I'm lucky - I usually have pretty good timing with things. It just so happened that back when I was a social studies teacher (grades 7-8) our school district pushed out a new approach to collaboration called Critical Friends Groups (CFG). Have you heard of them? In a nutshell, teachers voluntarily get together twice a month for 90 minutes - 2 hours to reflect upon their practice and their students’ work. They are guided by a facilitator who knows how to match a protocol with a teachers’ need. Confidentiality and thoughtful questioning are paramount, which contributes to the warm, collegial vibe. (You can learn about it at www.nsrf.org ) For me, it was the best thing I ever experienced as a teacher. It was incredibly valuable and validating. I went through training to become a facilitator and tried to grow CFGs as much as I could, both in my school and district.
But then our district dropped the contract with the National School Reform Faculty, who runs CFG training around the world. Teachers used to get paid time (whether through a substitute or a stipend) to belong to a CFG, but that funding was pulled. Why did this happen?
Because the topics addressed in CFGs were brought forward by the teachers, administrators couldn’t attend/control the CFGs, and there wasn’t a clear enough connection to test score improvement. The district moved into Dufour’s professional learning community (PLC) model and dictated who would be in which PLC, the topics discussed and told administrators they had to attend PLCs and could evaluate teachers’ performance within those observations.
Does that strike you as a hard right turn? It did me! I was out of the classroom and into the office by the time PLCs were in full swing and I started to see that change for the worse. The fellowship among faculty members was disappearing. PLCs were turning into places to sort students into groups by test scores and maybe if you had time, you could pull some worksheets or readers to give to an aide who would run some of the re-teaching groups. As administrators, we were to put the kibosh on any “department meeting talk” at PLCs, like if the third grade teachers wanted to use their forced meeting time to determine who was going to book the buses for the field trip to the pumpkin patch. They could do that on their own time. Get back to the common assessment data, stat!
In your school district or faculty, you may have experienced something like that shift too, even if you weren’t exactly using CFGs or PLCs. At some point in the last ten years, someone from central administration came down to your building with an order to make data-driven instructional decisions, to focus on kids on the bubble of passing the state test rather than those more than 15% away from passing, or wanted to see the master schedule to be certain there were no minutes wasted! Did you start making curriculum maps, filling up binder after binder of state standards, essential learnings, learning targets, crosswalks and mandatory academic vocabulary?
Did you find fellowship in that?
Were you having any fun anymore?
How have you kept going as the targets changed year after year?
As veterans retired - some not going quietly - and new folks moved in...then left three years later, did you find that your teaching community was being destroyed?
It’s hard to find a fellow teacher willing to just sit and have a conversation about your teaching practice, since something so low-stakes like that isn’t planned for or encouraged anymore. Harder yet to find a principal who would do the same thing too, as they are under pressure like never before. Teachers at least have each other within a building. The principal may very well be totally alone. Who has time or energy to shoot the breeze about a lesson you totally nailed, or failed?
I asked myself - and maybe you do too - what’s the best I can do in this situation as a teacher or principal? What’s the best anyone can do as a person, really? Work and live with integrity. Know your boundaries. Speak truth to power. Lead with love. All consequences whether positive or negative can flow from those pillars and you will know that it was the best you could do. Upon what pillars will you build your practice?
An epilogue to this little essay: After I completed my doctorate, I reached out to the NSRF to see if I could get involved with CFGs again. I had heard that NSRF needed new funding sources since they had recently lost a major donor. In order to get new grants or funds, they needed some data to show the value of CFGs for teachers and ultimately for students. I proposed to design a study to illuminate that relationship for future funders. But the NSRF didn’t have the money to pay me for such work in the first place, so our budding partnership fell through. They suggested I could do an unpaid internship… as a post-doc nearing forty, with 15 years teaching and administrative experience, I declined. I’m saddened that school leaders or funders can’t see the value in CFGs.
So, I continue to seek ways to rebuild a fellowship among teachers and principals who maybe don’t even know what they’re missing, it’s been so long. Institutional memory gets erased with quick turnover these days, too. I believe that The Teaching Spirit community could be that fellowship we desire and invite you to join me. Join a group session, book a 1:1 session, take a course, comment on Insta: @theteachingspirit or facebook @ The Teaching Spirit. And don’t forget to find a colleague one day soon and over lunch take some baby steps and simply chat about your practice of teaching.