I hope you are having a wonderful end to your summer and are gearing up for the start of another fantastic year. Faculty have been back on campus for the last two weeks, connecting with each other, exchanging and learning new ideas, getting classrooms ready, and getting excited for our students to return!
Every year during the opening faculty meetings, we go on division retreats. This is probably one of my favorite days of the year. There’s something wonderful about going off campus and spending the day as a group. First, it’s an opportunity for faculty to get to know one another better. When we are in full swing, there is just not much down time for a kindergarten teacher to talk with an eighth-grade teacher, for instance. Just taking this time at the retreat for connections to happen makes a big difference for our sense of community.
During the retreat, we did an activity called the “Walk and Talk,” which is exactly what it sounds like. First, faculty lined up from east to west based on the geographic locations of where they were born. They then partnered with the person next to them (even with teachers, I try to do all grouping randomly to encourage different connections and to ease any social anxiety of finding a partner, which still happens with adults!). Each pair took a walk for ten minutes discussing what they had learned during the first week back (we had already had a lot of great meetings). These informal times to connect with one another are valuable for building community.
Second, it’s a chance to think about and discuss how we will best work together to support our students. We do this through creating norms, which we all agree to live by during the year. Often, our norms center on communication, and so at the retreat, we did an activity called “Back to Back Drawing.” Again, it plays out pretty much how it sounds. In the same pairs from the earlier activity, faculty designated a speaker and a listener. I gave each speaker a piece of paper that had a drawing on it made up of geometric figures. To the listener, I gave a blank piece of paper and a pen. They then sat back-to-back while the speaker described their drawing and the listener attempted to replicate it. The listener was not allowed to ask any questions, nor could the speaker see what was being drawn in an attempt to then make corrections.
After we finished the activity, we debriefed. We talked about what worked well, as well as what they found difficult. We also talked about how sometimes what one person is saying is not what the other person is hearing and how important it is to work on clear communication. Another interesting thing that came up was the importance of empathy when communicating. The more the speaker put themselves in the shoes of the listener, the more they understood what might be difficult, thus allowing them to be even more thoughtful about how they communicated.
Of course, the purpose of activities such as this is not to determine who is a talented artist and who is not. It’s to experience certain feelings and develop understandings that can then be translated to the work we do each day. After doing this activity, we went back to the norms we had created earlier in the week and looked at them with fresh eyes. We committed as a group to live by these norms in order to cultivate an open, positive culture among faculty at the school.
The third reason I love the retreat is that it is time for us to take a step back and consider why we do what we do. This has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Earlier this summer, I listened to a podcast from the Aspen Ideas Festival interviewing Simon Sinek, the author of several best-selling books that examine leadership and how companies work. This led me to re-watch a TED Talk he gave back in 2009, focusing on the power of why. In this talk, Sinek argues that successful companies and people communicate from a place that starts with the why, rather than the how or the what. Schools and educators tend to be the kind of places and people that do this organically. If we weren’t, we probably would have chosen a different occupation!
Still, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day during the school year, which is why the start of the year is such a great time to step back and really think about the why. Why do we do what we do? What gets us excited each day? Why did we become teachers in the first place? During the retreat, teachers had time to think about and reflect upon these questions first on their own and then in small groups.
As I sat in on some of the conversations, I was absolutely blown away. Our teachers are the most thoughtful, caring, intelligent, and compassionate people I have come across, and I feel so lucky to work with them. They come to Dawson each day not because it’s their job and that’s what they do. They come because they are passionate about our students. Some spoke of their own school experiences, both positive and negative, that led them to teaching. Some spoke of the thrill they get when they see the “aha” moment in a child’s eyes. And yet others spoke of their passion for their subject matter and the love of sharing that with students. All of the conversations and each of the teachers’ whys were unique. However, a thread emerged, and it’s that thread that ties us all together. Our teachers believe in the individual potential of every single student, and we feel it’s our job to help them discover their best selves. And because we do not live in isolation, we also believe in helping every student feel a sense of belonging to and responsibility for our community.
What a pleasure to be part of such a wonderful community. As a parent, I am delighted that my children are connecting with and learning from this amazing faculty. I know our teachers are going into the year focusing on the why and that they are eager for students to return so they can help them develop their own whys. It’s going to be a fantastic year.
If you would like to see the TED Talk referenced above, click here