Using Circles to Build Community by Alexa Brunton

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to facilitate a professional development for educators on the topic of “Using Circles to Build Community.” Readers may be familiar with this session, as it is a training NEB’s Executive Director, Donna Stone, developed to emphasize the importance of building relationships with students in order to create a productive learning community. While facilitating this particular session, I was struck by a comment a teacher made about using circles with students. She astutely noted that when you are seated in a circle, “no one is at the head of the table.” She explained how the shape of a circle makes all of the members equal participants- regardless of their status outside of the circle.

This powerful observation has been at the front of my mind since the training. This teacher’s response encapsulated so much of what I’ve experienced in my first year as a coach supporting schools. Over the course of the school year, I’ve been consistently reminded of the importance of community. I’ve realized that we cannot “reimagine teaching” without reconsidering relationship dynamics at every level- from the classroom to the district office.

With increasing pressure on schools to produce higher student achievement data, there is a desire to pursue remedies that will yield results quickly. While this work is urgent, true transformational change takes time, energy, and an unwavering commitment from all stakeholders. In order to achieve educational equity, we must invest in people and their potential. This investment occurs when students, educators, and leaders come together with the intention of learning from and with each other. Transformational change will not be achieved by the work of one person at a school but through the collective impact of all members of the school community united around a shared mission and vision.

At the classroom level, we know that a strong, safe and inclusive culture is the foundation for learning. When it comes to transforming adult culture in a school, the same prerequisites exist. School communities that encourage and provide structures for adults to work in teams to share out best practices and engage in healthy debates are better equipped to support their school in achieving its vision. According to Jill Harrison Berg, author of the article “Learning Together- SEL for Adults”, collaborative partnerships between administrators and teachers can foster a strong adult learning community. Berg notes that “while administrators have the positional authority to communicate SEL development as a priority and protect time and space to advance that priority, teacher leaders know what their colleagues are thinking and feeling, and they often have the social capital to galvanize collective buy-in.” The first step in empowering teachers is inviting them to the table as an equal participant in the conversation- and a circle might be the best shape to start in.

For more information on the characteristics of a strong school team, check out this blog post by Elena Aguilar, author of the Art of Coaching Teams.

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