoulders, because I didn’t need to be some jack-of-all-trades.

If we teachers want to combat a competitive mindset and instead embrace a collaborative approach to our professional lives—what happiness researchers have called an abundance-oriented approach—I think we need to start recognizing and benefiting from the expertise of others (inside and outside our school communities).

Inviting your colleagues into your classroom, I’ve found, is a good starting point. And given that you work together in the same building, it should be fairly easy to arrange. From the examples I provided earlier, you know that this kind of collaboration doesn’t need to be anything elaborate. Perhaps you have a colleague who has visited Mexico before and you’re teaching a unit on that country. Could you ask that teacher to share a few photos from her trip and a few insightful stories? Or perhaps you want your students to keep a journal, and you have a colleague who’s a passionate writer, who has been filling notebooks with his own thoughts for years—you could ask him into the classroom to talk about the benefits of journaling and share his advice on how to get started.

While welcoming other colleagues into your classroom may seem like an unnecessary extra, I think you’ll find that it’s worth the small effort. If you’re concerned about one another’s time, consider a “teacher swap”: while a teacher is serving as the expert in your classroom, you could serve as the expert in that colleague’s classroom. Once, two of my Helsinki colleagues exchanged roles in this way: the first grade classroom teacher, Paula Havu, switched places with a fifth grade classroom teacher. I spoke with Paula about this experience, and she recalled it wistfully.

Welcoming fellow teachers (and other experts, such as parents) into your classroom sends a message to your students that you’re looking to learn from others. And if you’re like me, cultivating this type of attitude makes it easier to view students as experts, too. I asked Paula to describe what brings children joy in the classroom, and she spoke to the importance of giving kids more ownership by letting them teach sometimes. “They are experts in many areas, so using them more in the classroom instead of you being the leader. . . the kids get more excited, they have choice.”

Before coming to Finland, I had embraced the idea of bringing experts into the classroom, but my vision, I admit, was quite narrow. Often I’d overlook the experts within the walls of my school building. During my first year in Helsinki, I spent a significant amount of effort getting Finnish Olympic and Paralympic athletes to visit during those first weeks of school. In hindsight, it would have been much more efficient if I first tapped into the resources within my school community. These days, I still believe that welcoming experts outside the school can be valuable, but I think it’s best to start by considering the people around you. Not only will their contributions benefit your classroom, but also it’s likely that your invitation will affirm their expertise—it’s a win-win.

Timothy D. Walker, an American teacher living in Finland, is the author of Teach Like Finland and co-author, with Past Salhlberg, of the forthcoming book In Teachers We Trust. He has written extensively about his experiences for Education Week Teacher, Educational Leadership, The Atlantic, and on his blog, Taught by Finland.

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