In a section of his most recent book, Through the Year with Jimmy Carter, President Carter writes about the symbol of light. He begins by explaining the importance of the stars to him and his navy crew aboard a submarine. I was struck by the paradox of navigating by stars while deep under water, before my brain realized the solution: the submarine must surface to see the stars.
This paradox reminds me of how I sometimes feel as a classroom teacher, looking for dependable guidance while submerged in daily activities. (Not to mention coming up for air.) At regular intervals, I must surface to use the sextant, if I want to remain safely on course. President Carter describes the navigational details for people, like me, who need reminding. He finds three stars, and measures their altitude. From these measurements, he ascertains his ship’s position on the map.
This description makes me wonder by what three stars I measure my course, and the course of the various groups of students with whom I work each year. Enter Robert Evans, whose recent article in Independent School magazine—shown to me by a generous colleague—describes concrete ways in which teachers can move their professional exchanges from congenial to collegial. Among his suggested vehicles for such exchanges is the time-tested Critical Friends Groups (CFG). In other schools, I have participated in such professional in-school groups and found them productive.
President Carter’s chapter about light helps me imagine a particular kind of CFG—one centered on the participants’ three guiding stars. How does each group member find his or her three stars? What are those stars? And how, in terms of students’ daily experiences and accumulated learning, do the adults ascertain their position on the map? I think of this professional proposal as a Constellation of Colleagues. We often encounter published frameworks, grids and tables of principles, outcomes and designs. As helpful as these have been for me and for students over the years, I think it could be fun and productive to explore a natural version, which grows from the participants’ finding, describing and using their own three stars. When you look to the sky for guidance, what do you use? Ideally, individuals’ three stars align with the school’s official stars. Where they do not, people have an opportunity for meaningful discussion. One advantage to this Constellation of Colleagues idea is that it can cut across traditional disciplines. People of various backgrounds, interests and training can gather to share basic values. They can even, as a final creative project, draw and name their group’s constellation.