- Teaching CirclesSupporting Shared Work and Professional Development
Since at least the end of the nineteenth century, small groups of teachers have come together to talk about their work in classrooms and expand their understanding of pedagogy. The practice was common enough at the end of the nineteenth century that publications were directed to such groups. Emerson White's 1901 book The Art of Teaching, for example, identifies a range of readers and contexts for learning about teaching in the title-page notation: "A manual for teachers, superintendents, teachers' reading circles, normal schools, training classes and other persons interested in the right training of the young." In higher education, the tradition of study or reading groups makes joining with others to work on teaching a recognizable format for an otherwise ignored need. Despite increased attention to teaching in higher education over the last twenty years, however, it is still more common for college-level teachers to discuss shared scholarly concerns than shared teaching interests, to hold each other accountable for the rigor of intellectual arguments more quickly than for classroom practices, or to offer criticism on scholarly or creative writing in progress more regularly than the writing directed to students. Still, getting together to talk about teaching has become increasingly common, with some universities making such groups a component of quality enhancement plans, supporting them in elaborate ways through teaching effectiveness centers, summer institutes, and development grants (Cox and Richlin 2004), or offering simpler incentives like lunch for faculty members who form such groups on their own (Mezeske 2006). [End Page 413] Though clearly operating in different forms in different institutions and needing to adapt to local conditions (see Quinlan 1996), the level of support available for Faculty Learning Communities that require cross-disciplinary participants to undertake a yearlong commitment to the group, produce written reports of their work, or conduct formal assessments distinguishes them from the more informal structures of Teaching Circles (TCs). Both forms, however, have many of the same objectives, including building a sense of community, creating a shared understanding of pedagogical goals among the teachers who participate, engaging individual teachers in critical reflection, and fostering intellectual interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning.
This essay describes the creation and evolution of such an informal structure in the University of Miami's English Composition Program and considers the possibilities and difficulties inherent in such structures. We began TCs at the same time that we undertook a major redesign of the curriculum, and these shifts in curriculum provided an opportunity and a need for discussion that otherwise might not have been so visible. In effect, we had created a problem-solving situation and the teachers in the program were invited to work together on these problems.
I still remember the excitement I felt after my first day of orientation at UM when you detailed what sort of teaching we would be doing. I had obviously taught composition at a number of places, but I had always been handed a book as an adjunct and sent off. Without any graduate courses in comp/rhet I simply taught to the book I was given. The idea of teaching and learning as part of a department and of not teaching "forms" was enlightening.DF
Though our experiment with TCs cannot be compared to the more structured and well-supported initiatives like the Faculty Learning Communities at Miami University of Ohio, our TCs nevertheless engendered a sense of shared mission, fostered collegiality, permitted peer review of classroom practices, supported the pedagogical development of beginning and experienced teachers alike, and spawned a number of shared efforts that benefited the program and our students.
The main benefit of TCs for me, whether as coordinator, TA, or lecturer participant was collegiality. Of course, I was one who moved on to an administrative position as assistant director of the program.JJ
Those who have served as coordinators of these TCs gained administrative experience that helped them to move on to more permanent positions [End Page 414] both within the institution and elsewhere, so the TCs also functioned in very real ways as faculty development and as support for individual careers.