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Educators should collaborate, not compete

It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgment.

―Marcus Tullius Cicero

In part one of this blog, I discussed the application of the “competition, not collaboration” concept to my Global Studies and Global Issues classes at THINK Global School. Part two will identify how I have begun to apply it more effectively to my own teaching and professional life.

Let me make this clear, I think competition is an amazing thing, one that pushes people to reshape the boundaries of their own potential; however, now in my enlightened thirty year old state, I can honestly say that it’s not the only way. I grew up in New York, where competition is everywhere, whether it was in business, picking up girls, or in athletics, where I played ice hockey and lacrosse. As a young athlete I was guided by the phrase “110% or nothing,” which ensured my success on the ice and the field through my unyielding work ethic. It was here that I began to believe that in order to be the best, you have to work the hardest and that talent can be beat by work ethic and dedication. This mentality guided me through high school and university, and was an important contributing factor in my winning both the Claes Nobel Educator of Distinction in 2010, and the Washington Post’s Agnes Meyer teacher of the year in 2011.

As an educator, I want my classes to be the students’ favorites; my activities to be the most enlightening and engaging; my teaching the most powerful and profound. Tracing back to my early years at college, my professors would tell me that I could be a “Teacher of the Year” one day, and I came to view teaching as a competitive sport. Now that I work at THINK Global School, I am starting to realize that having a competitive nature as an educator is actually a pretty crippling philosophy to possess. Let me explain why.

In the melee of the United States public education system, I would argue that competition is an important and crucial philosophy for new teachers, as it forces them to apply what they have learned in college and challenge the traditional view of educators. The research is clear that creativity and critical-thinking are vital 21st century skills, yet traditional teaching crushes them.

I advocate fully for new teachers to join a school and actively compete to be its best teacher, as the model is currently broken. Veteran teachers have been defeated by the system — loads of them quietly conforming, their original inspiration to teach drained from their souls. If new teachers can challenge this conformity and spark a creative and competitive shift in teaching, maybe we will one day see a positive change in the United States education system.

Another reason I believe competition is needed in U.S. public schools is because teaching students who do not have a desire to learn requires teachers to be salesmen. Great salesmen are driven by competition. In a recent conversation with a highly successful young entrepreneur, my students and I learned about his humble origins in car sales. He confessed that he wasn’t necessarily trying to sell a person a car, but instead was trying to develop a lifelong relationship with that person, his family, his friends, and in turn, earn all of their future car purchases. When I taught in the US, I “sold” my content with conviction to my students and over time gained their trust. I led them to believe that this played a crucial role in their success.

My advice to any teachers dealing with unmotivated students is to apply the same strategy: earn their trust through hard work, transparency, and zeal, and convince them to buy into what you are selling — competition surely breeds success in this area as well.

But wait, isn’t this supposed to be a blog about collaboration, not competition? YES.

As I mentioned before, I’m a firm believer that competition helps people grow, but I also know that this is not the only way. Even the world’s greatest competitors can’t do it all on their own. It requires research, mentors, practice, and the ability to tweak your own personal skillset.

One of my favorite quotes is:

Don’t wait for someone to take you under their wing. Find a good wing and climb up underneath it

-Frank C. Bucaro

As a teacher at THINK Global School, a lot of the perils that come along with teaching in the U.S. school system do not apply. Here’s why…

Highly creative teacher innovators

Before I took my first teaching placement with THINK Global School in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I worked for months to create a unique and powerful curriculum. I was amazed to see that almost every teacher –returning or new– came to our New York meeting having done the same thing. I knew this was a place for innovation in education, but my skepticism levels were extremely high. Throughout my three years here at TGS, I have worked with some incredible educators from a mixture of backgrounds who teach very different styles. While at first I entered this institution with the same mentality of the students that join us, now I am able to see the bigger picture: that collaboratively we are weaving a fabric of different learnings styles, each equally important in its own right. Applying the concept of cultural relativism to teaching styles is important when you are surrounded by highly motivated people.

An incredible perk that is often overshadowed by our diverse student body is our diverse educator body. We have teachers from Spain, England, South Africa, New Zealand, and scattered regions of the United States. We each adapt our educational paradigms to this new model, and there isn’t a need for competition.

A holistic approach to learning

At THINK Global School, we embrace a whole-child approach to learning, and our jobs truly never end. Since we live and learn alongside our students as they travel the world, we take on many extra roles. We are coaches, parents, business consultants, older siblings, club members, and anything else that these amazing kids can throw at us. Some of our staff are athletes, some artists, and some musicians. We each transform our personal passions into potential opportunities for our students to find their own niches in this world. While I used to think athletics was a key component to child development, now I realize that there are several other activities that provide the same structure and guidance. Collaboratively, we provide opportunities — we don’t compete to have the most successful seminar and we live in a culture of continual learning and improvement. This is embodied in one of our core values, Kaizen, a Japanese philosophy regarding the never-ending cycle of action, reflection, adaptation, and modification.

Highly motivated and creative student body

The students of THINK Global School understand their rare opportunity and don’t require the selling of content or need coaxing into completing tasks.

They are eager to learn, understand, and apply the lessons and concepts that we provide them. This eagerness allows them to adapt to a variety of teaching styles and take risks that they might otherwise be averse to. There have been a number of occasions where students will knowingly create an assignment that is above their current learning level or outside of their comfort zone, just to give it a try. This is certainly a rarity and a perk for educators. Without having to waste energy in selling why education and our individual class content is important, we can get right into delivery and project creation.

The ability to take risks, fail, and reflect

The final reason why I can advocate for collaboration over competition at THINK Global School is due to the unending support from our Leadership Team to take creative initiative, push boundaries, accept risks, and grow from our experiences.

We are encouraged to step away from the four walls of our classrooms, conduct flipped-learning experiences, and use a wide range of resources to supplement and enrich our classroom content. In each country we visit, we hire a host city specialist who works with us to develop local links and opportunities. Each teacher is allocated a budget and given their own discretion on how they allocate those funds amongst their classes. The Leadership Team also encourages teachers to find personally fulfilling professional development opportunities that can relate directly or indirectly to providing our students with a richer experience. This freedom and safety in curricular decision making, coupled with the opportunity to grow in areas of our own choosing allows for a diversity of skills amongst our staff. A culture of collaboration exists because we aren’t competing to fit a clear definition of what educators at TGS should be. We are simply trying to grow in every way we can and apply that knowledge to our student relationships and courses.

I hope you have enjoyed this two-part blog on why I’ve made the transition from competition to collaboration with my students and within my own professional realm during my time here at THINK Global School. As stated, competition has and always will have a place in human development, but it is not the only way. In this last semester, I have realized and reflected deeply on why this philosophy is the one that I need to continue my growth as an educator and a human. Whether or not you agree, I hope that you benefit from my understanding of the differences, opportunities, and motives behind competition and collaboration.

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