by Theresa Dooley
Watershed is a unique school. With a tight-knit community and an alternative approach to learning, it can be difficult to be new. The process of integrating new teachers into the “Watershed way” appears to be rocky from a student’s perspective. The process will never be perfect, but it is possible that, if new teachers were informed about more nuances of the school, it could be smoother. In an attempt to identify those important nuances, this article addresses the experience of Watershed’s newest teachers. In informal interviews, these teachers were asked about what they learned about the school before they started teaching as well as what they wished they had known sooner. Given the responses of the new teachers, this article will address the main points of class hierarchy, teaching freedom, student knowledge, and student-to-teacher relationships and will bring clarity to the student body regarding how new teachers learn about the school.
Teacher Training Process
In August, before school starts for students, there are two days dedicated to training new teachers. Before the spring semester, the teachers also have a planning week without students where teachers can be introduced to the school. Along with these dedicated slots of planning time, the teachers go on a retreat at the beginning of the year. It appears as though the staff at Watershed strives to form a community within themselves in the same way that they strive to form a community within the student body. Every new teacher who was interviewed for this article expressed gratitude for the support that they received from their fellow teachers. The process of getting to know the school seems to be very self-driven, but when the teacher reaches out, many of their colleagues are very willing to help them through the process. Overall, the process of getting to know Watershed seems fairly unstructured, but the staff are all very committed to providing the best experience for each other and the students.
Expedition classes are the core of the Watershed curriculum. This means that a fieldwork opportunity for an expedition class may lead to students missing their skills classes. The existence of this system is not necessarily bad; however, a couple of skills teachers have expressed that they wish that had been more directly informed about the number of classes that students would be missing. It is very important for new teachers to expect the expedition classes to go on a week-long trip each semester. It does not even have to be a specified number of classes, just the fact that students will not attend every day that the schedule says there are skills classes.
Along with the impact that expedition has on skills classes, it is important to recognize the prioritization within skills classes. Every student's schedule is formed around the time of their math class. Again, the nature of this system makes complete sense, but teachers that are hired to instruct Spanish or art should be aware that they may have students in their class who are not in the ideal level for their abilities. Many students at Watershed have been placed in a Spanish class that is either a level above or below where they should be because the ideal level is only offered during their math class. Being in an improper level will always be a difficult situation to handle for both the student and the teacher, but the best way to start is to make sure the teacher is aware that those students will exist.
Watershed teachers are not required to follow a strict lesson plan. This means that they have a lot of freedom in deciding what and how they teach their class. The opportunities that come with this freedom can be very exciting. It is great that the administration is really open to new ideas. Teachers have expressed that they wish they had known about this freedom sooner so that they could have taken advantage of the vast number of possibilities that come with teaching a Watershed class.
Given the freedom that teachers are given, there is not a very clear way to know what students have learned in the past. Multiple teachers have said that they started their classes very blindly, leading to the conclusion that there is not a clear system of recording the content that is covered in Watershed classes. It could be very beneficial to create some sort of standard of recording the topics that are taught, so that future teachers can read them and gain a basic understanding of the knowledge that their students will have. It is clear that there is constant collaboration among teachers at Watershed, which is wonderful. In the case of student knowledge, however, a slightly more formal approach may be more successful. If each teacher were to make a simple list of all of the topics that they cover in each class and a system is implemented so those lists are readily available to new teachers, there would be a stronger basis for teachers to start their classes on the right foot.
The culture at Watershed fosters very casual relationships between students and teachers. This means that there is less hierarchy within the classroom, which can be very beneficial. It also means that students sometimes address teachers with very little respect for their authority. The student body tends to be spoiled when it comes to the quality of teachers that they get, and that leads to very high expectations. With high expectations and a lack of fear to disagree with teachers, students can cause very stressful environments for new teachers who are still trying to figure out how the teacher-to-student interactions work at Watershed. A solution to this common tension between new teachers and the student body would require students to commit to the success of their teachers. Students expect a lot of transparency from the administration, and they should strive to be transparent as well. It should be clearer to new teachers what students expect out of a Watershed teacher. This transparency could potentially be achieved by an organized committee of students that meet with the new teachers before and during the school year. This would create an environment where new teachers are able to directly hear from students. Whether or not this committee is the solution, it is important for new teachers to be aware of informal connections that are common at Watershed.
All of these topics are important to the values that Watershed possesses. Watershed provides a wonderful learning environment for many students, and its success could be amplified if new teachers were more directly guided towards understanding the little things that make the school what it is. It can be difficult to pinpoint the nuances that define the community from the inside, but class hierarchy, teaching freedom, student knowledge, and student-to-teacher relationships are topics that have been pinpointed by the community's newest members as important components. If new teachers are able to be informed about these components before they begin teaching, integration into the Watershed community could be a smoother process for new teachers.