A growing group of Nashville educators has been quietly taking professional development into their own hands. Through regular meetings and summer workshops they’re helping one another improve at their jobs, and intentionally cutting across the private-public school divide.
It all began when sixth-grade English teacher Greg O’Loughlin left Metro for a private school in Nashville. He says he was naively surprised at how few educators from the two sectors knew one another.
"The answer was honest," he says. His co-workers asked, "'Where would I have met her? How would I have met her? Under what circumstances? There’s not like a teacher hangout.'"
So in 2016, O’Loughlin created one. The Educators Co-operative now has 80 members from all types of schools, including librarians, school psychologists and instructional coaches.
Monthly meetings rotate in each other’s schools and begin with members sitting in a circle, sharing introductions and updates. In traditional teacher development, one expert passes on information to a group. Here, members break into smaller groups to discuss topics suggested that day.
The conversations are always candid, and productive, Co-op members say, sometimes in unexpected ways.
In November, one discussion centered on issues of equity and social justice in the education system, titled "Teaching While White."
In another room, educators discussed collaboration, and started out talking about how to best work with all types of colleagues. At one point, public school special-education teacher Jennifer Ferguson was shown a picture of a one-legged stool meant to help restless kids concentrate. When she said she'd love something like that for her students, that immediately got Mike Mitchell fired up. An art teacher at a private Catholic high school, he said his class could make a prototype.
Two months later, they've made stools several Co-op teachers, including Ferguson, and eventually want to make them available throughout Nashville.
Another exchange common to the Co-op is classroom observation. Teachers usually dread that because another adult in the room is typically there for evaluation. But among members, it’s an opportunity to learn, says Amy Nystrand, a fourth-grade public school teacher.
Two years ago she was struggling with a class of nearly 30, she says, "ranging from kids who those who couldn’t add two-digit numbers to kids who could divide huge numbers in their heads. And I had 12 IEPs in that classroom, so students with special needs."
Nystrand observed a math coach, at a different school, who had kids ask each other, “What’s a mistake a student could make here?” The next day she introduced the deceptively simple question to her own kids. She says they now lead morning work sessions — and enjoy it.
Nystrand says it creates a community for students, and teaches them, "No one’s perfect, we’re all going to make mistakes. What’s important is how are you going to learn from that mistake."
Co-op members say these are the kinds of tools they need to learn from one another — as well as broader issues of education reform, like segregation and schools.
In that “Teaching While White” discussion, public middle-school teacher Alecia Ford suggested educators like herself carve out more time for students who bear the brunt of social inequity.
"White people are not comfortable anymore saying, ‘This is a black person’s problem,'" she shares with the group. "It’s not, it’s our problem, we have to fix it."
Co-op members say these conversations can be hard, because they require being vulnerable. Teachers aren’t used to admitting insecurities or asking for help, even though they expect that of their students.
But when they really bare themselves, says charter school teacher Marc Anthony Peek, they have a safety net. He says just having a judgement-free space for uncomfortable discussions is "monumental, because nowhere else am I having these conversations, with educators, especially about topics surrounding class and race."
The Co-op continues to attract new educators — another 30 are joining this year. They’re getting grants, they’ve launched a book club, a blog, even a podcast.
Marcy Singer-Gabella, the chief of staff at Metro Public Schools, says she doesn’t know of any other group like it nationally. But she also says the city will not — and should not — implement the innovative model. She thinks individual schools can help foster networks, but that this kind of group works only if administrators stay out of it.
"Unless teachers lead that work, and are the agents in positioning, it’s not the same," says Singer-Gabella. "You can’t force a group of people to trust one another."
She also praises the Co-op for its cross-section of schools — and isn’t worried that Metro teachers may get poached by private institutions. Singer-Gabella says when teachers grow, so do students, and that’s the goal at every school.
Founder Greg O’Loughlin says that’s why he wanted to bring educators together in this way. So he’s happy that new members have so far all had the same reactions. Starting with: "I found my people, I knew you existed, I assumed you existed and I had no idea you were all waiting for me, this feels so good. I found my teaching family."
O’Loughlins ays the other refrain he hears often is, "‘I no longer feel like I’m a teacher in this classroom, or a teacher in this school, I feel like a teacher in Nashville.’"
All based on the motto that they are each other’s best resource.