Teacher to Teacher

Widespread and varied, networks offer a promising strategy for improving teachers' knowledge. Their popularity is a testament to the demand for professional development that grows out of teachers' interests and experiences.

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

The Columbus, Ga., teacher had been following that tradition for most of her 16-year career. "I didn't think I was doing a bad job," she says. "My professors had all taught me to do it that way."

But when Funk stumbled into a teachers' network a couple years back, everything started to change. She had planned to take just one course through the Columbus Regional Mathematics Collaborative, a network for teachers, professors, and other mathematicians that is housed at Columbus College. Instead, she found a professional support group that coaxed her to try her hand at new teaching methods.

Funk was skeptical at first. She came up with every excuse for why she couldn't make changes in her teaching. Too risky. Too much extra work. Too confusing for the students.

But after watching other teachers in the network use the methods in their own classrooms and hearing of their successes at workshops and seminars, she came around. Gradually, she added exercises involving manipulatives to her math class. Soon, she tried out problem-solving portfolios. And though Funk still felt unsure about the changes, she discovered that her students seemed to be enjoying themselves. Better yet, they showed a deeper understanding of math concepts.

Now, Funk regularly seeks advice and resources from the collaborative, whose roughly 2,000 members teach in schools as far as 65 miles from its headquarters at the college.

"If I didn't have that support, I wouldn't have tried any of this," she says now, satisfied with the pragmatic mix of old and new in her classroom.

Funk is one of thousands of teachers across the country who have joined a network—a professional community organized around subject matter, teaching approaches, or specific school reforms. Some networks have been initiated by foundations or education organizations, others by states or local groups. They range from the established, influential National Writing Project—a Berkeley, Calif.-based network that serves some 160,000 teachers—to efforts that appeal to a smaller slice of the teaching population, such as the regional networks run by the Foxfire National Programs in the rural South.

In the past decade, the popularity of these teacher-to-teacher networks has steadily grown—a testament to the demand for professional development that grows out of the teacher's own interests and experiences. Networks banish the traditional one-size-fits-all approach to teacher learning and replace it with a rich mix of offerings run by teachers, for teachers.

"There's a democracy to this [movement] that transcends boundaries, in terms of 'I do research. You teach,'" points out Judith R‚nyi, the executive director of the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education, the grant-giving arm of the National Education Association. "I don't think that phenomenon has been repeated" in other kinds of professional development, says R‚nyi, a former director of the Collaboratives for Humanities and Arts Teaching, or CHART network.

As the number of teachers joining networks has mushroomed, the movement has caught the attention of scholars and policymakers searching for richer and more productive ways to provide in-depth learning experiences for practicing teachers.

As Funk's experience shows, networks provide teachers not just with new knowledge, but with a motivating and supportive environment in which to go about the risky business of changing their teaching. Networks respect teachers' expertise, allowing them to pool their knowledge and build new ideas about their craft together. They also offer teachers the opportunity to play leadership roles without having to leave the classroom for jobs in school administration.

There are no figures on how many teacher networks exist, although they number in the hundreds. Some are able to pay for full-time staff. Many hold annual meetings, publish newsletters and journals, and produce research on best practices. Members may stay in touch through electronic bulletin boards.

But as promising as they are, even their biggest admirers admit that networks have their pitfalls.

In a 1992 Phi Delta Kappan article, Ann Lieberman of Teachers College, Columbia University, and Milbrey W. McLaughlin of the Stanford University school of education note that the quality of the experiences provided by networks varies. Teachers aren't always able to transfer what they have learned to their own classrooms. And the work of some networks has not been evaluated enough, perhaps because such oversight destroys the sense of trust and support that the networks are built on.

"Without procedures for ongoing outside review, networks can fall prey to the myopia of unfamiliar practices and the misdirection of unchallenged assumptions," the authors note.

Whatever their shortcomings, networks have found a following 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, the 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 since the 1970s to teachers' near-universal distaste for the ubiquitous, one-shot seminars offered by districts, state agencies, and consultants. If you aren't going to give us practical learning experiences, network founders said, we'll do it ourselves.

Teacher networks pride themselves on offering a wide variety of workshops, discussion groups, and other 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" and designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience.

A typical summer schedule for the Columbus, Ga., collaborative, for example, looks something like this: a statistics workshop; PRIME, the network's math summer camp for girls; a middle-grades math and science institute for integrating the teaching of the two subjects; 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 it's our own fault and we haven't listened to the teachers," says Susan Pruet, the collaborative's executive director.

Perhaps more important, the networks try to banish the closed-door mentality of teaching. "It's crucial for teachers to hear about the successes and struggles of other teachers," points out Brian Lord, a senior project director with the Education Development Center, a private research-and-development company based in Newton, Mass. "Tackling decisionmaking under uncertainty is very high on the list" of networks' priorities.

In many ways, the Columbus network is unusual. Although it grew out of the national Urban Mathematics Collaboratives financed by the Ford Foundation in the 1980s, the Georgia group was 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 was just as great in rural schools as it was 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.

They built their network from the ground up. With Lindquist's clout and Purks' easygoing appeal, they scraped together enough extra money from local businesses to organize and publicize some events for teachers. Getting the teachers there was another thing. Because the network first covered a 50-mile radius, it wasn't easy spreading the word. Purks sometimes consulted football schedules--the only documents she had access to—just to get the names of schools in faraway districts.

"It makes our role a little more difficult," Pruet says of the multi-district approach. "Things are less centralized." The network now reaches from the small city of Columbus, through back-country Georgia, and even 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, and the largest, Columbus, has 30,000.

The collaborative first zeroed in on high school teachers, but it has since expanded to include the elementary schools. Policymakers say that networks are particularly important because their emphasis on the secondary level—not just in Columbus, but in many networks around the country—has touched a population of teachers often left out of major school-reform efforts.

The network called its gatherings "Birds of a Feather," and organized them around such themes as new trends in algebra or geometry teaching. Its leaders joked about the hokey name—later adopted by other collaboratives, much to their amusement—but found it made the events seem less dry and academic than the generic in-service training that had passed for professional development in their area.

"I wanted this to be sort of homey," Purks explains. "I wanted it to be comfortable for teachers."

Other networkers have also struggled to maintain that feeling of community, even as they hope to reach out to more teachers. Dixie Goswami, the coordinator of the Bread Loaf Rural Teacher Network, which grew out of the writing program of the same name at Middlebury College in Vermont, says: "We don't want to get huge, but we do want to be replicated.

"The kind of work these teachers do does not lend itself to anonymous faces sending you messages," adds Goswami, whose network includes about 500 teachers in six states. "We want to keep that intimacy."

The Columbus network became a safe haven for teachers to try out new ideas, air complaints, or talk about the profession. To some, the discussions were a rare opportunity.

"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."

And because they are outside the system, networks give teachers an opportunity to be political about their work—without repercussions. That can be a mixed blessing, however.

"It meant that no particular system owned us," Purks points out. But it also meant the Columbus network had to take care not to criticize districts for the way they were approaching math instruction. "We had to make people aware that we were not trying to take over anyone's job--or tell them how to do it," Purks says.

The central question is whether teachers will return to their schools and use their newfound skills and leadership to mobilize their colleagues. Some worry that networks can create resentment because they set some teachers apart from the pack.

To avoid that problem, some math collaboratives require that 60 percent or more of the teachers in a department join. Pete Anderson, who teaches applied mathematics at Troup County Comprehensive High School in LaGrange, Ga., says the Columbus collaborative has had a lasting effect because everyone in the math department has taken part in the network's staff-development 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" that supports experimentation.

Even with the unwavering support of teachers in their communities, many networks have stumbled over the same problem: lack of funds. Networks—including some math collaborative sites—have had trouble sustaining themselves once foundation or other private support is gone. Indeed, some must seek more money from the very groups they sought freedom from, such as the district or state.

"I think one of the reasons things that teachers start don't last is because they don't understand how organizations work," adds Boles, the Brookline, Mass., teacher. "They often aren't financially savvy."

The Columbus network has avoided some of those difficulties, however, through creative fund-raising. The network charges schools a membership fee of 50 cents per student to cover its operating expenses. In addition, the network gets some state and federal funds, including, most years, two or three grants of $25,000 to $30,000 each from the Eisenhower program for professional development in math and science.

The network's homespun approach to professional development so intrigued state officials that they have helped clone it in Augusta and Valdosta.

Some networks have suffered an identity crisis as they discovered that they were focused on too slender a slice of the reform pie. Those groups are now at a critical juncture: Can they find their place in the web of national school-reform groups? Or will they fade away?

The CHART network is struggling with some of those questions now.

Dennis Lubeck, the director of the St. Louis-based International Education Consortium and a coordinator for the network, says the network is getting more aggressive about forging ties with "natural partners," such as state humanities councils and nationally known reform efforts like the Coalition of Essential Schools.

"I don't think people can carry it alone—there's too much to do," says Lubeck, whose network's "transition" talks are being funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. "You really have to be good bridge-builders."

Some policymakers agree that many networks will be more successful when they connect their efforts to major school-reform or restructuring efforts. But they also praise them for focusing their energies on specific, achievable goals. And they are more generous in interpreting the comings and goings of networks.

"If groups start and disband, we see it as failure. But we could see it as flexibility," argues Judith Warren-Little, a professor in the graduate school of education at the University of California at Berkeley.

Furthermore, teachers' relationships last even after the network no longer exists in name.

"It was said early on in networks' lives that they were fragile," says Lord of the Education Development Center. "And I protested. They're not fragile. They're really quite resilient. They change shape to accommodate the political shifts, as well as the contextual shifts, in teaching and learning."

Most networkers see themselves as a necessary part--but by no means the only part--of the landscape. Few claim that networks are the only way to go.

"They don't work in isolation: A network sustains what grows out of other professional-development experiences," Purks says. "I don't think there's anything wrong with 'expert to teacher,' as long as 'teacher to teacher' is still there."

Vol. 15, Issue 30, Pages s25, s27, s31-35

Published in Print: April 17, 1996, as Teacher to Teacher
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