“The purpose [of Critical Friends Groups] is to foster in-depth conversations around best teaching practices where our faculty are truly learning from the expertise of one another,” explains Dean of Faculty Amanda Welsh. “It’s not to give teachers answers for everything, but to help them see things from a different perspective, and think about them another way. It has fostered a culture of openness, sharing, problem-solving, and support.”
Developed by the National School Reform Faculty (NSRF), an organization dedicated to professional development, Critical Friends Groups create a culture of excellence for school communities through a process that builds trust, improves feedback, promotes deep reflection, fosters equity, and more. CFGs are collaborative, collegial —and confidential.
“As professionals, it can be tough to admit when you are struggling with a concept, topic, or student,” says Computer Science teacher Dave Piemme. “CFG gives us a safe place to truly discuss things we are struggling with.”
Facilitators often meet in advance with the presenting member to understand what he or she hopes to gain, to help articulate how to best present the issue, and to assist with determining the appropriate CFG protocol to use—and there are dozens, each designed to promote dialogue and make the best use of time. With names like Post It, Purge It; The Feedback Carousel; Honoring Differences; Thinking Out of The Box; Wagon Wheels Brainstorm; and Probing Questions Exercise, there is no teaching concern—student assessment, classroom management, incorporating technology, lesson development, supporting diversity, or managing workload and time—that can’t be successfully addressed by a CFG protocol.
Consultancy Protocol is a WT favorite. “The protocol gives each member of the group the opportunity to suggest creative solutions to the dilemma,” says Academic Enrichment and Challenge teacher Kathy Dunlop. “One colleague in our group wanted assistance with developing a culminating activity for a particular unit. Each member of the group came up with suggestions that she was able to utilize and put into practice.”
Fourth grade teacher Mary Arcuri often uses the Tuning Protocol, which “lends itself to improving a curriculum piece or assessment that a teacher is already working on.” It helped fine-tune her approach to her Global Citizenship unit, and the way it involves WT’s annual visitors from Peking University Elementary School. “The feedback I received was extremely helpful in the way I approached this unit by planning the read-aloud books that concentrate on Beijing, incorporating pictures and slides from the WT trip to Peking University Elementary School, and keeping a notebook to compare and contrast the various ways our cultures are similar yet different.”
“CFG’s collaborative nature can’t be overstated,” says Welsh. The group’s multiple perspectives can be particularly valuable when they come from outside the presenter’s area of expertise—an aspect of CFG that initially met with some resistance. “Faculty were saying, ‘how can I talk about what I’m doing in calculus if there’s just a French teacher and an English teacher?’” recalls Welsh. “But the way the protocols are structured, and the way the process works, they get amazing feedback, even from people who don’t know the subject. They know good teaching — and that’s really what’s powerful.”
“At first, we all thought this would be the biggest challenge,” admits Piemme. “Now, I think it is the biggest strength of the CFG process.”
“It comes down to ‘expert’s blindspot’ – the idea that when someone’s too familiar with a subject, they may not recognize what they do not see,” says Computer Science Department Chair David Nassar. “I have brought many issues to the group, ranging from trying to improve a particular assignment, to refining my assessment techniques for the Computer Science Department as a whole, to even how to attract more female and minority students to higher level Computer Science courses. The multiple lenses with which my group sees our school allowed me to develop solutions to these problems that I had not seen, even though I had worked on them for many years.”
Nassar, describing himself as “generally meeting averse,” was initially a CFG skeptic. “The CFG protocols, which dictate the structure of the meeting, changed my mind. All of the things I disliked about meetings were corrected for by the protocols, and in 45 or 60 minutes, we were accomplishing amazing things. Amanda worked hard to diversify each group by division and subject study area. And since the protocols require that each person contribute equally, the problems are guaranteed to have the insight from each member of the group.
“‘Effective meeting,’ to some, sounds oxymoronic,” continues Nassar. “However, this is exactly what CFG enables us to facilitate. I am a happy convert!”