Last summer I had the privilege to spend a week with 13 colleagues learning the value of Critical Friends Groups (CFGs) through studying and understanding the implementation of protocols to guide discussions about teaching and learning under the brilliant leadership of Teri Schrader. The mission of the School Reform Initiative, the source of the protocols designed for CFGs, is to create “transformational learning communities fiercely committed to educational equity and excellence.”
With a group of us trained to lead CFGs, and a refreshing update from the SRI Winter Meeting, we can now imagine how to grow a culture of learning and sharing among colleagues that will, in turn, result in deeper, more joyous, and differentiated learning for our students. The challenge is taking the first step of honoring the collective knowledge that surrounds us. The second step is opening our classroom doors and discussing, questioning our practice and learning by bouncing off the ideas of others.
During my 24 years of classroom teaching I had the privilege of working in a co-teaching arrangement that meant two professionals were focusing their talent and attention on one group of students. Over the years I had a variety of co-teachers. Each of them interacted with and challenged my ideas, shared their own inspirations, and were willing to experiment and struggle to meld our various strengths and experiences into a lively, every-changing program that responded to the interests, talents, and needs of our students. Yes, we made lots of mistakes and there were plenty of lesson ideas thrown back on the table to revise. The wonderful part was having a colleague dedicated to the same project (helping our students learn) and equally willing to try, try again.
My co-teachers were my first “critical friends” in an “old school” sort of way. We didn’t reach outside our classroom, in fact the culture of the school was to keep your doors closed and create your own unique environment unsullied by the ideas of other teachers. No “copying” allowed. I am grateful to have had co-teachers in those days to have learned the value of collaboration and discovered how two minds really do think better than one.
We are now beginning to take the plunge and trust that the collective wisdom of all our colleagues will reveal new ideas and open up new ways to refresh our teaching. By listening and sharing, we establish pathways to those minds for future consultation, formally or informally. In turn, we share our own inspirations, wisdom, and experience with others to help them get “unstuck” or frame in a big idea. In both directions we have gained, and beyond the smaller group, the community has been strengthened through a culture of risk-taking, challenging assumptions about teaching and learning and a fierce determination to grow. Most importantly, the work we are doing with children is constantly reinvented to provide students with the best opportunity for joyous inspiration and deep learning.
Out of many we are strong. CFGs make us humble, but also give us insight into new ways to look at our own practice and rethink some of our assumptions. I feel uncertain each time I bring something to a CFG, questioning even the value of the project or dilemma I decide to present, but if many hands make light work, then in a CFG many minds make great work. There’s no patent on our good ideas, they are meant to be shared and augmented in surprising ways by people we may have not yet recognized for being amazing.