To launch a major new “critical friends project” in a dozen Michigan Essential schools, teachers filled out an unusual survey recently, which asked them to choose four peers from whom they felt they could learn most effectively. Developed by Fran Vandiver, a veteran Essential school principal who now heads Fort Lauderdale High School in Florida, the survey defines such a “teacher leader” as someone who:
- Learns and tries new ideas; is a risk taker.
- Helps other teachers solve instructional problems.
- Provides technical assistance.
- Influences other teachers to perform better and improve their own instructional practice.
- Possesses an ease of personal interaction with colleagues.
- Bases instructional decisions on what will be effective for students.
- Contributes to school-wide improvement within and outside the classroom.
“Once everyone had listed their top four choices in order, we weighted the responses accordingly and gave the results to the principal,” says Barb Bleyaert, who heads the Michigan Coalition of Essential Schools. Those at the top of the list then receive training as “coaches” or facilitators of the “critical friends groups” that will bring teachers together to help each other improve learning for their students. “It’s a very powerful boost,” says Bleyaert, “to know that these teachers have been named by their peers to lead them through the change process.” In the new Critical Friends Project the Michigan CES Center allied with the “Middle Start” school reform project, which focuses on educational change for young adolescents. A two-year grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation will support the initiative, which will involve nearly two dozen Michigan schools representing a cross section of urban and rural districts