What the Summer Taught Me About Being a Leader & the Importance of Creating Trust~ Christy
This past summer was one of the most rewarding summers I have had in my career. I worked all over the place sharing what it means to be a writer, and a teacher of writing–all in this new space that one of my teachers coined a “writing retreat.” Calling my work a writing retreat is just one of the things I learned from the 200 plus teachers I worked with this summer. Here are some others.
Number 1: Be transparent:
On the first day, I told the teachers that we will write. One of my friends and writing mentors, Roy Peter Clark, always used the analogy that if our kids are taking swimming lessons, we expect the instructor to be in the water. If we are teaching kids to write, we need to take the plunge and do the same. So we will all write. However, no one has to share if she or he doesn’t want to. My third or fourth year of teaching, the great Barry Lane taught in my classroom. What a gift. One of the first things he said to my kids was “you don’t have to share if you don’t want to.” Teachers (and kids) have told me over and over again that hearing that single sentence helped them to breathe. I was working in Bonn, Germany for a short two days, and the teachers wrote. A teacher came up to me at the end and told me that those words made all the difference in the world when she was asked to write. She also said that when I asked them to count lines, and that a single word counted as a line, she was thrilled. She felt as if she had accomplished something. She still hates to write…I just need a few more days with her…
Number 2: Share your writing even when you don’t want to:
Every year I make a promise to myself that I will share a new story with my teachers. I use the same strategy: Writers Generate Ideas by Thinking of Issues in Their Life, and Moments Attached to Those Issues. I then model issues that have had a big impact on me—Divorce, Adoption, Bullying, Fitting-In, What it means to be a woman—the beauty and weight factor, Death/loss, Moving, Sibling Rivalry, etc. I select moments. Some moments have to do with loss, others around tension with family members, but usually they are issues that affect me and often I don’t like “me” in them. This makes it hard for me to share, but it also immediately makes me human and flawed and relatable. And so I share.
Number 3: Be vulnerable:
Last week was my last real summer retreat and I was fortunate enough to do it with one of my best friends and colleagues, Monique Knight. We spent every second together. It was a blast. It was like having a girls’ weekend away. We talked about moms, spouses, and of course work. One morning when we were driving in together I asked Monique, “What is your story about?” She told me the moment and it was a doozie. It was intense with strong emotion. Perfect. However, she wasn’t sure what it was about. So we practiced my favorite upper grade strategy (she teaches kindergarten—not a common strategy with K) asking, “What’s your story really, Really, REALLY about? What is it teaching you about you, others, the world? What lesson are you learning? Can you say it in three words or a sentence?” So fun! Then she realized she had to be vulnerable. She didn’t see it was about something hard, something she is wrestling with, something she may not want to see. Of course being the amazing teacher that Monique is, she did the lesson and went there with her participants. They saw her differently, they saw themselves and others differently, they saw the teaching of writing differently.
Number 4: Celebrate that vulnerability:
We always celebrate at the end of a retreat. My celebration is typically the same: teachers go off with their writing partner to join another partnership and then they read their writing ALOUD. That’s important. I did work in Zurich this summer and met the most amazing human being—David. This assistant principal taught me so many things—one thing he taught me is that it is okay to work with privileged kids, actually it is a must because they need to know the larger world out there. He also taught me the power of reading the piece aloud. He read a very sweet piece on marmalade. And when he got to the part about his grandmother, he began to choke up and he couldn’t finish it. That moment, those words, brought him back to her, his childhood and affected him in a way that simply writing it couldn’t have. Sharing it not only affected others but surprisingly him, too.
Angie in Delaware Laurel School District shared a piece of writing of the moment her father passed. It was so raw, so honest. Her colleague Diane sat next to her and comforted her ready to take over, but Angie read it, she sobbed and read some more and we were all with her wrapping our arms around her, holding her in this moment of loss and pain and unbearable sadness/grief. I will never look at my friend Angie the same. I asked her to read it to the group, her colleagues supported her, and she courageously honored her father that day.
Two years ago, my last time teaching a summer institute at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, a participant shared what a moving experience it was to hear such raw emotion from other participants. He said he regretted not writing in honest ways. How this experience was one he couldn’t brave and he was mad at himself for not trusting himself. He said that will never happen again.
Number 5: Trust the big work and let it affect all:
Writing is hard and lonely. Recently, thanks to my partner in this journey and dear friend Monique Knight introduced me to the writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I am in the mist of reading her book Americanah, but Monique also introduced me to the TED talk that she gave around The Danger of a Single Story. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en
She says, “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories can be used to empower and humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. Stories can also repair that broken dignity.” This TED talk about a single story immediately helped me reflect on the summer and the many educators I worked with.
One in particular Basma. I met Basma through my work at her school in Cairo, but I didn’t really know her. I knew she wore a hijab, she taught Arabic at her school, and she was Muslim. The danger of the single story. Then Basma came to my retreat in Ocean City, and during that week, Basma and I spent many meals together, shopped together, and shared many stories together. Her many stories mattered and I no longer will ever see her (or hopefully anyone else) as a single story. When we write and share we see people. We understand people. We hear their many stories and see who they REALLY are.
During that same summer retreat, at a time not too long after the killings of black men by police officers in Minnesota and Baton Rouge (and of police officers killed in Dallas by a black man), a women shared a story of how she is a policeman’s wife. She said she never saw color before and now she does. I heard this and did nothing. Said nothing. I am mad at myself and her, but mostly at me. I think of her one way. I only know her single story. If I would have said, “Turn and talk about what she just said. Do you feel that way? Do you see her differently because she is married to a police officer.” I had a precious moment and I let it go. And now others and myself will not see her multiple stories and for her, she isn’t hearing those stories of others either. If only all of us kept in mind the danger of the single story. If I can keep that in mind. The big work is that when we write and share we see people differently. We understand them. And we know their many stories.
What I’ve Discovered About Trust: A Dynamic of Learning ~ Monique
Trust in the work, the process and the learners:
The most publicized moments in a school seem to happen when something dynamic has already happened. We celebrate writing at the end of a unit of study. We look at bulletin boards after the fact. A class favorite book cover is posted on a ‘hall of fame wall of read alouds’ long after the teacher has introduced the book to the class for the very first time and many moments after a heated class discussion occurred. High frequent words end up on the Word Wall after they have been “taught”. Much of the heart, nuance, and struggle of learning is less public, if not mystical and invisible.
This can create a sense of distrust from those who are trying to get to the same ‘finish lines’. You have probably looked at a piece of student work, a test score or reading data, and asked, “What did the teaching/learning look like, sound like, feel like?” Perhaps you were skeptical or unsure of the heart and energy put into the learning, from the teacher, student, family, or anyone involved in the process. Several people have asked me, “How did you get (this writer/reader/child/teacher) to this place?” It is a mystery. And I don’t think these questions are bad or offensive or wrong to ask. They’re good questions, in fact. How can you trust something you don’t see? How can you trust a curriculum when you’re not quite sure about the philosophy or intentions of the architects of it? How can we, as teachers, trust that the next teaching point is what our readers truly need? Below are three tips that I’ve found to help with building trust in a teaching and learning community.
Tip 1: Say what you’re going to do and then do it
This one is a two-for-one tip. It is important, when writing curriculum or when introducing concepts to state your intentions, up front, to the learners. Learners need a vision- or a path or example of what they’re about to try. It is comforting to know the turn by turn directions before starting on the journey, not while you’re driving at full speed. Classroom teachers do this with new units of study, a new lesson (“Today, I’m going to teach you… Watch me as I ….”). Leaders, coaches, we need to do this with teachers as well. Not just the what (we are going to teach), but the turn by turn directions. Last school year, I tried my best to build trust with a team of teachers I work with. As their new kindergarten teacher colleague and coach, I shared with them my daily plans on a shared drive. Sharing plans and ideas is essentially “saying what you’re going to do”. Many of them also share their ideas and plans. We see each others ideas before the ‘finished product’. We can ask questions and reflect about the process along the way. Little by little, we’re building trust among us as a team of teachers.
Tip 2: Keep track
Artifacts help to tell the story and to uncover the mysteries of learning. If you were to adopt a classroom and take a 3 minute video of the same part of the day in September, and then again in November, then in February, March, and once more in May, chances are you’ll see trends, struggles and growth. These are the dynamics of teaching and learning. Perhaps the video would be the 3 minutes of a teacher delivering a reading lesson, or a share session, a writing conference, playtime, independent problem solving in math, whole class discussions. Whatever it is you’re trying to build knowledge and trust around, it is what you collect and keep track of. Part of the keeping track is being transparent around the purpose and reflecting often and openly. The hardest part of teaching or the hardest parts of our days are what we should be studying to see not only what we’re doing wrong, but also to see what is working so that we can do more of the latter. This helps to build trust because the purpose is clear. You are committed to it. Therefore you are responsible.
Tip 3: Help
Offer it, give it, seek it. I’ve learned that for every teacher who will call out for help, there are about 5 more nearby who need the same help for that very issue but don’t know it or won’t ask for it. Helping teachers can be the most challenging part of building trust because it exposes and requires vulnerability on their part. What we do with that information can also break trust forever. Over-helping learners can enable teachers to not have to be proactive or make them too dependent. We practice release of help or scaffolds for children in classrooms. We need to do the same for the teachers we lead. We, as leaders, also need to recognize when we require help as well, and feel free to reach out to our colleagues.
Finally, trust is not only the responsibility of the teachers or learners. As a leader, we also need a bit more trust in the work. Trust is not something that happens overnight, or even in one school year. It takes time, and frequent positive interactions. We are responsible for making sure we are working and serving in environments that we trust. If you do not trust the environment you work in, you should not be there. How else can we stand up for the work and advocate for the vision of our organizations or schools or causes? Trust is not quiet and passive. Rather, it is present, steady and obvious. As I embark on this next year of teaching, leading and learning, trust is at the forefront of my priorities.
Let’s continue to lead and build more trust, actually
Monique and Christy