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How Mastermind Groups Can Combat 'Crabs in a Bucket' Syndrome

Late one afternoon last week, I sat in a small circle of teachers I admire and listened as one of them gently cried.  3348487117_2a28a56b8f_m.jpg

Were we on the verge of a strike like so many teachers are?  Rough day in the classroom? Were personal challenges swamping her ability to cope?  

None of the above.   

It was something far less serious but infinitely more meaningful.  

Let me back up a bit.  I'm a devotee of Jennifer Gonzalez's Cult of Pedagogy site and a huge fan of just about everything she shares. One day, she posted an interview with a school leader named Daniel Bauer who had been dreaming of a space where people like him, passionate teaching junkies and lovers of all things education, could get together to talk about their work, daydream safely out loud, chew on challenges, and support each other's plans to do wonderful things for the kids they taught.  

He came up with the idea for a Mastermind Educator Group.  Here's the link in case you are interested in learning more: https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/educator-mastermind/.  This small group of no more than 10 teachers would meet monthly on campus.  At these meetups, teachers could talk about everything from projects they'd dreamed of doing but needed more help with, instructional or leadership challenges they were facing, to troubleshooting upcoming lessons.  Daniel went on to describe what a wonderful success his group was in becoming a safe, challenging, and inspirational space where educators could go to hone their craft and get better.

You're probably asking why an educator would feel the need to generate even more meetings for himself or why Daniel's daily work environment wasn't providing the kind of support most education professionals need to constantly improve.  Frankly, that's the weird and slightly ironic thing about our work.  

Despite being surrounded by hundreds of school kids each day and working alongside fellow educators whose job it is to nurture and grow young people, our work is still incredibly solitary.  We spend the bulk of our day alone in our classrooms teaching our hearts out. When we do come together, it's for quick, task-dependent faculty or department meetings.  These events are highly scripted, administrivia-heavy moments that leave little room for the kind of thought-partnership or support most of us need to genuinely thrive. Add to that the fact that they happen mostly after school when even the best of us are wiped out and hyper-focused on all that must be done before tomorrow, you end up with teacher gatherings that are, how shall I say it, less than inspiring.  

The dark underbelly of teacher get-togethers, the one we don't like to talk about, is how casually unsupportive, even cruel, teachers can be to one another.  No one intentionally sets out to be an educational party pooper, but it happens. A lot. Put an enthusiastic teacher in a room full of others and ask him to share an exciting new idea he wants to try.  Watch what happens. You'll get one or two who say "Great idea! Go for it!" Hot on the heels of those responses come a whole pile of "We've done that before. It didn't work," "Where are you going to find the money for that?" Or how about my personal favorite (the one that makes me want to scoop my eyes out with a spoon) "Good luck.  Kids here could never do that."

This "crabs in a bucket" syndrome, a nasty phrase used to describe the darker side of our profession, is when teachers confront other teachers who are ambitious or creative and make them feel bad about their passions.  And it's is very real.

JoeGoldberg.jpgIf you watch live crabs placed in a bucket they struggle to get to the top and climb out.  The crabs on the bottom grab onto those who have worked their way to higher ground and pull them down, hoping to get a leg up in doing so. The result? All of the crabs stay at the bottom 

Other folks prefer to call it the less disparaging "tall poppy syndrome" where teachers with great ideas, who are outspoken, or who get wonderful results are cut down to size so no one among us is seen as better than another.  Ask any teacher and we'll all know exactly what you're talking about. Many among us have fallen victim to these kinds of professional put downs. They're hurtful, unprofessional, and do real damage to our work relationships. I've seen more good ideas strangled in the crib and more teachers shut down cold to know why every school needs a Mastermind group.

Sadly, there are few spaces in our immediate workplaces where we can be supported by like minded people who share our passion for the craft. Quite often, ideas, enthusiasm, and dreaming aren't nurtured and given the life they deserve at schools around the country. There are certainly some special places where great teachers are cultivated, but those are the exception, not the rule.  What ends up happening is those of us like Daniel spend time scanning the Twittersphere, blogs, & podcasts to find our edu-soulmates and to gather the ideas and resources to keep us going. After hearing about Dan's success with his Mastermind group, I was sold on the idea and set out to create my own.

Fast forward a year and my experiment with Dan's Mastermind idea was an unmitigated success.  My first group was a team of nine teachers from a local middle school. We met on the last Friday of each month all year long to chew on the wonderful, messy complexities of teaching tweens.  The experience was nothing short of transformative. This is only a partial list, but by year's end, this group of nine had worked together to create:

  • Genius hour projects focused on kid-led world-saving innovations;

  • The use of QR codes to create parent-guided Back to School Night classroom tours;

  • Pop-up debates on Chinese Imperialism in 7th grade Social Studies classes;

  • 20 different ways for kids to process a class novel meaningfully;

  • A cross-content collaboration between math, engineering, and social studies classes to plan, design, and recreate The Hanging Gardens of Babylon;

  • A social studies & science collaboration on modern plagues (featuring Ebola)!

  • Mastery learning frameworks involving game-based math play and leveling up learning opportunities;

  • A Star Wars-themed school-wide academic Olympics.

To watch nine teachers in ten one-hour meetings produce more vibrant and challenging learning experiences for hundreds of kids than any single one of them could have created alone was an incredible experience and one that should be replicated everywhere teachers work.  

In the doing of this work, I witnessed a space where:

  • Teachers felt brave enough to articulate to other teachers things they've always wanted to try or don't know how to do...yet;

  • Teachers rallied around one another to brainstorm ideas, troubleshoot the pathways, and give excitement and life to cool ideas;

  • Teachers devoted time, energy, and conference periods to help each other realize wonderful experiences for kids;

  • Teachers courageously admitting when they were struggling or needed help or felt like failures;

  • There was no negativity.  No cynicism. No put downs. No sarcasm.  No NOs.

  • Pure, unbridled curiosity, excitement, and commitment blossomed.

We aren't all lucky enough to work in schools where this happens regularly or for every teacher, but we should be.  Collaborative, supportive professional cultures should not be rare. Which means if you care about teachers and want to see more of them fly, think about starting a Masterminds Group on your campus as soon as you possibly can to nurture the power and potential inside every teacher.

Which brings me back to my weeping friend.  

I was given the green light to spread the Mastermind groups to all the middle schools in my district and eventually, I hope, the high schools.  At the first meeting of the year for one of the new middle school groups, we began by going around the circle, introducing ourselves, sharing what subjects/grades we teach and telling what each of us thought about about being asked into a group like this.

When it was Natalie's turn, she started plainly enough but soon the tears began falling.  Staring down at the desk, she composed herself enough to say this:

"I've been working so hard since I started here 8 years ago. I never thought anyone noticed, or that anyone cared.  I struggle really hard to make learning great for my kids but I've never had anyone to share my passion with or had the time to go find out who else was like me.  I'm just so humbled and grateful to know a thing like this exists and that I get to be part of it. I'm in shock. THANK you."

One day, we'll all work in schools where nurturing teacher dreams is the norm and where no one needs an invitation to be or feel great. Until then, we have Masterminds.

Next week, Rebecca will offer a "how to" for those who want simple steps to set up their own Mastermind Group.

Photos courtesy of Creative Commons and Oklarki Otti and Joe Goldberg.

 Rebecca Mieliwocki is the 2012 National Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). A 20-year veteran English teacher, Mieliwocki is currently on special assignment for her Burbank, Calif., district.

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons, by Oklarki Otti and Joe Goldberg.

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