This guest blog is a conversation between longtime preK-12 educators and social and emotional learning (SEL) program leaders, Pamela Seigle (Open Circle) and Chip Wood (Responsive Classroom), who presented at our Spring 2016 MESPA Conference. Chip and Pamela are offering new Leading Together sessions starting in August at Wellesley College and Smith College for teams from individual schools, or whole districts. For more information or to attend a free information session, visit Courage & Renewal Northeast. You can also learn more by attending a breakout session at next week’s conference focused on their Leading Together work on Thursday at 11:00.
CHIP: Pamela, as a pioneering educator in social and emotional learning and contemplative practices in schools, what led you to turn your focus from classroom practices to school leadership and adult school community?
PAMELA: After working for many years with schools implementing SEL in their classrooms, it became increasingly clear to me that we were missing a powerful opportunity. We regularly observed a lack of alignment between what adults expected of student behavior and what adults expected of each other in the school community. This speaks more loudly than words. Adult modeling of SEL skills and positive relationships is key to teaching and reinforcing SEL for students.
CHIP: In the program we’ve developed to strengthen positive adult relationships in the school community, Leading Together, a leadership team of 4 to 5, which includes the principal as well as teachers, attends the professional development together. Why do you think this model is significant?
PAMELA: Unfortunately there’s often an “us versus them” mentality between teachers, administrative staff, and other roles as well. School leaders say that one of the greatest challenges they face is building a school culture where everyone has a voice and can contribute to shared goals. The reality is that teachers, staff, principal, and parents are dependent on each other. None of us can successfully fulfill our roles unless all the members of this much larger school team are successful in theirs. And students need us to model this teamwork. To adapt to a rapidly changing landscape, students must learn to collaborate with diverse groups of people. They must develop self-awareness and the capacity to be in relationship with others, to be reflective and able to listen openly and receptively. This means we need to work on these capacities, personally and as an adult team, too.
The research on relational trust gives empirical evidence of “a secret hidden in plain sight”—the quality of relationships among the adults in the school community is the biggest variable in whether schools are able to improve student learning or bring in new initiatives successfully.
Bringing together a team that represents a variety of roles begins to break down the barriers, creates empathy for each other’s role, and supports both the personal growth of individuals and their capacity to work together on behalf of the children.
CHIP: In early research on the Leading Together approach, what do you see as leading indicators of its utility?
PAMELA: I’ve been encouraged by Leading Together schools that are taking time to build reflective and listening practices into the fabric of the school day. Perhaps this means starting a faculty meeting with a poem that ties to a theme and talking about it using a “turn and listen” exercise. Or investing time in creating explicit norms for the adult community, and working with those norms throughout the year. I’m most moved by the personal growth participants report. They talk about becoming better listeners, being more curious about the ideas of others, being able to let go of assumptions and consider other perspectives. Our research from the University of Virginia, Tufts University, and the University of Pittsburgh points to early positive results in terms of building trust, improving teacher efficacy, and increasing communication and collaboration between principals, teachers, and other school leaders.
PAMELA: Chip, You’ve had such varied experiences in your career as an educator—teacher, principal, central office administrator, author, SEL program developer, Courage & Renewal facilitator, and consultant to schools. You’ve always stayed close to what’s happening on the ground in schools. What are you now seeing as the biggest challenges and opportunities facing schools in these times of complexity and uncertainty?
CHIP: As schools deal with increasingly complex individual learning needs across the K-12 system, educators and school leaders are beginning to recognize the counter-productivity of a singular focus on test accountability to improve student learning. Investing in partner-learning before teaching small group or whole class lessons, for example, increases students’ self-regulation and independence in learning habits—key social skills for all academic achievement. All the skills and goals with apply to the adult community through Leading Together are mirrored in the classroom—to be successful, we need to “lift every voice,” and enhance trust and collaboration for children and adults.
Are you interested in sharing your ideas, insights and questions? If so, click here to sign up for a post. Julie Vincentsen, Principal of Ruggles Lane School, will reach out with specifics. Are you interested but nervous because you’ve never blogged before and don’t know where to begin? Don’t worry – as long as you know how to use Microsoft Word you will be up to this challenge. We write for our communities all the time – this just changes your audience. You probably could even take a current newsletter you’ve written and re-purpose it for your colleagues!