Big Picture Learning – You don’t need a Therapist; you just need a Critical Friends Group


The Mid-Atlantic Critical Friends Group was born of a conversation in Nashville in 2010. Michael Soguero, newly the director of the Eagle Rock Professional Development Center, Jeff Palladino, David Bromley and I were discussing ways that school based leadership could best support each other around the network. If I remember correctly, Michael suggested a Critical Friends Group and offered to get the first few gatherings off the ground. His idea was to support the group until we could stand on our own and then pollinate other regions with the same practice. Over the years, different facilitators and hosts have welcomed the CFG into their schools. Eagle Rock continues to be a presence at many of our meetings. I personally, have the Mid-Atlantic CFG to thank for my current position at BPL Per Michael’s invitation, I co-facilitated one of the first CFGs at El Centro in fall 2010. I introduced myself to Carlos during lunch. The rest, they say, is history.

It was a real treat for me to facilitate the most recent meeting of the Mid-Atlantic CFG hosted by my old, critical friends, Al Sylvia and Noel Parish at Bronx Compass. The attendees were a truly all-star cast including representation from El Centro, PS 89, Fannie Lou, Rochester, East Side High School and Eagle Rock School as well as some BPL representation. These school leaders are the best critical friends a school can ask for.

I’m always a bit jealous of the hosts of each CFG because they walk away from the day with critical feedback from some of the greatest minds in education. In that way, a day with a CFG is better than a few months of therapy—critical friends make you do the work. While we talked about a specific challenge that the school is currently facing, the suggestions made were universal, applicable both to school leadership and many other types of relationships as well. To illustrate that, I will share some of the quotes and feedback we heard during our day together:

  1. “It’s about the process” (and I’m not referring to the whole journey vs destination cliché)—in growing a school, so much of the work is about the people in the school’s community working through the problems together. It doesn’t matter if you’ve gone through and solved the exact same problem in another community; you need to experience it with this one. It also means that the members of the CFG can’t just “fix things” (much like how a good therapist won’t ever tell you the answer!) Rather CFG members make suggestions on how to do the adaptive work within the community.
  2. “Listen and validate the feelings of your people”—Students and staff need to be heard. They need to be validated. When there is a tension in the community, “feelings” are the first place to look. When Michael was the principal of Bronx Guild, one of the things that amazed me about his leadership is that every time he had a big change or decision to make that would impact the school, he would ask every person on staff their option (how he had time for this, I have no idea!) While the final decision couldn’t possibly reflect the opinion of every staff member, the experience of having our voices heard made any decision about the school acceptable because we knew our ideas were taken into account.
  3. “Celebrate the successes.” This directive is an important one to hear from critical friends. As school leaders, we are so hard on ourselves. There is always more to do and we all have the desire to do it better, but there is value in pausing to acknowledge the successes of your students, your staff, and your own success. The successes are sometimes hard to see, especially when we’re moving at 100 miles per hour. That’s what critical friends are for, they say “Hey, I know you’re not there yet, but there’s so much you’re doing really well. Stop and enjoy it for a second.”

I always leave a CFG feeling re-energized, from the concrete feedback and thoughtful conversations, like those above, but also from something less tangible. It’s the feeling that comes from true solidarity. It’s the strength in knowing that as challenging as our work may be, we don’t do it alone. We have our critical (funny, super-smart, dedicated, caring, wise) friends at our side.