Am I doing CFG work or just leading protocols?

By Luci Englert McKean, NSRF Assistant Director and International Facilitator

Many people have experienced how fully engaging in Critical Friends Group® work transforms their practice and even their perspective on the world. The trust and sense of belonging that this work engenders can evolve relationships with colleagues, administrators, and students. And if enough people in a working environment are regularly engaging in CFG work over time, those people’s relatively small actions can combine to “turn the flywheel” of an organization, resulting in significant, positive cultural change. 

One of our favorite stories of cultural shifts comes from The Bishop Strachan School, which learned about NSRF via partnerships with global organizations, professional readings from Harvard Graduate School of Education in the Harvard Rounds, The Coalition of Essential Schools, and High Tech High. BSS began having its staff trained as CFG coaches in 2012. By 2017 nearly every administrator and classroom educator on staff completed training to become certified as CFG coaches. NSRF was also called in to lead a full-staff, two-day PD event bringing everyone from bus drivers to cafeteria cooks together to share a basic understanding of the work. Here are comments from some of those participants: 

“It was really helpful to see that no matter what part of the school we belong to, everybody has sort of similar issues with juggling so much…. After the training, people were much more open to saying ‘Hello, how are you? ’ and sticking their head in our office. It feels so much more connected.” One of the teachers said simply, “This week, we shrunk the building.” 

The Bishop Strachan School has continued to be committed to CFG work, supporting one of its trained CFG coaches to complete a multi-year process of becoming a National Facilitator for NSRF, thus ensuring the school’s capacity to train new staff. Now every new hire understands that CFG work is, simply, part of the BSS culture and “how we do things.” 


One of my favorite tasks as the Assistant Director of the NSRF is to read the Last Day Reflections of everyone who completes a five-day training with us. After every event we ask the same three questions:  1) What do you think of this training? 2) How did your facilitator do? and 3) What recommendations do you have for improving this training?

Like at Bishop Strachan, the vast majority of participants consistently give us high marks, some saying it’s the best PD they’ve had in their long career as educators.

“I like that training included a long planning time on next steps so that the momentum will continue and CFG work can be embedded into our culture.”

“I found this training to be inspiration and clearly useful to my professional practice. It is a coherent and cohesive collection of tools for examining professional practice, building constructive relationships, and finding ways to resolve difficult issues. The progression of the training was conducive to preparing me at each step for the next development step. I feel well-prepared to continue with this work.”

Using the skills learned in NSRF trainings to build better relationships at your school is transformative, particularly when everyone actually commits to maintaining the relationships.

It’s certainly gratifying to read time and again how enthusiastic people are for this work, their recognition of the deep bonding they accomplished in a week together. At the same time, after each training ends and participants return to their “real lives,” their focus necessarily shifts to the everyday demands of their routine work. Trainings are a bit like summer camp: new relationships created there feel like “forever” but once you’re home, the relationships fade unless both participants are committed to actively continuing them. And since we all have so much work to do aside from CFG work, it’s perfectly natural and appropriate to refocus. That refocusing makes it hard to remember the value of CFG work, of using NSRF protocols within a community that’s committed to sticking together over the long term. 

After trainings, when new CFG coaches come to us with questions, or when they report their activity later in social media or blog posts, we tend to see people writing about protocol use and calling it CFG work. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to chide people for using our favorite hashtags #CFGwork and #CriticalFriends when they’re using our #protocols!  But I do want to clarify the difference and see if I can urge people to get the full benefits of their work in trainings.

Of course it’s good to turn to a specific NSRF tool to accomplish a particular outcome in a meeting that participants have been called to by someone other than yourself! But let’s remind ourselves of the differences by excerpting and annotating an important text in the CFG Coaches’ Handbook which we also share publicly on our website. (If you’d like to read the full text written by Michele Mattoon, click here.)  I’m adding italics and boldface to enhance particular portions, and *asterisks* to note content I want to annotate or expand today.

Using NSRF Protocols vs. Ongoing Critical Friends Group Work

Many people know of NSRF through the protocols and activities on our website. Because many of them are freely offered, educators have used them for years, sometimes without the benefit of Critical Friends Group coaches’ training or the support of a trained coach. While our policy of free access has certainly benefited educators, it has sometimes caused confusion between using our protocols and intentionally improving individual practice and school culture through the use of Critical Friends Group (CFG) communities. 

Perhaps a good way to begin to sort out this difference is to define both protocols and Critical Friends Group communities. 

A protocol is a structured process or set of guidelines to promote meaningful and efficient communication, problem solving and learning. Protocols give time for active listening and reflection so all voices in the room are heard and honored.

A Critical Friends Group community is a particular variety of Professional Learning Community (PLC) so unique that we’ve registered it as a trademark. CFG communities consist of 5-12 members who commit to improving their practice through collaborative learning, the use of structured interactions (protocols), and meeting at least once a month for about two hours.* Critical Friends Group coaches create an environment of trust that allows participants to give and receive feedback most effectively, and to use our protocols and activities to help students, teachers, and administrators create a culture of collaboration. 

*Editorial note not in original document: It’s key that CFG work includes the same small group of people meeting regularly for a couple of hours at a time, using protocols to improve their practice.  This is not the same thing as using protocols within a variety of meetings.

(P)rotocols are widely useful tools to get productive work done in efficient and effective ways, and CFG communities are only ONE of the places where that can happen**. Let’s explore why Critical Friends Group meetings (not just the use of protocols) can be vital to positive school culture change. 

**Another editorial note: Within CFG communities, the results of a single protocol extend far beyond the benefit to the individual practitioner. When we have built a strong sense of belonging with our colleagues, we become personally invested in their successes as well as our own. When they bring a dilemma to the group, we feel it, too, and we have a strong desire for them to be able to resolve that dilemma.  Our commitment to meeting, month after month, is a commitment to our colleagues, and via them, to their students and to the school as a whole. AND it’s not at all uncommon, when a presenter brings a dilemma or piece of work to the group for support, that the other, non-presenting members of the group learn from that work as well, enabling them to improve their own practice even though they didn’t bring the work to this particular meeting.

The original article continues with these section titles:

Establishing a time and vehicle for continuous improvement acknowledges its value. 

Proper training is vital.  

Significant change takes time. 

Using protocols during staff meetings often makes those meetings more productive and efficient. 

All members fully participate. 

All teachers are leaders and must be responsible for their own learning. 

Each of those sections is important to read, so I do encourage you to look at your own Coaches Handbook again (see page vi=vii) or to download the text at this link.  But for the moment I want to return to the conclusion of the original article:

Protocols = tools. Critical Friends Group = environment for improvement and cultural change.

When the majority of educators participate in regular CFG meetings, you will see improvement throughout the entire school or district. Everyone becomes more connected and collaborative in the meetings, and feels continual support to learn and grow. Empowered to take control of their own learning, the CFG members contribute positively to school culture. As useful as they are, protocols alone cannot initiate and sustain substantive organizational change. 

So there you have it.  Any questions? 😉

Are you ready to expand your skills and improve your school culture by becoming a certified CFG Coach?

If you have not yet been certified as a CFG Coach, we strongly encourage you to attend one of the upcoming Open Trainings scheduled for February and July 2020. If you are in a position to bring CFG Coaches’ Training to your school or district, follow this link for details in planning that training or grab our downloadable Guide to CFG Coaches’ Training. We’re also piloting a new Building Belonging in the Classroom training which we anticipate will keep us quite busy next summer and beyond.

Feel free, too, to click over to our Contact Us form, where you can submit your questions online and see several other ways to reach out to us by phone or email. We’d love to hear from you.