Life itself is your teacher and you are in a constant state of learning.
TGIF: Another Reason
For the greater part of my two-decade-plus teaching career, I, like many of my fellow educators, viewed Fridays at school as either a test day, a movie day and/or a combination of both. I will admit that very little ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ occurred on the fifth day of the week in my past classrooms. Literally, formal education was a four-day work week.
My current school has its students in the building for a four-day week. Our students, with the support of their families, are responsible for one-fifth of their learning delivered through a co-planned home learning program. Fridays have traditionally been set aside for this purpose. As part of the whole-child pedagogy of Wildflower School, learning is not relegated to five (or four!) days a week. Learning happens all the time, and families and nonformal learning opportunities are often the most fertile and effective environs.
Our superintendent, beginning her second year at the helm, has expressed a curiosity about the necessity (and perhaps optics) of the four-day formal learning week at our school. I wondered. Could there exist a perception inequity at the centre of this discourse? I don’t really know. I have never asked. I am, however, extremely grateful that our fifth day is imagined and utilized differently than many of the other schools around our district. A wish would even be for our partner learning environments to consider adopting this model as a part of their own learning cultures and practices.
In essence, our formal-learning free Fridays are attempting to facilitate a triple track agenda at our school. A method Mehta et. al. (2018) argue “asks the adults [educators] to participate in a metacognitive process of reflecting on how the facilitator is supporting their learning while modeling how they might support other adult learning, all the while using methods that can be translated into good pedagogy in the classroom with students.” (from Mehta et. al., 2018, Transforming School Districts to Support Deeper Learning for All: A Hypothesis, unpublished). We desire to participate, model, and experience the pedagogy we want our learners to experience.
Do As We…Do
As a staff, we attempt to engage in what, educational researcher, Richard Elmore labels symmetry. Symmetry is “a parallelism between the work of adults in the system and the work we hope that teachers will do with [their] students.” As part of our Friday metacognitive learning sessions, the teaching staff gathers for an hour in a circle to support what Michael Fullan notes as “a shift [of] our focus toward collaborative capacity building amongst educators.” We recognize that as we become more effective collaborative educators, as individual educators and learners we also reap its benefits. And so, in turn, do our students.
Check-In Yer Needs: Or how are you doing right now?
Each circle begins with a check-in. Staff members are invited to place their ‘chip’ somewhere on the five needs circle (more on this process in a future post) based on William Glasser’s Choice Theory. This initiation process serves to remind us that we all show up for our students with their needs. And every day we bring into our classrooms us our needs. Holding an understanding the current need(s) of each member in the circle grants us the space to engage in bigger conversations and to go safely forward: Where we are at (this week) as a collective learning community? Where do we need to go? What are the next steps to get there?
It is also important to acknowledge that our school administrator (principal) does not ‘hold court’ in any of the circles. He, too, is an active and integral participant who protects and champions the sacred meeting time each week. This is a truly organic and consensual process that operates freely in a safe environment. Trust is paramount. Our principal recognizes that trusting his teachers makes them trustworthy. Ah, there’s that relationship-thingy again.
The group then enters into its focus work for the morning. That could be an intimate A/B partner (randomly chosen) sharing exercise. Or where a colleague might demonstrate their vulnerability and share a current personal struggle utilizing an informal clearness committee. Periodically, the circle also serves as a venue to share frustrations with a colleague, student, and/or family. On one week, the group even focused on next steps for a class project for a colleague.
No matter the scenario advice is never offered. Feelings of empathy might be shared. Questions of clarification proffered. However, the basic premise always holds in the circle: we each know innately how to move forward and tackle our problem. The group is there to simply offer support and courage. The purpose of our teachers coming together is deeply inspired by the work of Parker J. Palmer.
Education is all a matter of building bridges.
Every circle ends with a gratitude round. Participants have an opportunity to share and acknowledge the beautifully gracious community that is our school. Gratitude might be ‘paying gold’ to another staff member, a student, or even to oneself. It might be setting an intention or focus for the week or month ahead. It might just be the pure joy of listening to others. Often tears are shed during this part of the circle. And we are unabashed about this.
Please note that all of this amazing metacognitive work happens each Friday for one hour at the beginning of our day. It might be an understatement to note that I have come to appreciate this sacred time as both precious and necessary. And I think that this sentiment would find agreement among all of my wonderful colleagues.
One Last Piece
At any point, a participant has the right to pass with no expectation of an explanation, an apology or a secondary offering. This fundamental group value solidifies both the safety and trust of the circle. A powerful, beautiful and rare thing, indeed. An even rarer thing among educators that work together.
What is missing in our circle? The absent component is having our support staff (EAs and clerical) a part of these deep, supportive, and vulnerable conversations. This group of professionals is an elemental part of the faculty, the school, and the symmetrical process. To me, the paraeducators represent the eggs in the recipe. Keeping everything together. Offering consistency.
Everything has changed and yet, I am more me than I have ever been.
Long Live Friday
Besides supporting several student-run clubs on Friday, I have the fortunate opportunity to meet and connect with my parents, colleagues, and school-based teams. The meetings are productive. I attribute this outcome to the time and space allotted during the day (and not attached to the end of a long day of teaching). I have developed a habit of dedicating two hours of my Friday towards professional reflection. Many of my blog posts are authored on the fifth day of the week where my head is clearer and I have participated in the circle process.
Coming Full Circle
Now back to that triple track facilitation argument. As educators, we are attempting to translate our metacognition about good learning that happens in our Friday circles into good pedagogy. In our classrooms, we bookend our days with a circle. We connect with each other. Learners all. Identify our needs. Share with each other. Express our gratitude. Grow empathy. Develop relationships. And as we change our learning experience (as adults) we can’t help but change our learners’ experiences. Collectively, we are developing complex learning environments for both our students and ourselves. We are developing a community of practice among our faculty, within our classrooms, and across (and within) our entire school.