This past week, I had the privilege to host an event with 10 school leaders and 50 of their lead teacher colleagues from elementary (K-Gr6), junior or middle (Gr7-9) and senior high (Gr10-12) schools within the school district’s newly structured “catchment area” (all schools feed into each other).
Their big goal – to build cross site relationships, common language, and consistent pedagogical practice and services to ease the transition of students and their families across schools, and to ultimately to meet the district’s goal of having all students reach their potential and complete senior high school to go one to become creative, engaged citizens.
The day’s goal, to begin that cross site relationship building and conversation to prepare for a whole group (400 people, all staff, all sites) learning event in six weeks, where they would be leading some of the sessions.
We began in World Cafe, with the assistant superintendent to which all these schools report, opening the day, giving an overview of the scope and intent of the reorg, emphasizing how this group was “ahead of the curve” in implementation, by the very fact they were meeting in this way. Then two of the principals gave, in idiosyncratic, conversational style (no powerpoints!) their take on their work that brought us to the day, with the invitation that now this group would take it to the next level….whatever that might be! Three questions for three rounds of conversation:
- What grabbed your attention in what you’ve just heard? – has you want to jump in? or hesitate?
- How does this align with your current practice and what you already know?
- What does this mean for the big learning event in six weeks?
Themes surfaced and were explored in large group conversation, energy was stoked as staff realized they were steering the ship after having been told that the principals’ role was to be curious and to clarify, if needed – that they may or may not join in the conversations. (Unusual as staff often report feeling “managed” and monitored to “be on task” in such learning events.)
Then to other side of the room, set for Open Space. Within 20 minutes, 12 questions were posted. Conversations began and continued through lunch. Principals spontaneously convened to share their observations, make meaning of the themes, and support each other in surrendering to the high energy chaos, and their own uncertainty and loss of control. They knew something different, and great was happening. Their “boss” was taking it all in – amazing that he stayed most of the day as usually, one in his role would give greetings and be off. He, too, knew he was seeing a manifestation of the reorg’s intent.
After lunch all re-convened to report back. Convergence as themes became apparent in preparation for the next level of conversation: planning the big learning event. The original plan was to have them meet in cross site, cross grade level subject groups. “What about a group to give shape to the overall design?” “What if we met to delve into the themes that surfaced from the Cafe?” Why not do it all? “Either-or” always moved to “both-and” – creating space – the principals shared the “min specs” to frame that possibility. In forty minutes, plans were hatched, commitments made. Energy and engagement remained high.
All chairs in a circle, waiting to reconvene. Patience after the bell rang and rang again, everyone was still engrossed and still cooking. Then with a quick prompt, fluidly each host shared their group’s ideas. Clarifying questions and grounding responses. Principals exclaiming that what had taken them weeks to plan, this group had accomplished in a day.
Checking out via circle: “What is an impression you’re taking…a question you’re sitting with?” Every one spoke. From the heart.
“The most engaged I’ve been in a professional learning event for many years.”
“I now know my students have a chance because I felt welcomed, that I had a voice around the table and I know they will, too.”
“Authentic, meaningful, real.”
“You empowered us to create something we know will appeal to our colleagues.”
“Can we do this over again with everyone? Because this is the way to go!”
“I came in uncertain, expecting, needing the agenda, handouts, something practical to use tomorrow. I’m now very grateful for how the day went. For the space and freedom to really connect.”
“I’m doing a World Cafe with my Grade 12 students on Friday!”
My colleague wove technology in for the harvest, scribed key comments and took photos that we’ll use in a movie. A “share site” was developed for the Open Space and subsequent planning conversation notes. This will be an ongoing archive to seed next steps and hold ideas, artifacts and products, accessible to all within this catchment area, and most likely to be used at some later date cross district.
When I reflect on the day, its energy, joy, the possibilities realized and envisioned, I know trust played a big part:
- The trust the principals had in themselves to “walk their talk” and share leadership; to trust in the power of the collective wisdom;
- The trust they had in and with each other to share their vulnerabilities, their curiosity, their enthusiasm – to hold each other in the day’s chaos through emergence to a viable “what next” plan – and to be transparent with their uncertainty: “We don’t have the answers, you do!”
- The trust they had with their staff: “We’re co-creating this with you!” “We’re three months in to a three year plan and you’re taking us to the next place.”
- The trust they had in my colleague and me who hosted, stayed nimble and fluid, created and held space, helped them trust the process, and harvest the fruits of the our collective labours.
And for me, a chance to re-turn to the work I love. After my initial apprehension (it had been a good many months since I’d done this work), and acknowledgment that my anxiety was mirroring theirs, I was as jazzed, and knew again of the deep yearning we all have to be invited into a space of genuine and meaningful conversation, powerful questions, deep listening, to take wise action.
Of note too, it was the first day I felt no pain at work. “That’s because you were working with people who love you,” remarked one of the principals, a friend I love for her straight talk. Yes that, and having the chance to do the work I love.