by Sarah Burgess
I recently exchanged emails with a teacher, asking her to spread the word about the Teacher Action Group’s Inquiry to Action Groups, which are starting up this week. These are peer-led study groups that bring educators together to delve into topics relevant to our teaching practice. Small groups meet weekly (for six sessions, each two hours long, plus a kickoff event) between February and April to share experiences, respond to readings, exchange ideas, and develop plans of action.
This teacher generously agreed to forward the information to educators at her school and beyond. At the end of her response, she wrote, “These ItAGs sound wonderful, but I'm sensing such low morale in the schools right now, due to the increased workload and decreased resources. I’m impressed by any teacher who is willing to commit to two hours for six weeks.”
What she wrote hit me hard. In so few words, she captured the ongoing and devastating effects of under-funding: Although there is no recent news about school closings or layoffs, District teachers and their students experience daily the heightened stress and strain that comes from lack of money and staff.
In this context, the thought of one more thing can sound overwhelming. That can be true even without the abandonment that District educators face, for new teachers, or for anyone who works in a complex school environment.
Where do educators draw strength in these times? What allows us to keep going?
Those of us in the Teacher Action Group believe that, in our hardest moments, what pushes us to keep going and even thrive is building deeper connections with other educators. We connect to get support, to see ourselves reflected, to not feel alone. And we collaborate to get new ideas, to see new pathways forward, to feel energized, and filled again with a sense of possibility.
We also believe that educators joining forces with each other is the catalyst for transformation that our school system needs. While so-called reforms -- like introducing standardized accountability measures, closing District schools, and increasing privately managed charter schools -- proliferate, many of us envision a different direction for change.
Activist Grace Lee Boggs, in her most recent book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, writes, “We can’t change the whole system overnight. But we need to know what we would put in its place, and we can take advantage of the present crisis to begin working to create new models with the teachers, principals, and parents all over the city who have given themselves permission to think differently from the powers-that-be. To achieve the miracle that is now needed to transform our schools into places of learning, we need to tap into the creative energies of our children and our teachers.”
This is a call to educators who have given themselves permission to think differently, who want to grapple with the problems they experience and who want to join others to creatively solve those problems. It's a call to those who want to help articulate what education should look like in our city.
When educator Michelle Fine spoke in Philadelphia last year, she said that fighting against the tides of diminished resources and standardized tests and corporate reform has left us with “impoverished imaginations.” It was clear what she meant: It takes so much time and energy to dig in with all our weight and say no.
This is necessary work: In Philadelphia, there is a lot to respond to with no. But we also need space to nourish our imaginations, to articulate and strengthen a collective yes.
Imagination can be wildly and uniquely individual; it is also social. It is what happens when people gather to learn from each other, to study, reflect, create, experiment, deepen, and birth new ideas.
Inquiry to Action Groups provide the space we need for this process. Consider some of the questions we will grapple with in this year’s groups:
- How do we make curriculum more relevant and alive for our students? (Black Music as Rebellion, Locally Relevant Mathematics, English Content Area and Social Studies Content Area Meet-ups)
- What structures will strengthen democracy at the school level and beyond? (Leveraging Student and Faculty Voice to Improve Your School, Social Justice Unionism)
- How can we support each other and learn from ourselves and each other about what works? (Partnering Through Mentoring, Using Teacher Research to Create Powerful Classrooms)
- How can we harness technology and the resources of the city for increased learning? (Philadelphia as Classroom: An Inquiry into Connected Learning Experiences)
- How can we align our practice to principles of social justice? (Social Justice Educators on the Path to Relevancy)
The work we do together will provide us strength and inspiration for moving forward in our own practice; it will nourish our collective imagination and strengthen our vision for education; and it will build the skills and the power we need to realize this vision.
Over 100 educators have already signed up to participate in this year’s groups. We need others to join us. When Boggs writes that the power to change the direction of our schools is being led “by individuals and groups responding creatively with passion and imagination to the real problems and challenges that they face where they live and work,” she describes all of us.
Learn more about Inquiry to Action Groups and register for them here. The process kicks off at 6 p.m. on Feb. 12 at the Science Leadership Academy. See you there.
Sarah Burgess is a member of the Teacher Action Group.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.