Anthony* stormed into the office, marched past the front desk without acknowledging the startled office manager, and into my office where he dropped into a chair heaving deep breaths with a hint of moisture in his eyes. Calmly, I stopped working on whatever mind-numbing report I was completing and turned to him.
“Hey Anthony.What’s going on?” I asked as I took a tissue from my desk and handed it to him.
Wiping his face, he responded, “They never listen. They always get to talk but they never want to listen.”
I didn’t need to ask. I already knew to whom he was referring and it was something that I knew needed to be addressed. But how? How do we get teachers to actually listen to our students?
Recently I was introduced to the concept of Talking Circles through the book “Circle Forward: Building a Restorative School Community” by Carolyn Boyes-Watson and Kay Pranis. I was sharing my frustrations with a colleague and he immediately reached for the book. As I listened to his similar experiences I thumbed through the pages noting that it offered strategies for both students and staff both in the classroom and during meetings. Two days later, I had my own copy.
This past August we held our first Courageous Conversation as a staff during our back-to-school orientation week.
The first question asked was what led us to the field of education. We were surprised to find that many of us did not start in this field and thus brought an entirely different world of expertise that we could now tap into. We had chefs, engineers, and even artists. It was enlightening.
The second question asked was why we have remained in education. The stories varied but they all had the same central theme – we’re invested in our students. From those ah-ha moments to grieving with families through loss to providing for a family in need to celebrating a student’s graduation, we knew that our students had potential and that we were committed to helping them find it. It was emotional.
The final question asked about privilege. Some teachers reflected on how they struggled growing up, needing to figure out how to reach their goals with substantially less than some of their peers. Others talked about their appreciation for the ability to have access to resources and materials without worry. Some noted that they had forgotten what it was like to struggle now that they were financially secure. It was powerful.
There were several reasons that I wanted my staff to engage in these Courageous Conversations.
First, I wanted my staff to understand the power of listening. A central tenet of Talking Circles is that only one person at a time is allowed to speak. Furthermore, the other speakers are encouraged to share their own thoughts and are not expected to respond to someone else’s comments. Participants are, essentially, forced to listen to others.
Second, I wanted my staff to separate themselves from their titles. Talking Circles remove any form of hierarchy. During these conversations, no participant is more important than the other. The information being shared by all is equally valuable and should be treated and respected as such.
Third, and the biggest driving force, I wanted my staff to connect this experience with our students. I wanted them to see how they learned something new about a colleague and how that information may shape their interactions moving forward. I wanted them to readjust their perceptions from seeing our students as at-risk to budding successes. I wanted them to remember that our students come to school on a daily basis dealing with so much more than academic tasks.
My teachers were hooked and asked that this become a regular part of our staff meetings. It has.
More importantly, this practice has become common place in the school. It may be implemented differently from class to class – some start the week to get a pulse of the students’ after a weekend while some end to help students bring the week to a close while some use it when the vibe in the classroom isn’t quite right – and that is okay.
This simple yet powerful practice has had profound impacts on the school’s culture and climate. During the first two months of school, our referrals have dropped nearly 70%. Our attendance rating has soared to 97%. I now see teachers and students mutually engaged in honest conversations when issues arise to develop solutions.
And Anthony? Well, he still visits my office regularly. Only now its to check in on me and to take a peppermint.
Charles Williams is a professional educator with nearly 15 years of experience. Williams currently serves as a K-8 Principal in Chicago, IL. He is also a member of Great Expectations Mentoring and Men of Color in Education. Williams has presented at numerous conferences including the Statewide ESSA Conference, the Annual INCS Conference, and the CPS Leadership Institute. He has also started his own educational consulting firm, CW Consulting.