By Joanna Richardson — August 01, 1996 9 min read

Sue Funk can remember a time when she was perfectly happy to teach her 8th grade mathematics course the old drill-and-practice way.

“I didn’t think I was doing a bad job,’' the Columbus, Ga., teacher says. “My professors had all taught me to do it that way.’'

But when Funk stumbled into a teachers’ network a couple of years back, everything changed. She had planned to take just one course through the Columbus Regional Mathematics Collaborative, based at Columbus College. Instead, she found a professional family of sorts: a support group of teachers, professors, and mathematicians who persuaded her to rethink her teaching methods.

Funk admits she was skep-tical at first. She came up with every excuse for why she could not make changes in her classroom. Too risky. Too much extra work. Too confusing for the students. But after watching other teachers in the network use different pedagogical approaches and hearing about their successes, she came around.

She began slowly, adding exercises involving manipulatives to her lessons and then introducing problem-solving portfolios. She remained unsure about the changes until she noticed that her students were actually enjoying math and had begun to show a deeper understanding of the concepts she was teaching.

These days, Funk regularly seeks advice and resources from the collaborative, which has roughly 2,000 members from the Columbus area. “If I didn’t have that support, I wouldn’t have tried any of this,’' she says.

The Columbus collaborative is just one of hundreds of teacher networks that have sprung up around the country over the past two decades. Most are organized around subject matter, teaching approaches, or specific reform platforms. Some have been supported by foundations or education organizations, others by states or local groups. They range from the influential National Writing Project, a Berkeley, Calif.-based network that serves some 160,000 teachers, to initiatives that appeal to a smaller slice of the teaching population, such as those run in the rural South by the Foxfire National Programs.

Over the past decade, the popularity of networks has steadily grown--a testament to the demand for professional development rooted in teachers’ own interests and experiences. Since most network organizers disdain the traditional one-size-fits-all approach to teacher learning, many of the groups provide a rich mixture of educational opportunities conceived and run by educators for educators. They offer a setting for teachers to pool their knowledge and build new ideas about their practice and how to change it. “There’s a democracy to this movement,’' points out Judith Rényi, executive director of the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education, a grant-giving arm of the National Education Association.

There are no clear figures on how many teacher networks exist, but they certainly number in the hundreds. Some employ full-time staff. Many hold annual meetings, publish newsletters and journals, and produce research on best practices. Members often stay in touch through electronic bulletin boards.

With the number of teachers joining networks mushrooming, the movement has caught the attention of scholars and policymakers searching for rich and productive ways to give practicing teachers in-depth learning experiences.

Yet even admirers and boosters of the network concept admit that it is no panacea. In a 1992 article in the education journal Phi Delta Kappan, Ann Lieberman of Teachers College, Columbia University, and Milbrey McLaughlin of the Stanford University school of education noted that the quality of the experiences provided by networks varies. For one thing, teachers aren’t always able to transfer what they learn to their own classrooms. And the work of some networks and the ideas they promote have not always been thoroughly evaluated--perhaps because such oversight would destroy the sense of trust and support that the networks are built on. Still, Lieberman and McLaughlin note that “without procedures for ongoing outside review, networks can fall prey to the myopia of unfamiliar practices and the misdirection of unchallenged assumptions.’'

Despite such shortcomings, networks have boosters in nearly every corner of the country. “These networks have a legitimacy in the eyes of teachers that a lot of university kinds of things don’t,’' says G. Williamson McDiarmid, co-director of the National Center for Research on Teacher Learning at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “The feeling right now is that the more we could explore what the possibilities are for teacher networks around subject matter, the better off we might be.’'

Many educators trace the rise of networks to teachers’ near-universal distaste for the ubiquitous, one-shot in-service seminars offered by districts, state agencies, and consultants. Teachers’ attitude about such training seems to be: If you aren’t going to give us practical learning experiences, we’ll do it ourselves.

Network leaders pride themselves on offering a wide variety of workshops, discussion groups, and other similar activities for teachers--provided primarily by teachers. Lieberman and McLaughlin call this a “Chinese menu’’ approach. The variety gives teachers “an important measure of flexibility and self-determination,’' they write, a departure from activities run by “experts’’ that are designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience.

A typical summer schedule for the Columbus math collaborative, for example, looks something like this: a statistics workshop, a math summer camp for girls, a middle grades institute on integrating instruction in math and science, a school-to-work meeting for teachers of grades 9-12 and mathematicians from business and industry, and training for elementary teachers in the use of science labs.

“If we provide something and they aren’t coming, we know that it’s our own fault and that we haven’t listened to the teachers,’' says Susan Pruet, the collaborative’s executive director.

Another benefit of the network concept is that it tends to break down teachers’ closed-door mentality. As Brian Lord of the Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center points out, “It’s crucial for teachers to hear about the successes and struggles of other teachers.’'

Although the Columbus network grew out of the national Urban Mathematics Collaboratives financed by the Ford Foundation in the 1980s, the group is anything but urban. With $8,000 from the foundation, Mary Lindquist and Helen Purks set out in 1989 to prove that the demand for authentic professional development is just as great in rural schools as in the cities.

Lindquist, a former president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and an education professor at Columbus College, was the architect of the network. Purks, its first executive director, was the voice of the practicing teacher. The two built their network from the ground up. With Lindquist’s clout and Purks’ easygoing appeal, they scraped together extra money from local businesses to organize and publicize some events. Reaching teachers, however, wasn’t easy. Purks had to consult football schedules just to get the names of schools within the network’s initial 50-mile radius.

“It makes our role a little more difficult,’' Susan Pruet says of the network’s rural, multi-district scope. “Things are less centralized.’' The network now reaches from the small city of Columbus through back-country Georgia and into eastern Alabama. In all, it has members from some 25 school districts in the two states. The smallest of the districts has about 400 students; the largest, Columbus, has 30,000.

The collaborative calls its gatherings “Birds of a Feather’’ because they are usually organized around a particular theme that attract teachers with similar interests. Initially, network leaders joked about the hokey name--later adopted by other teacher collaboratives--but they found that it made the events sound less dry and academic than the typical in-service training that passed for professional development in the area. “I wanted this to be sort of homey,’' Purks explains. “I wanted it to be comfortable for teachers.’'

Organizers of other networks say they also have struggled to maintain this feeling of a close community even as they reach out to more teachers. “We don’t want to get huge, but we do want to be replicated,’' says Dixie Goswami, coordinator of the Bread Loaf Rural Teacher Network, which grew out of a writing program of the same name at Middlebury College in Vermont. “The kind of work these teachers do does not lend itself to anonymous faces sending you messages. We want to keep that intimacy.’'

For many teachers, networks provide a safe place to propose new ideas, air complaints, or just talk about the profession and their work. “In a way, if teachers want to be powerful, it’s their only place to be,’' says Kitty Boles, a 4th grade teacher in Brookline, Mass., who helped found a network in the 1970s for women teachers in Boston. “They tend to be powerful in their domain--the classroom. But unless they’re with the union, there’s nowhere else.’'

Some people have worried that networks may stir up resentments within schools and districts because they set some teachers apart from the pack. Pete Anderson, who teaches applied mathematics at Troup County Comprehensive High School in LaGrange, Ga., says the Columbus collaborative has had a strong, lasting effect in the school because everyone in the math department has taken part in the network’s projects. “Sometimes, administrators aren’t sure about all these crazy ideas teachers have,’' Anderson says with a laugh. “So it really helps to have a critical mass.’'

Even when they enjoy unwavering support from area teachers, many networks stumble over the same persistent problem: lack of money. Teacher leaders are often able to pull together funds from foundations or other private sources to get a network up and running but then find they have trouble sustaining the group once the seed money is gone. Indeed, some end up turning for support to their district or state--the very entities they’re seeking some independence from. Says Kitty Boles of Brookline, “I think one of the reasons that things teachers start don’t last is because they don’t understand how organizations work. They often aren’t financially savvy.’'

The Columbus network has managed to avoid some of these difficulties through on-going, creative fund-raising. The network, for example, charges schools in its area a membership fee of 50 cents per student to cover its operating expenses. In addition, it receives some funding from state and federal programs.

Of course, some networks don’t make it financially and fade away. But that is not necessarily a negative thing, says Judith Warren-Little, a professor in the graduate school of education at the University of California at Berkeley. “If groups start and disband, we see it as failure,’' she says, “but we could see it as flexibility.’'

After all, the relationships teachers forge through a network often continue long after the group formally ceases to exist. “Networks are really quite resilient,’' says Brian Lord of the Education Development Center. “They change shape to accommodate the political shifts, as well as the contextual shifts, in teaching and learning.’'

Although most network leaders see their groups as a necessary part of the professional development landscape, they generally do not see it as the only part. Teachers, after all, have much to learn from other knowledgeable people, as well. “Networks don’t work in isolation,’' Purks says. “A network sustains what grows out of other professional development experiences. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with ‘expert to teacher,’ as long as ‘teacher to teacher’ is still there.’'

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Networking