This year I have a new teaching position at a boarding school. My husband and I will be living on campus as residential faculty, which is fantastic. We just moved in last week and are still sorting out unpacking and getting things where they go. This week, the school is hosting a Summer Faculty Symposium where a group of faculty members are all gathering together to talk about what it means to improve our craft of teaching and ways to go about developing a genuinely collaborative environment.
The book we are using as an anchor is The Skillful Teacher by Stephen Brookfield. I had actually already bought it (and four other teaching books) to read over the summer before I knew it was being used in this workshop, so I was already excited about reading it. Knowing I was reading it with colleagues to discuss together was icing on the cake. It is a little intimidating to be the only teacher new to the school in the symposium, but since the whole goal is about being reflective and vulnerable and honest, I didn’t let that keep me from joining.
The first day started with a few remarks by the facilitator and then a writing prompt of, “Where are you from?” My first thing I wrote down was that I am from “Oklahoma and the Internet”. I gave a brief history of places where I’d lived and then got caught on the fact that, while I lived in southern California for five years in college, I did not consider myself “from” LA. I considered myself to be “from” Harvey Mudd College, but not from that town or that region. I’ve lived in the Bay Area since graduating from college in 2006, but I don’t feel like I’m “from” any part of the Bay Area since I’ve moved up and down the peninsula from San Francisco to San Jose over the course of the years.
After writing about that a bit and then talking with a partner, the facilitator came back and said the next prompt was responding to, “That’s all well and good, but where are you FROM?” I started to realize that I think of myself as “from” places that had a big impact on my overall ideas about the world. I am FROM rural Oklahoma, although I have been critically analyzing and adjusting so many of the assumptions and expectations I grew up with that I am now very far removed from that culture. I am FROM HMC but not LA, because I loved being at Mudd and had a lot of experiences that shaped me deeply there, but I hated being in LA and did not want to take that culture with me. Being “FROM” a place means to me that it shaped my expectations about how things should be and how people should interact. It gave me basic assumptions about the world in a way that are more deeply rooted, that are shocking or uncomfortable when challenged, but that need to be challenged more often and more openly than assumptions that are not as internalized.
After talking about this with a partner we did an exercise where we chose a conversation starter and had structured conversations with different people. The first one had no structure, the next one five minutes each, the next one alternating turns of two minutes each where each turn had to start by mirroring what the other person had said, and the last one alternating one-sentence statements. These were really great conversations and let me get to know and speak with more people than I probably would have naturally. I’m weirdly fine speaking up in a group, but super introverted and not all that likely to start a conversation with another person one-on-one, so this was a good way to get to talk to many people.
After lunch, we divided up into groups to discuss what they called “ground rules for discussion” but were basically just group norms. My group was amazing. We spent about an hour discussing group norms and finding some things we could all agree on, and then we worked on the task of finding a piece of the anchoring book that resonated with the group and presenting it to the rest of the attendees. We ended up synthesizing multiple ideas from the book into a coherent narrative about how gathering data about student learning regularly could help both students and teachers overcome imposter syndrome, could help students take more responsibility for their learning, and help teachers understand what barriers students were facing so that those barriers could be lowered as much as possible. The group was very diverse (teachers of physics, chemistry, history, theatre, and first grade) with a lot of different perspectives, but with similar enough experiences as a teacher that we could really build a rapport with one another and make this presentation happen. Getting to the basic outline of our talk ended the first day, and the second day started with regrouping to continue developing it.