October 28th, 2008

Teaching Circles


A recent issue of an excellent pedagogical periodical, called Pedagogy, devotes itself to an exploration of professional development within English. One article describes experiences in a teaching circles program. Here’s a great quote that raises some important issues related to the challenges of talking teaching with colleagues.

“It took considerable self-conscious humility—not any academic’s strong suit—to submit one’s practices to peers and listen to their feedback. It also took considerable courage for members of TCs [teaching circles] to criticize each other’s practices and hold fellow teachers, many of whom were just getting started with their teaching, up to high standards. When we could get that humility and courage together with some critical energy—and again, this did not happen every day in every teaching circle—the results were a terrific learning experience for everyone. I will always remember a colleague’s comment in one teaching circle that we need to uphold standards of teaching in the same way we uphold standards of scholarship, which means being willing to point out when certain practices just are not good enough. The purpose is not to rate other teachers or pedagogical theories, but to help instructors improve and teach more effectively.”

Frequently in our conversations about teaching we settle for less. We only share successes. We don’t challenge when colleagues share views and practices alien to what we know and believe about teaching and learning. We don’t question when colleagues report how students experience an aspect of instruction using subtle inquires like, “Is that what students reported when you asked them?” We don’t wonder out loud if any research supports a particular view or conclusion advanced by a colleague.

Our exchanges need not always be confrontational. Sometimes we need support and encouragement from each other. But that’s not always what would benefit our teaching the most. In the same way we work to ratchet up the intellectual caliber of classrooms discussions, so we must work to maximize the learning potential inherent in exchanges about teaching and learning.

Reference: Marshall, M. J. (2008). Teaching circles: Supporting shared work and professional development. Pedagogy, 8 (3), 413-431.

—Maryellen Weimer