Eleanor Duckworth and the Experienced Teachers Group. (1997). Teacher to Teacher: Learning from Each Other. New York: Teachers College Press

176 pp.
$18.95 (Paper)       0-8077-3652-X
$42 (Cloth)           0-8077-3653-8

Reviewed by Helen Featherstone,
Michigan State University

October 30, 1998

        In the fall of 1993, Eleanor Duckworth and the 13 veteran teachers in the Experienced Teacher (ET) Program—a year-long graduate program for experienced teachers at Harvard—met for the first time. Many teachers escape their classrooms for graduate school in order to qualify for careers in school administration, college teaching, curriculum development or research. The teachers in the ET program came to Harvard to become better practitioners. Over the course of the next 9 months they would take 3 courses together (and 5 other courses of their own choosing), including 2 with Duckworth. In one of these two, T-322, the program's integrative seminar, they would meet for 3 hours every other week from September to May.
        When the 13 teachers registered for T-322, all any of them knew about the course was how the catalogue described it:
This course is required of and limited to students in the Experienced Teachers Program. It considers theories and collaborative strategies for inquiring into and improving school practice. The focus is on practice-based questions and the use of a variety of kinds of information that bear on these questions: for example, case studies, classroom observation, journals, clinical interviewing, video records, autobiography. Students will spend time in a school site. Readings will deal with relationships between theory and practice, and with specific issues that arise in the course of the year.

        With some trepidation, Duckworth had decided to follow the lead of Catherine who had taught the seminar in previous years and turn over to the seminar's participants responsibility for deciding what the group would study and how they would do this. "My own inclination," Duckworth explains, "was always to plan all the readings, the assignments, the activities—even if there was wide scope for different people to go about them in different ways." However, Duckworth had been impressed by what had happened in previous years when Krupnick had handed students the reins, so she overcame her misgivings and invited the teachers to design the seminar. In Teacher to Teacher: Learning from Each Other , Duckworth and the other teachers who gathered in the classroom on September 23, 1993, tell the story of the course that they created together.

Making it Happen

        The group had major difficulties getting started. For one thing, they found it hard to find ways to talk specifically about practice. When the two teachers who planned the second meeting allotted fifteen minutes for "success stories," their classmates resisted. Duane Grobman, a teacher of primary grade children from New Mexico and one of the two planners of this meeting, recalls:
There was strong consensus among the group that they did not want to share ‘success stories.' Hence we did not.... Thinking of the schools in which we taught, if we shared ‘success stories' with other teachers we feared being perceived as boastful, proud, arrogant, or prescriptive, all of which the culture of teaching (and perhaps our personal convictions) told us to avoid.
        It is tempting to dismiss the reluctance Grobman describes here as an obstacle to be overcome, a feature of the culture of teaching that undercuts efforts to create a healthy culture of collective inquiry. But Teacher to Teacher also shows its human basis. Six weeks later, after the teachers have talked for several hours about strategies they have used to motivate reluctant students, Kristin Newton, who teaches physics at Cambridge (Massachusetts) Rindge and Latin School, writes:
It was ...depressing for me to hear about the success stories. I don't feel I've had any "success stories" this year. I didn't get anything out of hearing about students who suddenly turned around and became wonderful. (What a selfish thing for me to say!!)
        Newton's feelings (and the guilt and discomfort she feels in exposing them) make human sense and they remind us that change is complex precisely because existing norms and teaching practices almost always serve real needs.
        Setting an agenda for the year proves to be just as difficult as setting norms that enable specific and useful talk about practice. When the October 21 session ends without a decision about "curriculum" for the course, many teachers feel discouraged although most seemed to recognize, at least in retrospect, the impossibility of nailing down a curriculum for the year in an hour-long discussion. Although the group does hammer out a kind of agenda two weeks later, frustrations do not evaporate. In early February Newton writes in her journal:
Okay, here goes. I'm sick of it, I don't want to talk any more about what we are going to write, what we are going to talk about, or any more planning. We need a leader to make these decisions for us so that we can get on to whatever we are here to do.
        Another teacher struggles to understand why the seminar "feels weird, " while a third observes, "I believe in student-driven curriculum, but am craving a clearer sense of purpose." A fourth teacher comments on the irony of her frustration: "If I could have wished for the perfect way to learn, it would be in a place where the learners are responsible for how that learning happens. Now that I am in that wishful place, I wish it were different."
        In mid-February the class turns a corner. Several class members, in the course of a chance hallway encounter, decide to address the collective malaise by finding a nicer room for the Thursday evening meetings. They are amazed to discover how easy this is—they do not even need the permission of the instructor to make this change official. To highlight the potential importance of the change of venue, they organize a kind of treasure hunt to lead their classmates and instructor from the old classroom to the new one, where they have laid out a lavish meal (complete with wine). "What a great class!" exults a New York City high school teacher. "I feel good because it seemed like there was action taken in the class. People were feeling dissatisfied and they did something about it." Others echo her sentiments. In addition to celebrating the charms of the new room and the decisive action of those who relocated the class, seminar participants write enthusiastically about the evening's work. Following up on a decision made at the previous meeting, everyone spends the first half hour of class conferring with a partner about a piece of writing they want to share; the group then continues an earlier conversation about assessment by reflecting on their own experiences with grades at Harvard and discussing assessment strategies they have used as teachers.
        The teachers responsible for the next class capitalize on the momentum by creating activities that involve their classmates in exploration and in reflection on that exploration; by mid-March the journal entries suggest that students are both enjoying and valuing their time together. At their next meeting seminar members begin to talk about writing a book about the work they have been doing together. They establish norms that seem to allow them to agree about what to pursue and how to conduct these joint investigations. The journal entries explore substantive issues rather than frustrations with the shape of the collective conversation. A learning community has apparently emerged from the angst.
        And so the chapter describing the course's last formal meeting brings the reader up short. Planned as an exploration of multiculturalism, with a structure that seems to make good use of the community so laboriously achieved, the session becomes painfully embarrassing to several of the seminar's most conscientiously committed members and leaves others feeling angry, deceived, and manipulated. When the group gathers at Duckworth's house a week later to celebrate a year well spent, tensions linger. The way in which the group address the anger and hurt feelings that remained reminded this reader how rarely open discussion of loaded topics is achieved in the staff rooms of our schools.

Multiple Perspectives

        It would be impossible for any reader of Teacher to Teacher to compose a narrative summary of the events this book describes without seeing with inhibiting clarity that hers is but one possible account of what happened in T-322 between September 1993 and May 1994 and that each of the 14 teachers—and probably each reader—would construct the story differently. The book's architecture reminds the reader continually of this point. Sixteen chapters, each of which describes and documents one course meeting, form the narrative backbone of the book. Interleaved among these chapters are 7 "interludes," each written by a different teacher (as a part of the work for T-322) and each focused on the challenges facing a particular teacher in a particular classroom.
        The group parceled out responsibility for the narrative chapters among its members: Ten of the 13 teachers are listed as authors of one or more chapters; in most cases at least one of the authors facilitated and planned the class the chapter describes. Because few classes were audio taped the writers must rely to some extent on memory and notes for their accounts of what they planned and what actually happened. Another data source, however, provides fascinating insight into what I think of as the inaudible classroom discourse: the unarticulated thoughts and feelings of participants. Members of the seminar wrote journal reflections after every class; they gave one copy of their journal to the classmate who had volunteered to respond to the journals that week and deposited a second copy in a folder in the library that others class members could read before the next class meeting. Authors of the chapters used these journals both to reconstruct what had happened in the meetings and to show what classmates made of these events. Text from the journals comprises more than two-thirds of most chapters.
        The result is both fascinating and occasionally frustrating. Although these journals are surely not uncensored records of each teacher's thoughts, they do provide insights into responses that were not voiced in class discussions. The rich documentation of the inner conversation allows us to understand the frustrations of teachers who long to accept Duckworth's invitation to tailor a course to their own burning questions, who believe in this sort of responsive curriculum, but who have only nine months to get everything they have dreamed a year at Harvard could offer them and itch to get started on the probing investigations of teaching that they hope will enable them to return to their classrooms equipped to make a new start at a higher level. The journal reflections show how differently different people can see the same conversation. They also highlight the complexities of the apparently simple acts of speaking and listening. Here for example, is Doug Jones, a math and Latin teacher, reflecting on his own effort to step out of the center of the conversation in order to listen more:
I was intrigued by Mark's attempt to participate less in class last night, and I decided to follow his lead. Unfortunately, I was not able to do this by listening more closely to the rest of the class, but instead I became distracted and disengaged with the discussion. I found it difficult to be quiet without being passive.
        The frustration, for a reader passionately interested in teachers' professional development and in the challenges and possibilities faced by teachers who try to organize like-minded colleagues into groups for studying teaching, is that we get only glimpses of the conversations the journal writers are reacting to. Without audiotape of the meetings there can be no quotes from transcripts and, presumably because they are writing for others who were present at the meeting, the journal writers rarely paraphrase remembered dialogue or synopsize points made. So, for example, during the February 17 meeting, in an effort to deepen their understanding of assessment, the teachers discussed their own experiences of assessment as students at Harvard, and then talked about assessment strategies they had used in their own classrooms. About this second discussion the authors of the chapter tell us only that "Burry [Gowen] had brought several examples of student work, and we listened to him explain the assignments and his assessment of them." They follow this up with two teachers' journal entries; one (see below) reflects on the ways in which listening to Gowen's presentation has enlarged her own understanding assessment; the other teacher writes about "one assessment topic I wanted to discuss that was only alluded to": standardized testing. Both reflections are well-written and thoughtful, but neither explain what Gowen actually said.
        But although we might wish to hear more about the in-class conversations, the reliance on the teachers' written journals allows us to hear the eloquence and insight of these teachers in a way that transcripts of conversation never would. This is an accomplishment of considerable importance. In much writing about education, the quoted words of teachers come from interview transcripts or taped discussions. The words on the page are written versions of spoken texts, and in consequence the teachers almost always sound less articulate and less logical than the academics who are writing about them. For it is in the nature of spoken language to rely on context, on tone and expression, on gesture, and on unspoken feedback from listeners to convey meaning; and it is in the nature of discussion—perhaps it is the defining mark of really good conversation—that people offer ideas that are still embryonic. Words that sparkle and inspire in the context of a conversation may barely make sense when represented on a transcript, complete with false starts, throat clearings, and unfinished sentences. But because the words of the teachers in the Experienced Teacher Group began life as written text, readers hear their eloquence clearly.

What Do Teachers Learn from one another?

        Because a number of reformers have suggested that teachers can learn a great deal from one another, and that groups of teachers committed to the creation and analysis of new reform pedagogies may provide answers to the enormous professional development challenges posed by the current reform movements, (see, for example, Ball and Cohen, in press, and Lord, 1994) most readers will hope to learn more about what teachers in a group like this one learn. The authors have not provided any simple answers to this inevitable question. Indeed, Teacher to Teacher reads in some ways more like a notebook of data documenting the life of a group than like the sort of analysis of this data that we might have expected from an academic press. To me, however, the lack of analysis makes good sense. The authors are at pains to communicate the texture of an experience that felt powerfully transformative to many of them. They are determined, as well, to convey its multiplicity: there is no one story of the year, or even of one meeting; there are 14 individual stories of an experience which, for all the efforts of participants to speak and write honestly about their thoughts and feelings, are experienced individually and privately. If we want to understand what teachers learn in such a group, we must approach our question one teacher at a time.
        The extensive excerpts from journal reflections give the reader some help in doing this sort of thinking. Because they are written after and in response to each meeting, the journal entries represent the thoughts prompted by the meeting rather than its actual content. In some cases these suggest a good deal about what a particular participant learned on a particular evening. Consider, for example, Jane Kays's response to Burry Gowen's presentation on assessment:
As Burry explained the various kinds of assessment samples he'd brought to class, I began to associate assessment with many different classroom activities. I began to see assessment differently, as a form of evaluation that follows a continuum from informal classroom interactions to more serious and planned testing procedures.

Prior to this revelation, assessment meant "test." Now, I realize that when I engage my students (grade 4) in a discussion about all the characteristics of air, I am evaluating their understanding of air. From that point on we might predict certain outcomes pertaining to the properties of air. Again, I am assessing how well they make sense of a particular problem....

Simultaneously, another form of evaluation continues....I am wondering what I could have done differently to improve a lesson, or I reflect about the success of a lesson.....

Many teachers (myself included) dislike non-teaching duties such as "yard duty." As I think about greeting the students as they arrive in the morning, it is easy to spot a child who did not have as cheerful a morning as we imagine young children to have. Here again is a form of assessment.... I guess the evaluative continuum begins as we enter the school each day and continues until we leave in the P.M. On second thought, does it ever end? Thanks, Burry for opening my eyes.

        Gowen's presentation seems to have helped Kays to rethink her images of assessment and to formulate some ideas that might well have a visible impact on her teaching. Readers get a glimpse in this and certain other journals of what the subtitle, "Teachers learning from each other," might mean. But only a glimpse. There is probably more learning going on than we can see.
        Much of what experienced teachers may learn from open-ended discussions with colleagues is difficult to define or describe. Learning about teaching is mostly quite different from learning to put buttonholes on a shirt, to compute the quotient of two multi-digit numbers, or to send a document by Email. This is especially true when the learners are experienced teachers who already know how to write a lesson plan and how to stop a conversation in the back row while continuing to explain an assignment. One participant in a group of elementary and middle school teachers who met biweekly for several years to work on issues related to their mathematics teaching reported that the group had helped her to improve and reflect on her practice partly by serving as an audience for that work. Rewarding as it was to create and orchestrate lessons in which her students worked together to make sense of mathematical ideas, she knew that this satisfaction alone would not compensate her for the toll taken by ongoing battles with her principal about coverage of the textbook; from her colleagues in the math group she got practical help, but also reassurance that her struggles were important not only to the children in her classes but also to the wider field of education. The group connected her to a larger professional conversation.
        Many different voices— ranging from that of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics to those of the school principal and little boy in the back row—try to influence what a teacher does in her classroom. Newton's Gravitational Law—which states that every object in the universe attracts every other object with a force inversely proportional to the square of the distance between those objects—explains the forces acting on educators almost as accurately as it describes the action of the earth's gravity on the moon. A teacher is much more likely to be influenced by the behavior, visible needs, and desires of the students in her class than by the memos from the district curriculum committee because students make their wishes felt forcefully and continually within the confines of a small classroom. As nearly every commentator since Willard Waller has pointed out, teachers are isolated from other professionals. Meeting regularly with a group of colleagues to discuss ways to improve classroom practice creates another force field—an audience that raises a second set of issues. Unlike the children in the classroom, this audience considers questions drawn from a larger agenda,. Although such a group wields no political or practical power, it can influence a teacher's thinking—and practice—profoundly.

Teacher Narrative as Genre

        The final chapters of Teacher to Teacher caught me oddly off guard; as I closed the book I realized that it had not ended as I was expecting it to. The group's last formal meeting trails off in a tangle of hurt, anger, and confusion. The "interlude" that follows the account of this meeting, Jane Kays's "Outsiders Still," echoes its emotional tone in a way for which I was unprepared. Twenty-five years ago, before bitter bussing battles divided Boston, Kays taught in an inner city school; she recalls the warmth with which neighbors and merchants greeted her, a white woman, and her mostly African-American charges as they trooped along the sidewalks to the local library. She still teaches in Boston, but her current school is in a neighborhood of "neat single family homes on tidy streets." She still hopes that a class trip to the library will help the children to fall in love with books and to feel comfortable in an intimidating public building, but she knows that an expedition to the library a few blocks from the school will not be sufficient: Her students come from all over the city and are served by six different branch libraries. Kays decides to visit all six with her fourth grade class.         Her account of the class's first venture outside the neighborhood ends on an unexpectedly wrenching note:
As the children waited at the first crosswalk, I inched off the crosswalk, instinctively knowing that the approaching sedan would pause and wave us ahead. Instead the driver glared and smeared his tires around the corner in front of us. I'm sure the children noticed nothing but the freedom of the autumn air; I felt the sting of a time two decades ago when whites were forced to send their children to schools in black neighborhoods and accept others into their neighborhood schools. Rather than send their children to a location they did not prefer, many fled the system and saturated the local parochial schools. However, they could not deny black students the right to attend the schools that they abandoned.

Now, 25 years later, the attitudes that purged the schools of their whiteness are as strong as they were when busing was first implemented. I knew the driver who denied our passing was not harried by time but irked by the outsiders who continued to invade his space.

        Here the essay ends. My open-mouthed response to Kays's final paragraphs has made me think hard about the predictable features of teacher narratives, the ways in which these stories—from The Thread that Runs So True (Stuart, 1949) to The Girl with the Brown Crayon (Paley, 1997)—tend to resolve tensions in the final pages, creating some version of a happy ending. Surely the conventions that led me to expect another chapter in Kays's account of the library trips shape not only how stories of teaching get told, but also who tells them. Teachers who feel simply saddened or confused by their experiences rarely write their own stories—and may even tell fewer of them at the dinner table.         A good teacher group deconstructs these conventions, and invites narratives that have neither resolutions nor happy endings It makes room for stories that do not yet make sense to the tellers. In doing so it breaches the loneliness of teaching and moves group members and those trying to listen in on their conversation towards a more complex understanding of teaching.


Ball, D. L. and Cohen, D. K. (in press). Developing practice, developing practitioners: Toward a practice- based theory of professional education. In G. Sykes and L. Darling-Hammond (Eds.), Teaching as the learning Profession: Handbook of policy and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lord, B. (1994). In N. Cobb (Ed.), The future of education: Perspectives on national standards in America. New York: College Entrance Examination Board, pp. 175-204.

Paley, V. (1997).The Girl with the Brown Crayon. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stuart, J. (1949). The thread that runs so true. New York: Scribners.

About the Reviewer

Helen J. Featherstone

Ed.D., Harvard University
Department of Teacher Education College of Education
Michigan State University

Email: feather1@pilot.msu.edu

Helen Featherstone is an Associate Professor of teacher education who is particularly interested in teachers' efforts to change their practices. Her research is concerned with the teaching and learning of mathematics. She once facilitated a teacher group that met bi-weekly for 6 years and has, along with other members of the group, written about aspects of the work of the group.

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