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This is my latest article in a series on owning your professional learning.

In this series, we explore what it means to own your professional learning. This article focuses on mastermind groups. These groups are self-initiated and democratic. Members meet together to provide accountability, structure, and feedback. Often, they share ideas and solve problems. However, unlike many collaborative groups, members aren’t necessarily working on shared projects.  I’ve seen Mastermind Groups used in academic circles, start-up circles, and in the non-profit world.

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The Power of a Mastermind Group

I first heard about mastermind groups when my good friend A.J. Juliani mentioned the concept to me. I hated the term “mastermind” because it conjured up images of people plotting to take over the world. It had a bit of a Pinky and the Brain feel to it. However, over time I heard the term tossed around in the startup world. I read about a group of journalists who created a group where they each offered one tip and asked for one piece of advice each week.

I wondered if maybe they were onto something.

I started exploring the ways that mastermind groups worked. Some of them met in person. Some of them existed through Google Hangouts. However, they all had a common theme of providing emotional support while also helping one another with practical, strategic thinking.

If you’re not familiar with mastermind groups, they are a bit like a support group and a guild at the same time. You often share your process, your journey, your struggles, and your problems. Sometimes the group listens. Often, they affirm you. But more often, they provide insights and advice.

Currently, I am a part of a mastermind group on Voxer. It’s the same one that A.J. first invited me to join. We focus mostly on our creative endeavors. It’s almost entirely unstructured, with random conversations about creativity hacking and productivity ideas. But two years ago, we did a “hot seat” meet-up where we each shared our goals, our struggles, and our dreams, and then invited each other to give feedback to one another.

It was a powerful day and a reminder where I had several creative breakthroughs. But it was also one of the many ways my mastermind group has impacted my creative work.

What a Mastermind Group Does

The following are a few of the things you might do as you meet with your mastermind group:

  • Share your journey with the group and let them hear what you are learning along the way
  • Share your needs with others and ask for ideas or resources
  • Share your frustrations (there’s a power to being vulnerable)
  • Share your success stories and celebrate the success together
  • Talk about potential collaboration options together

The last option has been the most fascinating for me. We only have four members in our group, but I have ended up collaborating with two of them as a result of our conversations. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, we have grown to trust one another and rely on each other.

Rules for Mastermind Groups

  • Focus on solutions. There’s a time and a place to vent but our group focuses on solutions. We want to solve problems together. We also don’t use the group to gossip.
  • Maintain trust. Privacy is important, so there’s a general rule that what is said in a mastermind group should remain confidential. It’s a bit like Fight Club. 
  • It’s about the people, not the product. We are all at different places in our creative journey. However, we begin from a democratic idea that it’s about the people rather than the product. In other words, we don’t have a pecking order based on success.
  • Actively listen and offer support to one another. Quick confession, we have each taken vacations and neglected our group. But most of the time, when we share our questions, the entire group listens and offers support.
  • Only offer advice when someone asks for it. Sometimes someone vents and you listen. Other times, they vent and say, “any ideas?” That’s the green light to share ideas and resources.
  • Be unabashedly geeky. We all listen to podcasts and read books that push us to think more deeply about what we are doing. Our mastermind is a place where we can be unabashedly different, where being curious is a good thing.

What This Means for Teachers

So this has me thinking about classroom teachers. What if we formed mastermind groups on our own? What if we created spaces away from the noisy echoes of social media? What if we shared our strengths and weaknesses? What if we told stories? What if we asked for advice from one another? What if we had a space where we could share our lesson plans, unit plans, materials, and projects with each other?

I realize that those things are supposed to be happening in schools. However, I’m thinking of something a little different. I’m referring to teachers creating groups with other teachers who are removed from their context (which is one of the best parts of the PLC structure) who can add a sense of perspective and clarity to their experiences. I’m imagining something that is both more personal and more professional than a typical PLC meeting. I also think the best mastermind groups are either outside of your school or outside of your department. It helps to have some level of detachment.

The key idea here is that it’s optional. The accountability comes from within. You don’t report to anyone above you. Instead, you have to be intrinsically motivated to seek out or even create a mastermind group. However, I think there might be value in teachers creating their own mastermind groups that go beyond the walls of their own buildings.

I actually think every teacher needs a mastermind group.

That last statement might seem like an overstatement, but let me explain. I’m not suggesting that every teacher needs a mastermind group at this very moment. However, at some point in your career, you will need a mastermind group. It might be early on when you need the support of fellow teachers. Or it might be later, as you move into leadership and additional responsibility and you face loneliness. But at some point, you will need a community of fellow educators to share ideas and stories and insights.

The Mastermind Meeting Structure

The following is the mastermind “sweet seat” format (other groups call this the “hot seat”) that I used when I was working on my doctorate. My advisor first introduced us to this and I’ve since used it with other mastermind groups as well. I have modified the structure since then and I’d like to share it with you:

Roles:

  • Facilitator: Guides the process
  • Time-Keeper: Keeps everyone on track with time deadlines

Part One: Welcome each other and assign or review roles for the day; facilitator asks who wants to go first, second, third, fourth, fifth that day

Part Two: Opening round: facilitator asks each person to complete the following (ten minutes total)

  • Right now, I’m feeling _____ about _________
  • My “win” for the past week was _______
  • Regarding my commitment from the last week, I _______
  • One challenge I’m dealing with is ________

Part Three: “Sweet seat:” Time-keeper sets a timer for 10 minutes.

First person uses the time to discuss how they’re doing with their project, discuss any struggles/challenges and get support from others in the group.  Sharing for 5 minutes and leaving 5 minutes for feedback/support is a general practice. When the timer goes off, it’s the next person’s turn. We have a rule that nobody is allowed to interrupt the person during the “sweet seat” time. Instead, this person invites feedback by asking a question of saying, “I’d like feedback please.”

Part Four: Closing round: facilitator asks each person to complete the following (10 mins total)

  • My “takeaway” from this meeting is _________
  • This week I commit to _________ (Scribe person writes these down in a safe place so they can be referenced the following week, because we can forget.)

Optional: Scheduling: review next meeting time, assign facilitator, scribe, and timekeeper roles

The Power of Vulnerability

There’s a power in the proximity and the vulnerability in a mastermind group. Creative work can be frustrating and even scary at times. However, when I share my struggles, I know that I’m not alone. When I hit a wall and need help, I have a group of people ready to offer insights.

But it’s more than that. As a mastermind group, we’ve grown from a small group to a community. Strike that. We’re not a community. We’re friends.

Two years ago, my son went to the hospital. It was only kidney stones, but because he has only one kidney, we thought it might be worse. We were scared that his one kidney was failing. So, when his temperature spiked above 104 degrees, I started thinking about the worst case scenario. I remember being away at the time, crumbling down like a paper bag in the hotel room, sobbing bathroom floor, feeling helpless as my wife sat with my son who seemed to be sliding into a worse and worse place.

After a long time on the phone, I opened the Voxer app and went straight to my mastermind group; asking if they would pray for my son.

I was scared. Terrified, actually. But my mastermind group was a bigger support to me than they could have ever imagined.

A month later, when A.J. lost his brother, he talked openly about this in a way that was powerful. Again, it felt like we were no longer sharing ideas. We were sharing life.

This is what I want for teachers. I know many educators already have this. It’s not an original idea. But if you can form a community where you can share ideas and problem-solve together, you might just find that you become close friends who go from sharing ideas to sharing life with one another.

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John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

4 Comments

  • Amy Morton says:

    As you describe the concept of mastermind groups, it occurs to me that this is really how my workplace functions. I left teaching after 11 years to work in the education department of a museum. We have programs for families, kids, teens, students, and teachers and we reach the most students of any of the museums in my city. Ours is the largest department in the museum, so we are busy. We develop and implement a lot of programs, and every program, whether it is a year long, a quarter long, a day long, or an hour long, is developed by a team. And it’s not always the same team – we assemble and reassemble in groups according to focus, specialty, experience and schedule. And even though there may be a “coordinator” of the group (the one who invites the rest on the calendar and arranges the rooms) no one is “the boss” of the group, so it is a true collaboration. The remarkable thing that is different than the collaborative efforts I experienced as a teacher, is that our group norms are so similar to the rules you described. And it’s not because anyone said “these are the norms we will follow” – it’s because that’s the culture of the organization, modeled with fidelity by everyone at the top and practiced at every level. We trust that when we say something “unformed” or make a mistake, someone will support us as we work out the kinks in our thoughts or process; when we collaborate everyone is heard, we look for patterns, we listen, and even though there is a product, we know the people at the table are our assets and our allies and the product is its best because of those people; we never offer advice to people, but we often share ideas that worked for us as we were implementing a program, and ask for feedback from others about whether our ideas are compatible with the goals of the program (and we never vent – it’s just not in our culture, and it really helps to maintain a level of positivity that helps us help others – teachers, students, etc – be successful); and we are all science, education, NGSS, museum, nature geeks, and we love to share. So a big thumbs up for your suggestion, kudos for your great summary of it, and to all those who are interested in trying it – go for it, be intentional, and good luck!

  • Awesome! So glad to hear you’re in a mastermind group.

    I recently joined one and the results and connections have been amazing.

    I would like to start a mastermind for educators one day.

    Thanks for inspiring me to do this, and I hope I can learn more from your experience in this area.

  • Àllison says:

    I would love insight into how to start a mastermind group. Are there platforms you recommend or advice you can give as to how to get started? Thanks!

  • Laura says:

    I feel at some point I’ve been in an informal mastermind group, although it was me going to a group of trusted friends. These 3 friends were in education in different ways, but listened and provided feedback without knowing the other masterminds. It was also individual feedback, not in a group. It helps a lot. This also got me thinking about ways to make this happen now in my own school. Although I’ve stepped away from my role as coach, i can see the benefits to use this as a great way to problem solve.
    But, I’m wondering how mastermind groups could work in our classrooms with out students? By setting time aside for these kids to build relationships and get feedback on their creative ideas and maybe on things they are stuck on with regards to their own learning, social issues, goals and big ideas. I’m thinking this could become a great way to continue integrate accountable talk and also PBL. Could it be a good way to mix all sections of a grade level and have some mastermind groups that are a cross-section and expand the thinking and learning of all the grade-level?
    Has anyone ever done mastermind groups in classrooms with students?

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