This past June I had the honor of spending a week with a group of 20 elementary school teachers from various districts in Southern Arizona. I had been hired by a local lobbying organization to facilitate a Critical Friends Group workshop designed to teach methods for establishing professional learning communities in schools. A group of educators got together for one week and, following a set of agreed-upon-norms, collaboratively examined their practice with the purpose of improving teaching and learning through reflective, inquiry-based dialogue.
During the “chalk-talk”, an activity designed to encourage dialogue through reflective writing, participants answered the question: “how will this work impact schools, teachers, and students?”
The responses included the following:
“It can change school culture from cloistered to collegial, foster humility and openness, that will help us grow our children into better learners.”
“Teams will become more democratic.”
“This work will revolutionize the way teachers talk to each other about student learning.”
Revolutionize? I knew this work was powerful, but it shocked me that a few simple rules of engagement, time to quietly reflect, a careful use of time, and a set of skills to ask appropriate questions seemed revolutionary, especially to a group of seasoned teachers.
One morning Jim, a teacher, shared work by Jazmine. She is a 1st grader who loves to draw and make books, but when it comes to following directions, she throws tantrums. Jim hoped that by sharing her work with a group of educators who did not know his student, he would begin to be able to see the forest for the trees. Perhaps some new insights would emerge when the work was viewed by a new set of eyes.
Twelve of us spent one hour looking at 20 of Jazmine’s books. We noticed her use of color, her inclusion of various family members, her use of words like “lie” and “weird” and “friend”. In the end, it became clear to the group that Jazmine was using her books to work through her struggles and write about the life she wished she had.
During the final step in the protocol, Jim had tears in his eyes. He was so moved by an outside group of teachers, most of whom he had never met before, taking his work seriously, making respectful and insightful comments, helping him. In the end, Jim looked down at the document that listed all the steps of the activity and said, without a shred of disappointment or frustration “you know, this is pretty straightforward. If my principal won’t give us the time to do this at school, I could just do this activity all by myself.”
Jim has been teaching 1st grade for twenty years. Opportunities to work collaboratively with his colleagues should be as common to him as his annual bulletin-board-supply shopping trip, and yet over the course of his 20-year tenure, Jim has spent countless hours in, what he and most of his colleagues would describe as, “the fancy-man-in-the-suit-with-the-power-point trainings”. If Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule holds true, then Jim and so many educators have become experts at feeling patronized and isolated.
Teachers know that when they have the chance to talk to each other about teaching and learning, both will improve, and yet those in charge of PD calendars for their districts and schools continue to fill up the time and space with meetings, presentations, and expensive workshops that have done little if anything to close achievement gaps, lower dropout rates, or raise performance levels.
What teachers need is time to regularly collaborate with one another and space in which to do so. Seems pretty simple to me.