by Georgia Charter Schools Association
By Elizabeth Hearn
There is a reason professional tennis players seek coaches. These top-notch athletes find another set of eyes to watch them because they know that from their own perspective they can’t see everything: the arc of the racquet’s swing, the degree of bend in their knees, the follow through on their baseline shot. Every part of every action is important to their success, but the athlete herself is not always in the best position to see it and working directly with an experienced colleague is an obvious way to get past the limited perspective.
Teachers use a similar method to improve their skills when they seek coaching from colleagues. By inviting other teachers — professional educators — to observe and advise on their classroom work, they are engaging in a highly beneficial form of professional development.
This is where the analogy to sports coaching ends: the tennis pro practices for a solo performance, facing off against a single foe, measuring success by winning and losing. Successful schools, by contrast, have no losers. In schools, the goal is “win-win-win” – learning for all teachers and all students, with success hinging on a complex set of measurements and variables, many of which are beyond any one teacher’s control. In such an environment, elevating everyone’s “play” requires skills for analyzing teaching strategies and offering related and useful feedback, in the context of opportunities for developing and maintaining multiple trusting, mutually-supportive relationships with colleagues, so that the school functions as a community of learners, effectively utilizing each other’s expertise.
Two recent national surveys found a majority of teachers reporting that collaboration has a positive impact on student achievement (MetLife, 2012; National Center for Literacy Education, 2012). These observed benefits appear to grow when learning occurs alongside colleagues engaged in collaborative assessment, action, and reflection (Palmisano, 2013; Reeves, 2003) and when teachers have opportunities to share new, compelling practices within collaborative groups (NCLE, 2012). Researchers have also found that collaboration through professional learning communities supports teachers and school leaders in group problem-solving to address teaching challenges (Fahey, 2011); aids teachers in setting student learning goals (Hudson, 2005); increases teacher confidence, trust, and voice (Bisplinghoff, 2005; Hudson, 2005); and builds a sense of collective responsibility for the school and student learning (Darling-Hammond, et.al, 2009).
Compelled by the aforementioned research, in 2012 ANCS designed its professional development programming to include Critical Friends Groups (CFGs) for all teachers, with scheduled meetings once per month. A CFG is a gathering of educators for the purpose of discussing student work, educator work (such as unit plans or rubrics), and dilemmas of practice. They use protocols to democratize discussions, build trust, and share differing perspectives. If the CFG members choose, the group members can conduct observations of each other’s teaching as one of their group learning exercises.
Since the implementation of CFGs at ANCS, teachers report improvement in many aspects of their teaching, including planning of more effective lessons, developing deeper understandings of student learning, finding creative solutions to classroom challenges, and meaningfully interpreting test data. Equally important, teachers also report that CFGs and other efforts at collaboration have increased their trust and understanding of colleagues.
Personally speaking, as an educator in my third year at Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School, I attest to the fact that CFG work has heightened my awareness of the importance of connecting meaningfully with my colleagues. As a result of the school’s effort to help educators build relationships with each other, my own sense of collective responsibility for all of the students and teachers has grown. I believe that without the foundation of trust and camaraderie created through CFG work, the teaching observations and critiquing (and similarly lauded professional development strategies) we use could very well fall short of our objective – the creation of a win-win-win school.
Elizabeth Hearn is Director of Collaborative Learning & Partnerships at Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School
The views and opinions expressed on CharterConfidential are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency.