Jonett Miniel is an NSRF National Facilitator and the Grants Coordinator for the Houston ISD Alternative Certification Program. Donna Reid and Jonett recently sat down for a conversation about supporting new teachers, professional development, true collaboration, and equity.
Donna: Tell me about your job. What do you do?
Jonett: As the grants coordinator for the HISD Alternative Certification Program (ACP), I write and implement grants that help support interns that are going through our program. Our grants specifically support teachers who are teaching at Title I schools in HISD. The majority of our funding comes from the Department of Education's Transition to Teaching grants. The intent of that money is to get certified teachers in classrooms in high need schools and retain them as teachers in the district.
For two of our grants, we've written Critical Friends Groups in as part of the professional development component. During their first year of teaching, the ACP interns don’t have time to come to CFG meetings because they are already doing two to four nights a week of university and ACP coursework, but during their second and third years they are required to participate in monthly CFG meetings. They work with the same small group of teachers and the same facilitator for two years. That is a commitment they must make in order to participate in the grant and get the financial incentives, which are around $4,000-$5,000, depending on which grant they're in.
Our hope and intent behind writing this into the grants was to connect with teachers as they begin their teaching practice and help them learn what it means to be a reflective practitioner as they're beginning their career.
Donna: What are some of the key outcomes?
Jonett: We've had amazing results with four groups who've completed their two year CFG commitment. For example, when we first surveyed the interns at the beginning of their three years, more than 80% said they planned to leave the district after their three-year commitment. Amazingly, we had a 95% retention rate after three years and we believe that it really had a lot to do with the CFG work.
Donna: Can you compare that to earlier years?
Jonett: Yes, we know the retention rate for teachers participating in CFGs is much higher than those who do not participate. We also know that many of the interns involved in CFGs have gone on to get masters degrees, or plan to within the next couple of years. All of the CFG teachers are working in some form of leadership on their campus by the end of the third year. We have several teachers that are now working on their principal certification, and we had half a dozen step up and want to be involved in CFGs in some way, either this year or next year.
Donna: That's really cool. What are some things that the interns do in their CFG meetings? Are they looking at student work?
Jonett: We spend the first semester building community and getting familiar with CFG concepts. Debbie Bambino’s article is a cornerstone. We also begin the conversation around facilitation versus training--"Zen of Facilitation" is the key text for those discussions.
We also talk about what it means to be able to have self-directed professional development, as opposed to somebody sending you off to something because they think you need it. That can be a really hard concept to get across, even for somebody who has only been teaching for a year, because the only PD that they’ve had up to this point is what somebody told them they needed. They’re never given a cafeteria plan of professional development and asked, which one do you need most? What do you need to work on?
And, of course, there's the whole issue of mandated versus voluntary. Now, these teachers start out as a mandated CFG because to be in the grant, to get the money, you have to participate in a CFG. It's not an option. But what we’ve found out is by the second year, almost everyone's there because they want to be. We even have some folks who have decided they want to continue on in CFGs even though their commitment is over, so they'll be joining some of our other groups this year.
So generally, the first semester we spend lots of time with the text protocols and figuring out the direction the group wants to take—if they want to study a particular book or take up a specific topic. By the second semester, we've introduced looking at student work—in particular using the tuning protocol and consultancies. In year two, I've even had groups that spent very little time looking at texts because the entire three-hour meetings every month were taken up with student work and consultancies.
Donna: That's great! I'm also wondering about how you got involved in CFGs.
Jonett: I first heard about CFGs when I was teaching at Whittier Elementary—that was my first teaching position. I came through HISD's ACP program myself. The second year I was at Whittier, the principal at Furr High School convened a group of representatives from all the feeder pattern schools to pursue a feeder pattern grant that the Houston Annenberg Challenge offered. Doris Rogers-Robbins from the Coalition of Essential Schools came to several of our planning meetings to help us think about the focus of the grant and offer ideas to be included. One of the things she recommended was that we write in Critical Friends Group training, and we did. When we were funded, we sent at least two people from each of the eight schools in the Furr feeder pattern to CFG training. That’s how I became a CFG coach back in 1999, and I have been coaching a group ever since.
Donna: You explicitly wrote CFGs into your current grants for ACP. Why? What do you value about CFG work?
Jonett: I believe that had I not gotten involved with Critical Friends Groups early on in my teaching career, I wouldn't be teaching today. For me, CFGs actually changed the way I thought about kids, how I approached figuring out how to meet their needs, how I planned what to do and evaluated what I did so I could do it better. CFGs provided an alternative to the typical isolation that exists among teachers in schools.
It made such a difference in whether I stayed in the profession or not that I see it as a crucial step to offer new teachers that are coming into the field. Teaching can be so overwhelming and so stressful that I think if we know about tools and strategies and ways to work that will help them with that, and we don’t give it to them, then we’re really doing them a disservice.
I also value CFG work because it fosters true collaboration. Too often, teachers leave the profession because they can't work in isolation, and they can’t figure out how to do it better or differently, and there's nobody there to help them. Or the experienced teacher just says, "Here's my lesson plan. Use that." Or grade levels get together and say, "You write the math piece and you write the reading piece and you write the social studies piece and we'll put them all together and have our lesson plans for next week." That’s not collaboration, it's teamwork at best.
CFGs are really about moving from teamwork to collaboration. True collaboration makes you think about things you would have never thought about on your own. It jogs memories that wouldn't have surfaced. It makes you see things from a different perspective because you’re actually talking to somebody else about it and what it means and how it could be different. I haven’t found any other avenue for that to happen outside of a CFG.
Donna: Finally, we all know that the NSRF mission statement explicitly talks about equity. What does equity mean to you?
Jonett: That's a huge question. I think that using CFG processes and practices actually helps teachers see the differences in the kids—the differences in their cultures, the differences in their races, the differences in their economics—in a way other than just looking at those statistics on a piece of paper on the school profile.
I think CFGs help you differentiate for the students that you have, whoever those students are, from one class to the next, and from one year to the next. And the protocols themselves are a form of equity in terms of participation and voice and opportunity. If teachers learn to use them, and then carry that practice over to their classroom, it changes the culture of the classroom. It's what really and truly creates community—not just changing the name of the seventh grade math department to the math PLC, because changing the name doesn't change the practice. I think that CFGs change our practice, and that’s good for all kids.
When asked what her favorite protocol is, Jonett responded that she likes the Consultancy because "you get a chance to dig around and ask those probing questions. It’s the probing questions that nail it and create the AHA’s." NSRF’s " Pocket Guide to Probing Questions" includes hints and stems to make your own questions as effective as possible.
Dear Donna: Do you have any hints for taking my group’s written reflections any deeper? I’m so tired of reading, "The snacks were yummy and the protocol worked well."
— STUCK IN THE SHALLOW END
Dear Stuck : As you know, collecting written reflections during each meeting is an important part of CFG practice. The written reflections give the coach or facilitator important feedback about what happened in the meeting, and if you ask the right questions, they can become evidence of changes in practice.
There are two prompts that I use quite a bit with my groups. The first is "What? So what? Now what?" For the "what" section, participants simply respond about what happened in the meeting. The "so what" section asks them to think about why the meeting was important. Were there any AHA’s or new thoughts generated? The "now what" section encourages us to think about what we’ll do after the meeting. How will we apply the lessons that we've learned?
Another helpful pattern is to ask your group members to write about Logistics, Learning, and Longevity. The "Logistics" section is where members can give you specific feedback about what worked well or not in the meeting. The "Learning" section asks them to record any new learning, and the "Longevity" section asks them to write about how to sustain that new learning by taking it from the meeting room into the classroom or workplace.
Both of these prompts encourage us to think about not just the meeting but how that meeting will affect our practice. Finally, be sure to schedule adequate time during the meeting for written reflections. People just can’t be deep reflectors when they feel rushed.
I hope to see you next January 15-17 at the Winter Meeting at the InterContinental Hotel on the West Loop right here in Houston.
If you have questions for Dear Donna, send them to CFGCoach@houstonaplus.org. Donna Reid is a Houston-based National CFG Facilitator and a consultant with Houston A+ Challenge.