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Professional Development

Study Groups Giving Committed Teachers The Chance To Reflect, Share, and Learn

By Lynn Olson — September 11, 2020 15 min read

For the past nine years, Lynne Strieb’s Thursday afternoons have been sacrosanct.

That is the time the 1st-and-2nd-grade teacher at John B. Kelly Elementary School here meets with her colleagues from around town to talk about teaching: What are their favorite books to read to children? How can they create a better learning environment? What use should they make of students’ fantasies?

According to Ms. Strieb, the voluntary meetings—held in the teachers’ own homes—provide the intellectual stimulation and camaraderie that are often lacking during the school day.

“Within your own school, staff meetings are short,” she said. “I’m afraid they have very little intellectual content.”

Lacking time or encouragement, she added, teachers seldom have the chance at school to reflect, to share, and to learn from each other.

The Thursday-afternoon teachers’ group—created, funded, and sustained by the teachers themselves—fills that gap.

“Sometimes we talk about emotional issues, like fighting or conflict in the classroom,” said Ms. Strieb. “Other times, we talk about curricular issues, like reading or writing. Other times we talk about practical issues, like how to arrange your time.”

“I keep learning things about classroom practice, curriculum, ideas,” she added. “I just can’t imagine not coming.”

Ms. Strieb’s group, the Philadelphia Teachers’ Learning Cooperative, is one of a handful of such teachers’ units across the nation. Those who belong to them represent a small cadre of articulate, knowledgeable, and committed teachers who are setting aside portions of their own time, without pay, to reflect on what they do.

In a year when most of the national reports and education initiatives have focused on the need to make teachers’ voices heard outside the classroom, such groups are providing a largely unpublicized forum for teachers to talk seriously about their craft.

‘A Better Teacher’

Those who join the groups say they also provide support, inspiration, and criticism.

“It makes me a better teacher,” said Paul Stein, a member of the Secondary Study Group in Massachusetts and director of the Full Circle School in Somerville, Mass.

“It makes me feel more supported and part of a larger profession.”

Claire Neely, a member of the Educators’ Forum in Massachusetts and a teacher of 1st and 2nd graders at the Cambridge Friends School in Cambridge, Mass., added: “It’s not simply a support group, where people talk about teaching. It’s a place to be questioned and to be encouraged to continue questioning myself.”

Explained Tamar Magdovitz, a member of the Philadelphia group: “Professionally, it’s one of the places I can go where I can always be sure that there will be respect for the children, and respect for practice, and people who really will be able to answer my questions.”

“I never fail to learn,” noted the 2nd-grade teacher at Philadelphia’s Bache-Martin Elementary School. “Every meeting, I learn something.”

A Long History

Because most of the teachers’ groups have sprung up without funding or external support, no one knows how many exist.

According to Vito Perrone, vice president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, “these kinds of groups have a fairly long history in this country.”

They were particularly common in the early 1900’s, he said, when educators were encouraged to gather and discuss their practice as part of the progressive-schools movement.

“If you pick up some of John Dewey’s thoughts at the turn of the century,” he noted, “he talked a lot about the need for teachers to become students of teaching.”

“There was a lot of encouragement for teachers to talk about classroom practice, rooted in their own observations of children,” he said.

Such groups sprung up again during the 1960’s, due, in part, to the emergence of federally funded “teachers’ centers,” which were designed to provide educators with classroom resources and a place for staff development.

But with the rise of a heavily centralized school bureaucracy during the mid-1970’s and early 1980’s, many teachers’ groups went under, according to Mr. Perrone.

“From the mid-1970’s on,” he said, “standardized testing took on a much bigger role again, and a lot of people that I knew became enormously discouraged.”

Today, he noted, teachers’ groups may be resurfacing, although they are “not that common.”

“A lot of the talk about teacher empowerment and teacher decisionmaking” in the current school-reform movement, he said, could help to encourage the growth of such forums.

Teachers’ Learning Cooperative

The Philadelphia Teachers’ Learning Cooperative was started by a group of teachers who had been active in teachers’ centers in Philadelphia during the 1970’s.

“We liked it so much that, when it became clear the school district would not continue to fund the centers, we decided we would stop trying to keep them open and start to meet independently,” said Ms. Strieb.

Most of the cooperative’s 30 members are teachers in the Philadelphia elementary schools who heard about the group from others. (There are also some private-school teachers who occasionally attend meetings.) They meet every Thursday afternoon from 4:15 to 6:30.

When the group runs out of funds for coffee and snacks, each member contributes $5 to keep the meetings going.

The group’s formal discussions borrow heavily from formats developed by Patricia Carini at the Prospect Center in Bennington, Vt.

The topics for meetings are chosen by the group several months in advance. Each week’s meeting has a different chairman, note taker, and presenter.

The chairman is responsible for beginning the discussion and keeping it focused. The teachers sit in a circle, and each person contributes to the discussion.

One format, known as a “reflective conversation,” enables the group to focus on a particular piece of artwork or writing by a child. Other sessions address broader topics, such as how children learn to read, or the use of standardized tests. (See related story, page 26.)

In another format, known as a “staff review,” a teacher presents a detailed description of a student with whom he or she might be having trouble and asks for suggestions.

By providing some structure for the group, the formats steer discussions away from the “gripe sessions” and gossip that often predominate in teachers’ lounges.

“These processes really allow us to know about children and their interests,” said Ms. Strieb. ‘That’s why we’ve stuck to them.”

In addition, she noted, they “ensure that everybody’s voice can be heard.”

“They allow for different points of view in a way that is very powerful.”

Secondary Study Group

In contrast, the six-year-old Secondary Study Group in Massachusetts, which meets once a month in the evening, is much less structured. (See related story, page 24.)

It grew out of a conference on teacher collaboration in 1981, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Educational Collaborative for Greater Boston.

After the conference, “people said we should continue to meet,” said Paula Evans, who was then a high school teacher in Newton, Mass., and is now director of the Institute for Secondary Education at Brown University.

“For the first three or four sessions, we griped and ventilated more than anything else,” she recalled. “I remember feeling very anxious about the state of affairs, and wondering whether we should go on.”

“Finally, we decided to do some reading,” she said. “And then we started inviting people in to speak to us. And it became clear that the group could put together an agenda that would keep it going.”

Today, the group’s 25 members include current and former high-school teachers from the public schools in and around Boston.

The topic for the following month’s session is chosen at the end of each meeting. Sometimes, they center on a book or article the group has read. At other times, they focus on a general topic of interest.

The group’s reading list has included such books as The Paideia Proposal, Horace’s Compromise, A Place Called School, and The Shopping Mall High School.

“I read things that I otherwise wouldn’t read,” said Margaret Metzger, an English teacher at Brookline High School in Brookline, Mass. “It gives me some sort of theoretical framework for what I’m doing, and maybe even a kind of courage.”

In the past few years, however, the group has tended to rely less on outside experts, and more on their own experiences in the classroom to address problems in teaching. Most members of the group have taught for at least 10 years.

“I think that we’re able to tell each other the truth about what’s happening in our classrooms because these people don’t evaluate us or write us up,” said Ms. Metzger. “I think it’s a place to play with ideas.”

There is no official leader for the discussions. But each session is tape-recorded.

The Educators’ Forum

Unlike the latter two groups, the Massachusetts-based Educators’ Forum includes both elementary- and high-school teachers. It was started with a one-year federal grant by a school administrator who wanted teachers to pursue research based on their own interests and concerns.

All of the 20 teachers who belong to the group pursue a yearlong project in their classrooms and keep copious notes. They may follow the progress of an individual child, for example, or observe children’s use of play.

The group meets every other week for two hours. At each meeting, three or four teachers give progress reports based on their research.

Claryce L. Evans, founder of the forum, said the meetings provide a “safe” environment for teachers.

“All the papers developed within the group are confidential,” explained the director of curriculum and assessment for the Duxbury, Mass., school system. “People are able to ask questions that they can’t ask in their own schools. They’re able to take risks and talk about the ways in which they feel incompetent.”

In addition, she said, “they get a real respect for their colleagues, because it’s a place where they can see their colleagues being thoughtful.”

‘Pretty Desperate’

In contrast, she and others noted, most faculty meetings and staff-development programs treat teachers as the “audience” rather than the experts.

Said Ms. Metzger, “I think that teachers, in fact, are pretty desperate to talk about teaching, and are genuinely exasperated with teachers’ meetings and faculty meetings.”

“Faculty meetings are often self-serving for the administrators,” she said. “There’s very little input from the teachers about what goes on.”

Ms. Magdovitz agreed. “In the schools that I have taught at,” she said, “the teachers’ meetings have been largely business meetings—just taking care of paperwork; all sorts of ridiculous things that don’t have any relationship to what people really want to talk about.”

Marshall Cohen, a member of the Secondary Study Group and a social-studies teacher at Newton South High School in Newton, Mass., added: “It’s very difficult to find meaningful discussions about education. In my opinion, the best discussions I’ve had, and the most meaningful, and the ones that ring truest, are the ones by teachers.”

‘Invaluable’ Support

Teachers’ groups may also provide a way for veteran teachers to share their knowledge with new members of the profession.

Karel Kilimnik, a novice 1st-grade teacher at Drew Elementary School in Philadelphia, said, “I don’t know how long I would have lasted in this school system” without the support of the Teachers’ Learning Cooperative.

“I can be as angry or depressed or out-of-sorts about work as ever,” she said, “and I go to that meeting and it’s just a wonderful experience.”

I’ve gotten a lot of support from people lending me materials,” she said. “One of the group members has come to my classroom three or four times, and has been invaluable just in little things—like how to arrange the desks so that kids are more comfortable; how to delegate sharpening pencils.”

Ms. Magdovitz of the Bache-Martin School also remembers how supportive the group was during her first year as a public-school teacher in Philadelphia.

Members of the group shared lesson plans, invited her to their classes, came and observed her teaching, and helped her locate books and supplies.

“It was a very hard year for me,” she recalled, “and so we talked a lot about being a new teacher. It was incredibly supportive and helpful for me to hear about all these gifted people who had once had horrible days when they were new teachers.”

Teachers Have a Voice

In general, these groups focus on the needs of individual members and have not been politically active. But at times they have tried to contribute to the public-policy debate.

When Philadelphia was developing its standardized curriculum, for example, members of the Teachers’ Learning Cooperative met with local school administrators to express their concerns. Individual members have since remained active in the annual review of the curriculum within their own schools.

“I don’t want to make our influence greater than it is,” said Ms. Strieb, “but I think we let teachers know that they have a voice and can use it.”

But Judy Opert Sandler, a member of the Secondary Study Group, said, “I don’t think the group has ever seen itself as a lobbying organization.”

“I think it really fulfills the needs of individual members, which is why people keep coming,” said the senior associate at the Education Development Center in Newton.

“The agenda is set by the individuals in the group,” she stated. “It’s not set by an organization or an agency or anyone else.”

Encouraged To Write

Such groups, however, have provided teachers with the incentive—and the courage—to write about what they believe for a wider audience.

“I think the group has given people a tremendous amount of support to write,” said Ms. Evans of the Secondary Study Group.

Based on the group’s discussion of Ernest L. Boyer’s book High School, for example, she wrote a critique that later appeared in the Harvard Educational Review.

Articles by other members of the group have appeared in both the Harvard Educational Review and in Education Week.

Similarly, members of both the Educators’ Forum and the Teachers’ Learning Cooperative have also had their work published in national journals.

Two of the teachers in the Philadelphia group also helped write and edit a book by the North Dakota Study Group on Evaluation, Speaking Out: Teachers on Teaching. (See related story, page 26.)

Said Ms. Neely of the Educators’ Forum, “I think there’s a lot more need for teachers to trust themselves to write, and to learn from what they already know.

“There’s so little in policy that has to do with what teachers are really thinking about.”

Replication

Why so few of the teachers’ groups exist, despite their positive influence, is an open question.

According to Ms. Evans of the Secondary Study Group, they should not be hard to replicate.

“All you need is three or four people to get the thing off the ground and to organize the pizza,” she said.

But others noted that voluntary groups do not continue unless someone is willing to take charge and administer the group in some way, even if that involves only handling the mailings and photocopying articles.

In addition, suggested Mr. Perrone, such groups need a common vision or set of experiences, and some guidelines for how they will operate.

Claryce Evans, founder of the Educators’ Forum, also argued that such groups would have more success if there were money available for salaries, photocopying, and mailing cost—and time for people to observe teachers teaching.

Massachusetts is currently trying to encourage the growth of such forums through a modest, $5,000 grants program run by the Massachusetts Field Center for Teaching and Learning.

The state-funded center is offering grants of up to $500 to teams of teachers interested in studying an issue that concerns them. The teams can consist of from 6 to 12 members each.

Thus far, 29 groups have applied for the grants. The center has given out five grants, and expects to award five more in 1987.

The money may be used to cover the cost of meetings, purchase materials, hire consultants, and provide substitute coverage for team members or site visits to other schools.

“Teachers need opportunities to get together to collaboratively seek answers to some of their problems,” said William L. Dandridge, executive director of the center.

“We’re trying to facilitate that by dealing with the very practical problems of meeting at the end of a long day,” he said, just finding a space to meet or getting a few cookies and coffee.”

He said that the center hoped to refer teachers with similar concerns to those working on the projects.

Some colleges and universities have also provided support and encouragement for teachers’ groups.

The Moon Group in Boston, for example, grew out of a seminar for teachers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The name was taken from an activity at the M.I.T. meeting: observing the motions of the moon and making conjectures based on the observations.

“There were 15 teachers originally,” said Eleanor Duckworth, a member of the group and professor of education at Harvard University. “When the seminar was over, about a dozen of them wanted to keep meeting.”

That group—now down to seven members—has been meeting for the past nine years. Teachers in the group continue to observe the moon and to keep careful notes of their observations, although that is only one aspect of their work.

Not for Everyone

But such groups may not be for everyone, according to Ms. Strieb of the Philadelphia teachers’ group.

“Look, there are about 35 staff in my school,” she said. “Of that, about 6 or 7 people come to the [cooperative’s] meetings.

“Not everybody is interested. Not everybody can. People are at different times of their lives.”

Mr. Stein of the Secondary Study Group said: “I think we’re clearly self-selecting. There’s no avoiding that.”

But such forums could be made more attractive to teachers, he suggested, if there were an expectation within schools “that this sort of activity is important and essential to the profession.”

“Because that tone is often lacking in schools,” he added, “teachers take almost a survivalist approach to what they’re doing.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 03, 1987 edition of Education Week

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