Lanham, MD—Last Saturday, nearly all of the teachers at Fernwood High school bustled around the building making photocopies, preparing lessons, or interviewing prospective teachers. One applicant’s résumé quickly became the subject of gossip and tweets.
“Not a team player,” read the first item in the “Skills” section of Rebecca Seule’s résumé.
“I don’t see why anyone would list that,” commented Bruce Klop, a social studies teacher. “Obviously we want team players, so she must not want to be hired.”
“Either that, or she’s biting her thumb at us,” added English teacher Ophelia Obida. “It’s bad form, in any case.”
The principal, Ariane Waarom, suspected there was more to the story. “No one would just do that on a lark,” she insisted. “She must have some unusual purpose.” She decided to give Seule a call, just to find out what she had in mind. “At the very least, it’ll prepare us against future onslaughts,” she told herself.
When asked why she had put such unreasonable words on her résumé, Ms. Seule had a lot to say.
“Not everything is a team,” she began. “I love working with my colleagues. I go to them with an idea, or they come to me. Sometimes this leads to some kind of collaboration or other outcome, but it doesn’t have to. Most of the time, I just enjoy hearing what they’re doing with their classes.”
“Well, I think that counts as teamwork,” Principal Waarom ventured.
“But it’s not. You see, teams pursue concrete goals together. Each member’s role contributes to the whole in a somewhat predictable way. Take a sports team. Let’s start with the simplest kind, or rather, the most complicated kind: the duo. In doubles tennis, the two members of the team know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They know who’s good with the long volleys and who’s good up at the net. They may work out strategies together, but they will also react instinctively to what comes at them. Still, they have one fairly simple goal: to beat the other team. A brilliant drop shot isn’t worth much, if their joint effort doesn’t hold up. Conversely, they may lack brilliant drop shots altogether yet win the game because they work well together. Bottom line: they’ve got to win repeatedly to be considered a good team.”
“That sounds an awful lot like what we’re trying to do here at Fernwood—win repeatedly,” Waarom replied. “In fact, I might bring up your analogy at a team development meeting.”
“You’re welcome to do so, but the analogy breaks down,” said Seule. “Yes, teachers have a common goal, which is to ‘win’ in some sense of the word. The problem—and this applies to many areas of education—lies in taking a part and pretending it’s the whole.”
“How would that not be the whole?” queried Waarom, intrigued.
“Well, for one thing, each subject has its particularities. Yes, we’re all trying to help our students advance intellectually, but this plays out in such different ways that we often don’t know or understand what others are doing. Let’s say a math teacher decides to teach students about the cosecant through this formula: ‘cos(θ) ∙ sin(θ) ∙ tan(θ) ∙ csc(θ) = sin(θ).’ Well, you can get students to figure out that csc(θ) is the reciprocal of sin(θ). But that’s not all. From there, they can figure out that cos(θ) ∙ tan(θ) = sin(θ), which of course makes sense. That in turn leads to the calculation that tan(θ) = sin(θ) / cos(θ). The more of these manipulations they do, the more they grasp out the trigonometric functions and their relations—all of them inherent in a right triangle. You can’t really convey this to teachers who don’t know trigonometry. Nor can they convey to you the complexity of a Donne poem you’ve never read.Of course, you could take time to read and think about the poem, or about the trigonometric functions. That’s a great thing to do, in fact. But that would be for your edification, not for the success of the team.”
“Edification. Similar to education, but based on a different metaphor.”
“I know what it is,” snapped Waarom, slightly piqued; “I’m just not sure it has a place in this picture. Scratch that,” she added. “It has a place. I’m just not sure it changes anything. You could still work as a team within the math department to find the best way of teaching those trigonometric functions. Don ‘t tell me some approaches aren’t better than others.”
“Sure, they are. But often you arrive at a good lesson by toying with the trigonometric functions in your head, not by conferring with a team.”
“Wouldn’t you want to share your findings with the team?” pressed Waarom.
“I wouldn’t mind doing so. But each teacher would still have to walk alone with these trig problems—and that’s not all.”
Waarom was getting urgent emails on the computer and throbs and flashes on her iPhone. “I’m sorry I can’t talk all day,” she said with genuine regret, “but is there some final takeaway here?”
“Only one thing: that education is only partly about the pursuit of goals. It’s also about the contemplation of interesting things. You cannot contemplate as a team. As a class, perhaps, or as a faculty. As an assembly or other gathering, perhaps. But not as a team.”
There was a knock on the door; someone had a complaint about a broken copier machine. “I have to go,” Waarom told Seule, “but I’d like to bring you in for an interview. I’ll transfer you over to the secretary.”
For the rest of the day, the principal thought about how the word “team” was overused. She brought it up at the next faculty meeting; many teachers heartily agreed. The school then decided not to call itself a team any more. Word leaked to the district; the superintendent announced that all schools had to rewrite their mission statements to exclude the word “team.” (He revered Fernwood for its test scores and reasoned that if the Fernwood team had abandoned the word ‘team,’ other schools should do the same.)
Panic set in across the district. They needed to call themselves something, soon. What would it be, if not a team?
No one thought of “school.” Instead, a well-paid consultant drafted spiffy mission statements that described schools as “success hubs.”
Now the challenge lay in finding résumés with “Success Hub Facilitator” in the “Skills” section. The task proved trivial; within fifteen minutes, they were streaming in.
Note: I made minor edits to this piece long after posting it.