Many of us know Tim Martindell as the face of Critical Friends Group (CFG) for Houston A+ Challenge. Tim recently was promoted to a new position as the Assistant Director of Leadership in Teaching for Houston A+ Challenge. Donna Reid sat down with Tim to find out more about his vision for building CFG networks in the Houston area.
Donna: Congratulations on your promotion. Can you tell me more about your new position?
Tim: Well it's a new position for Houston A+, in fact, and it was created with the recognition that strong schools don't exist without strong teacher leaders. My role will be to expand our training and support networks for teachers using Critical Friends Group as a foundation. I will also be helping to coordinate these efforts with our principal leadership networks, including the Regional Principal Leadership Academy.
I envision that we'll do this by customizing some of our existing CFG training and some of the readings for slightly different audiences or purposes. For example, there may be specific seminars and networks for department chairs, team leaders, or first-year teachers. Instead of just one sort of generic CFG, we will have multiple tracks all based on the same methodology.
Donna: Tell me about how you first became involved in CFG work.
Tim: I was trained in CFG while I was a campus-level coach at Drew Academy (Aldine ISD) in the summer of 1998. I was one of five or six coaches on my campus, which was named a Beacon School by Houston A+ (then known as the Houston Annenberg Challenge). I coached the same group for four-and-a-half years while I remained at Drew, and I coached up until I came to Houston A+ as an employee.
Donna: So what do you value about CFG work?
Tim: I think it gives teachers — and administrators — the tools and forums to have the difficult conversations that must take place in schools, in order to insure equity for all students. CFG has really focused and deepened the conversations that are going on in schools — and more importantly, it is pushing people out of their comfort zones into action.
Donna: How will your new position build on those experiences?
Tim: Houston A+ has spent the last 10 years working on school transformation from the teacher level on up. One key thing we have learned is that in order to really change what happens in a school, you can't just bring in a new leader — the entire staff must share common goals and a vision for transformation.
With our new Regional Principal Leadership Academy, we're helping to prepare aspiring principals to transform urban public schools. All of our interns participate in the Critical Friends Group New Coach Seminar as their very first week of training. It's the foundation for their continued growth over the three-year coaching and mentoring process.
But that's not enough. With our Teacher Leadership initatives, my goal will be to help build some common ideas and common language for everyone in the school building. As the new school leaders in the Academy receive continued coaching from A+, I will developing training and support to help the faculty in these schools really focus on equity and opportunities for kids.
Donna: What is your vision for CFG work in Houston?
Tim: The notion of Professional Learning Community is really starting to take hold here in Houston, and that looks different in different contexts. I think Critical Friends "gives legs" to the theory of Professional Learning Communities.
What we're going to be designing at A+ is really an expanded toolkit that a CFG coach might use, that contains some unique, context- specific tools. It could be different readings or it might be new and different protocols.
We're also looking at how CFGs reach out. How does this work go beyond the school group? So we might be looking at how to design CFGs for community members. For example, we trained a group of students this summer during our CFG New Coach Seminar.
Donna: So there are a lot of things coming up. Tell me about how CFG practices have transformed you.
Tim: For me personally, I think I've learned to listen and ask much better questions.
When asked for his favorite protocol, Tim mentioned both Peeling the Onion, which was featured in Coaching Facilitates Greatness last month, and Describing Students' Work. Both of these protocols help the participants peel back layers of assumptions or evaluation to get a fresh perspective.
Dear Donna: Missing so many days of school because of Hurricane Ike has really messed up our CFG meeting schedule, and some people are so stretched and stressed that they don't want to meet at all. How can I get my new group back on track? We had one meeting before Ike.
— NEEDING SOME REASSURANCE
Dear NEEDING : I'm so glad to hear that you are dedicated to nurturing a Critical Friends Group on your campus. Critical Friends Groups can actually help us through challenging times by fostering strong professional relationships and helping us focus on the core of our shared work — improving student learning.
Do your groups meet voluntarily after school? If so, make sure that you develop an agenda that respects everyone's time. It really is hard for educators to stay for an after-school meeting when they have to rush home to meet the roofing contractors! A sample shortened agenda might include 12 minutes for Connections, 45 minutes for looking at student work, and about 10 minutes for written reflections. Be strict about keeping to the time suggestions for whatever protocol you pick, and make sure you talk about how the time limits help a group have a focused conversation when you debrief. The best way to get people excited about CFG is to make sure they experience focus, reflection, and collaboration in the first meeting so that they are eager to come back the next time.
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.