Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Are you alone in your classroom?

Critical Friends Groups
by shirlee geiger

The first year the Learning Assessment Council existed, we did an informal faculty survey. We wanted to know how familiar PCC faculty were with the core outcomes, and what they thought about assessment of student learning and the "accountability movement." We found that:
  • lots of faculty (especially adjuncts) knew nothing of the Core Outcomes
  • the reaction to assessment ranged from mild annoyance to heated aggravation
  • most faculty members felt professionally isolated and yearned for opportunities for interaction with colleagues around common concerns as teachers.

Members of the council began to see that assessment of student learning provided a promising way to create ways and reasons for teachers to work together, in order to become more effective at promoting student learning. And part of that promise is coming to fruition as PCC makes an investment in Critical Friends Groups.

In these groups, 6 to 10 instructors, librarians, counselors or APs come together and work across disciplines and divides to increase our effectiveness in meeting student needs. The groups are facilitated, and structured to build trust and respect, as professionals come together to get new ideas on their professional challenges.

These groups have been formed across the nation, at all levels of education. The same basic philosophy provides the structure for one of the exercises in the annual "Great Teachers Conference," held in Oregon at the Menucha center in early summer. I first encountered the idea of a friends' circle there, when I attended back in 2001. All the attendees had been asked to bring two short write-ups. One was of a class technique we thought worked really well, and one was of a class problem we were experiencing. The conference is held in the week between Spring and Summer quarter. In 2001, I was busy finishing grades and prepping for summer classes, so I didn't put much work into writing the required paragraphs.

But I was absolutely amazed at what happened at the conference.

We were each put into a group of 6 to 8 teachers, all from community colleges in Washington, Oregon, or Idaho. The groups were made up of instructors from all disciplines. In a structured setting, we were each asked to present our problem to the group. In setting up the exercise, the leader told us that the groups were premised on the assumption that the ability to experience a problem is a key part of reflective teaching practice. Whoever knows enough to recognize a problem already carries the seed of solution within. The circle of teachers was there to help the instructor find that solution, primarily through the process of asking questions.....

It was very, very hard to resist the urge to "fix" the problem for the presenting teacher. But over and over our leader reminded us, gently, of the conversational structure. We could ask questions, but it was not OK to "load" a question with a resolution. For example, one teacher there taught night classes. Recently, a group of young male students had been returning from break either drunk or stoned. Their behavior had not yet been so overtly "over the line" that she felt she could kick them out. But they were more disruptive and somewhat belligerent. She was nervous leaving the class, alone, once it was over. And she felt she did not have relevant experience in classroom management -- she knew how to run a classroom, but did not know how to manage people who were drunk or drugged.

Around and around the little circle we went, asking questions. Did the stoned/drunk students disrupt learning for the other students? Was it getting worse over time? Did she know who to call, and was there a phone available, if she needed help during the class? What was her experience dealing with substance abuse issues? Was she more bothered by concerns for her own safety, or for the safety of the other students -- or was it the way they were interfering with learning that most mattered to her?

The longer the questions went, the slower the answers came.... until finally she said, "I know what I'll do...." The plan had become clear to her, though not one person had offered her advice. And I remember, so clearly, that she said that she had not talked to anyone on her campus about the problem. After all, it was a night class. She was just getting there as most other faculty and staff were leaving. The campus felt so empty.... and that had heightened her feeling of fear. She had wanted to think she could handle it....

We can feel alone. All of us. But we are not alone. We are part of a large group of dedicated educators. In the critical friends groups, we can come together, and in a respectful, safe, and structured way, turn toward one another to both celebrate our successes and share around our concerns. These circles are coming to PCC. Carly Volet and Sally Earll are hosting information groups this week, through the TLCs. Chris Chairsell has agreed to fund facilitator training, so that we can start next fall with multiple groups at each of the main campuses. If you are interested in hearing more, go to one of the TLC sessions (you'll need to register), or contact me at sgeiger@pcc.edu.

Assessment of student learning requires that we turn toward one another, and learn from one another. It is true, after all....

We are all in this together.

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