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Critical Friends

By Alain Jehlen

Back to Professional Development

It started as the "Teachers' Club"—15 people talking about classroom issues over dinner. Though it was fun, members felt dissatisfied. "It was easy to talk about all the problems and never get anywhere," says history teacher Karin Weberg. "We had great camaraderie, but it wasn't very focused."

Online Resources

Learn more about "Critical Friends" at these web sites:

National School Reform Faculty

Committee on Institutional Cooperation

Northwest Regional Laboratory

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development


Three years later, that club has honed its focus on professional development. It's grown into formal "critical friends" groups, a highly successful professional development program that involves all but a handful of the 70 faculty members at Federal Way High School, located in a middle-income community halfway between Seattle and Tacoma, Washington.

These groups follow detailed, timed discussion rules as they consider problems brought in by their members. Discussions are kept on target, and members are helped to feel safe in exposing weak aspects of their professional work. Each group of about 12 has members with a mix of subject areas and years of experience.

Social studies teacher Andy Cameron asked his group to help him make a unit on the Cuban Missile Crisis more effective. A Spanish teacher suggested having students draft letters asking their parents to stay out of their rooms, and then compare their approach with Kennedy's letter to Khrushchev trying to get him to take nuclear missiles out of Cuba.