Thought Partners: A Critical Relationship for Professional Growth

by Marcia Pool Rutherford, Ed.S. & Tricia Ebner, M. Ed., NBCT

A term heard around education circles recently is that of “Thought Partners.” It’s a term used in the business world that has practical application capabilities in the education world.  Essentially, it means having a pair of listening ears sharing and challenging  your thoughts and plans about a particular topic. But while it might seem like a Thought Partner should share similar perspectives and ideas, that’s not necessarily the case.

The Thinking Collaborative, an organization committed to developing and supporting thinking and collaboration within groups, identifies three specific traits of thought partners. First, Thought Partners challenge each other’s thinking, pushing each other to consider ideas from different angles. Thought Partners can help change each other’s thinking and actions. The critical feedback can help a person see a situation differently, prompting a different way of thinking about it and even provide different actions in addressing the problem. Finally, Thought Partners can share information and spark ideas that lead to substantial change. Through the discussion and feedback Thought Partners provide to each other, both partners may ultimate make significant changes in the work they do.  

A Thought Partner isn’t necessarily a colleague with whom you work in a structure such as a team or PLC. The relationships and culture within these kinds of work collaborations don’t always allow for the honesty and critical thought required of Thought Partners.  A Thought Partner isn’t necessarily a friend in the social sense, either. Thought Partners are those to whom you turn when you want a critical eye and ear providing feedback on an idea or action. As the Family Engagement and Title I Coordinator for a digital school, Marcia Rutherford and two others were tasked to build a tiered interventions system which would impact all of our teachers and students.  Within the collaborative discussions, which took place via email, online and face to face, a relationship developed among the three that was honest, productive and motivating.  We all felt we were free to add our voice to the project even though there were contrary opinions. Moreover, our own strengths came to the forefront; we could not come to any discussion without ‘knowing our stuff’.  Difficult discussions were welcomed because we trusted the others’ opinion and knew our own craft would be improved.  We were better for it and because of it.  .  

Thought Partners are valuable resources. In our work as educators, we sometimes need a more objective ear and eye to provide perspective. When I am wrestling with an idea I’d like to try within my classroom, turning to a Thought Partner can help me better identify the strengths and weaknesses within my idea. What might initially seem like a great idea may have flaws that I hadn’t considered, but my Thought Partner, through careful listening and reflection, can raise questions that lead me to see aspects of the idea that need improvement. A Thought Partner is a sounding board. It’s also a true partnership. Not only do I ask my Thought Partner for feedback, but I also provide feedback when he or she needs it.

Think of it in this way: children working in maker spaces often rely on those around them to be Thought Partners. They will ask others for their reactions and suggestions to what they are building, all in the interests of improving the design and completing a successful project. They are using their knowledge and confidence about familiar resources to create something new, and the honest feedback from others is valued. As educators, we sometimes need a similar sounding board. By working in tandem with a Thought Partner, we have a sounding board willing to listen to our ideas and provide feedback.

There are some key principles guiding Thought Partners’ work with each other:

  1. A Thought Partner should challenge one’s thinking. He or she isn’t meant to be a cheerleader, necessarily, serving solely as confirmation that the decision you’re making is the best one. There may be times when a Thought Partner does that, but perhaps even more important are the moments when the partner shares a different perspective or raises potential issues that hadn’t been considered yet.
  2. A Thought Partnership is a true partnership. There is give and take. A Thought Partner must be willing to ask those thought-provoking, critical questions. As Thought Partners, we need to be willing to have those honest conversations.There is a mutual understanding that even though the feedback may be more negative, it is shared with the mutual goal of learning, growing, and moving forward.
  3. Thought Partners don’t necessarily have to be geographically close. Some partnerships may not meet face-to-face in the same space. It’s a relationships built around the common goal of improving practice. In fact, in some ways it may be best if the Thought Partner isn’t a colleague on the same staff or in the same district. The objectivity that comes with distance allows for a different perspective and possibly more honest discussion. Hearing how others in different parts of the country have faced similar challenges can be reassuring and inspiring.

As the 2017-18 school year unfolds, it’s worth taking a few moments to reflect on our partnerships. To whom might you turn as a potential Thought Partner?  If you have a Thought Partner, how can you continue to build and support that relationship? What discussions can you have with a potential Thought partner to begin a more collegial dialogue?  Take time to assess your needs as a teacher and identify others who share the same struggles.  Let the discussion unfold and let the relationship develop naturally.  The benefits of developing a Thought Partnership are tremendous for students and educators alike.

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