Teacher Church: Transforming Collaboration 

This morning, I spent three hours in teacher church. If you saw me, though, sitting curled up barefoot on my dear friend Heather Seaton’s gorgeous grey sofa in her beautiful new living room, sipping a flat white she’d made me using her new Ninja coffee maker, you might not have realized it. But it was teacher church, and I left the way all believers are meant to leave—inspired, empowered, and renewed.

Heather, an assistant principal of a large suburban high school in Southern California, shared with me that she meets once a week with an eclectic group of teachers for teacher church: a French teacher, a math teacher, a science teacher, and a construction teacher gather to discuss ways they are developing growth mindset in their students. Each one is approaching the goal differently, but by sharing their journey, they learn from each other and motivate themselves to try new things. This is empowered teaching at its best.

I define teacher church the way Jesus defined church—“Wherever two or three are gathering in my name, I am among them.” Wherever two or more empowered teachers gather together in the name of growing as educators, it’s teacher church. There are many other names for it. Jim Burke calls it his Circle of Friends. When you look at the empowered teachers across the country who are writing about their classrooms, almost all of them have some form of teacher church. For many writing teachers, teacher church is their local affiliate of the National Writing Project.

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For others, it’s their local affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English. But it doesn’t have to be formal—just two or more like-minded teachers who are willing to be honest, vulnerable, brave, positive, and encouraging.

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Another Teacher Church opportunity: CATE members meet for dinner at NCTE 2016 in Atlanta. 
Looking back over the twenty years of my career, I’ve always attended teacher church of one kind or another. I was lucky to start teaching at twenty-two while living with my aunts, both experienced, inspiring, empowered teachers. I was surrounded by mentors and colleagues who were always willing to sit down together for a short service of teacher church.

From 2005 to 2012, I taught with Heather and our badass best friend Ashli Kessinger, and we met nearly every Friday night to drink wine and plan our lessons for our freshman English classes. Later, we invited another young teacher, also Heather, to join us. Those years of close, happy collaboration, planning, talking and thinking together, transformed all of our teaching.

Our teacher church pushed me to try more group work, which terrified me. My first year attempting National Board Certification in 2001-2002, my low score on my small group video convinced me that I just wasn’t cut out for teaching using small groups. While I was able to focus on that one component the following year and passed the boards, the sting of that low score haunted me.

But Heather was a pro at small groups, and she coached me into trying it and making it work. It still took me a few years to move to small group work as the default for my class, but I’m convinced I would never have moved to the student-centered approach that defines my classroom now if it hadn’t been for Heather showing me how she did it in her classroom.

My years collaborating deeply and regularly with Heather and Ashli also gave me an insatiable appetite for collaboration that has been the foundation for a happy career. Much later, in 2013, I found organized religion when I participated in the San Jose Area Writing Project’s Intensive Summer Institute. Sometimes I still lament the fact I came to the Writing Project so late, but regardless, I’m grateful for the many powerful collaboration opportunities that the SJAWP has brought into my life.

Collaboration is uniformly recognized as a powerful tool for improving teaching and learning, and often, in an attempt to reap its benefits, it is foisted upon us by well-meaning district offices and administrators. The entire Professional Learning Community (PLC) movement started by Rick DeFour out of Illinois is built on the idea that a small group of teachers who meet regularly to plan, teach, assess and reflect make huge strides in improving learning outcomes.

Years ago, I served as staff development facilitator at Moreno Valley High School in Moreno Valley, California as the school began weekly PLC meetings. Some of the PLCs gelled right away and became everything that DuFour had promised. However, many did not. These grade level or subject specific teams varied widely in their effectiveness. So, what was the determining factor?

Spirit.

Whether or not these PLCs worked came down to the spirit that the teachers brought to the meetings. Those PLCs where a majority of teachers came to the weekly meeting with a positive spirit, determined to be honest, open, hardworking and respectful, found quick success. They encouraged each other, celebrated successes and non-judgmentally dissected failures, which they looked at as learning opportunities. They turned these weekly meetings into teacher church.

I do understand why to some teachers, collaboration is a dirty word. They’ve been forced into unproductive or negative collaborative experiences that were a waste of their time. Sometimes teachers are afraid to be vulnerable, worried they will be judged. A few bad experiences can poison a teacher’s perspective on the benefits of collaboration.

Empowered teachers don’t wait to be forced into collaboration, making their own teacher church wherever the opportunity arises. But they also transform forced collaboration into valuable opportunities to work together. They are masters of stopping by their principal’s office to say, “Hey, what if we tried this?” Or even better, “Do you mind if our PLC pilots this new idea?”

For me, collaboration is just plain fun. I collaborate regularly with about a half dozen teachers, and not only does this push my teaching into new territory, it makes me happy. It means that first period on Tuesday, I’m guaranteed to see my friend Jonathan Dune, our district’s ELA teacher on special assignment. It means that every Thursday, I get to see Dr. Jonathan Lovell, as he comes to work with my fourth period Freshman Honors class. It means Wednesday afternoons I meet with Hanna Andderson, and Thursday afternoons with Cory Morbo, the two young teachers I mentor. It means every other Monday afternoon I get to hang out with the SJAWP leadership team at San Jose State as we plan our Saturday Seminars and summer programs for teachers. It means that once a month I get to laugh my guts out during our Heinemann Fellows conference call.

If any administrators are reading this, I hope they’ll walk away with this key idea: if you want teachers to collaborate, don’t discount joy. Teacher church is fun, y’all. Fun matters. Agency matters. Joy matters. Teacher church happens any time collaboration is infused with the three—joy, agency, fun.

What’s your teacher church? Do you need more of it? If so, how can you transform existing opportunities to get more teacher church in your life? Who in your teaching life could you reach out to today? 

It doesn’t have to be complicated. Attending teacher church might be as simple as stopping by an old friend’s house to sip a flat white latte and talk about teaching.

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