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Teacher-Therapy: Creating Supportive Communities of Practice

At the Scaffolding and Sequencing Workshop, I had a quick chat with Joe, during which we both agreed on one of the lesser-known job descriptors of teachers: teacher-as-therapist. We chuckled at how we take responsibility for this role, because we care about our students and want them, ultimately, to succeed in university life at large. But, for hardworking instructors like us who care, but who also have our own readings piling up, our own loved ones desiring our attention, who “therapies” us? Who is the therapist to the therapists?

Since my sister is even now working toward a PhD in psychology, I will take this moment to say that professional therapy is good—we should all get counseling for our emotional and mental well-being… But, is there a more convenient, and I hardly need add, economical option? I believe so. I think we (current and future instructors) are our own best therapists, especially when we can intentionally come together as a community of practice.

I’ve been a part of a Teaching Circle for about a year now, and it has served as a rich community of practice for me, described by Etienne Wenger as “[a group] of people who share a concern or passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (introduction). Our Teaching Circle shares research questions and project ideas, classroom conundrums and drafts of writing—from conference proposals to book chapters to short stories. We share about things we’re interested in and working on, but also about personal experiences and feelings. In this way, we support each other holistically, hoping to learn how to not just teach better, but to be better teachers, and in the process, we uphold an idea put forth by Parker Palmer of “teaching from the undivided self” (15). We become each other’s therapists.

Communities of practice, like this Teaching Circle, can be especially productive for busy educators (or educators-in-training) who care about their teaching practices and wish to do more than just maintain a “not bad” teaching life, to teach from undivided selves. Engaging in collaborative, accountable meaning making with fellow teachers is not “just another committee” to sit on, or “just another assignment to get through.” The ideal application of these communities takes us away (for a little while, at least) from our “high theory” academic research and into what Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan Lytle’s article, “Relationships of Knowledge and Practice: Teacher Learning in Communities,” calls knowledge-of-practice. In contrast to knowledge-for-practice (generating “formal knowledge and theory”) and knowledge-in-practice (reading theory and learning from it), knowledge-of-practice occurs when teachers use their own teaching practices as a site of inquiry through which they gain knowledge necessary for meaningful teaching (250). This is sometimes referred to as “teacher-research,” which Cathy Fleischer maintains, “is more than a method [of research]—is, in fact, a way of thinking about issues of power and representation and storytelling and much more” (4). Teacher Research becomes an empowering way for us to pay attention to the issues we really care about, and to tell those stories from a knowledgeable place.

This happens best, most productively, in community. In communities of practice, like our Teaching Circle, “the central image is of teachers and others working together to investigate their own teaching and curriculum development, and the policies and practices of their own schools and communities,” (Cochran-Smith and Lytle 279). In other words, relationships are required for these groups to function. We need every member’s unique perspective in order to facilitate rich “compost” for invention, collaboration and meaningful research, that might ultimately start changing our institution in good and exciting ways. The support and “therapy” that communities of practice, or teaching circles, provide allows us to move toward Cochran-Smith and Lytle’s stated goal:

The goal is not to do research or to produce “findings,” as is often the case for university researchers. Rather, the goal is understanding, articulating, and ultimately altering practice and social relationships in order to bring about fundamental change in classrooms, schools, districts programs, and professional organizations. (279)

Here at Wayne State, I think this goal and this same kind of supportive community is possible—even necessary!—to help us develop as mentally and emotionally healthy, undivided teachers. The question becomes, “Where is/are our Wayne State Teaching Circle(s)?” The answer?

It’s up to us. We can create these supportive and productive communities with just a little bit of planning and open minds. For us new lecturers, our cohort has been an ad hoc teaching circle these past few months. But, what about a community that includes individuals at all places in the teaching journey? Beginning, seasoned and a-few-years-in teachers? Students and tenured faculty? What could our communities of practice, our teaching circles, be?

Works Cited
Cochran-Smith, Marilyn and Susan L. Lytle. “Relationships of Knowledge and Practice: Teacher Learning in Communities.” Review of Research in Education 24 (1999): 249-305. Print.
Fleischer, Cathy. Composing Teacher-Research: a prosaic history. Albany: SUNY Press, 1995. Print.
Palmer, Parker. The Courage to Teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998. Print.
Wenger, Etienne. Communities of practice: a brief introduction. N.p. 2006. Web. Oct. 2011.

Nicole Guinot Varty received her MA in Written Communication and the Teaching of Writing from Eastern Michigan University in 2009. She joined the department as a lecturer in 2011 and is currently teaching ENG 1020.



One thought on “Teacher-Therapy: Creating Supportive Communities of Practice

  1. Nicole, what a super article about teaching circles. You are right, it is always up to each member to make the circle work and to keep it cycling no matter how fast or how slow it seems to be moving. Our circle definitely cycles at different speeds, but it keeps moving along with each of us doing our share of peddling. Just yesterday Cindy and I met, worked together on the LAND conference form, talked about our week, shared some student anecdotes, went over some technical instructions together, and then shared the conference form with all our members. Yes, it is a community of practice. Pam

    Posted by Pam McCombs | October 22, 2011, 8:50 am

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