HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Mosquitoes, Elephants and Mermaids: Building a Strong Faculty Community

by Susan Cook Issue: Strengthening Community

New school, new faculty, opening meeting. One of those first impression opportunities. “How many of you have ever been bitten by an elephant?” I ask. A quick check around the room—no one raises a hand. “How many of you have ever been bitten by a mosquito?” No checking necessary—all hands are up. How do I convey to these “been there-done that” veteran teachers that I care about their professional lives in the building? That I will try to clear away the obstacles so that they can do their best work? And that I will listen to the challenges they face to meet the needs of their students in the “hurry up and learn” environment of a Jewish day school?

“It is the rare person that gets bitten by an elephant,” I say. “In fact, we would have to go out of our way for the opportunity. But mosquitoes are another matter. They are annoying little beasts that can ruin a good picnic or a walk in the woods. Mosquitoes are those pesky annoyances in our work life that get under our skin and itch to distraction.” On Post-it notes, teachers tell me their mosquitoes. The copiers never work. The mailbox is inconvenient. The schedules are never right the first time. Mosquitoes become the metaphor for the little irritations that loom large in high pressure environments. I swat them off my to-do list one by one.

What about the elephants? On a poster board we generate a list of the essential conversations we need to have as a faculty this first year of my leadership. What do we want to accomplish together? What do we want to learn? What is working and what is not? These are the big pachyderm-sized questions. We will explore them together.

A school leader who hopes to build a strong faculty community understands this doesn’t happen by accident. And any student of human nature knows that our best hopes for creating community often come in conflict with the complicated hopes and fears of the individuals who inhabit it. Where to begin? I believe that all good work flows from relationships of mutual respect and trust. Relationships come before the work. A school leader who ignores the tasks of relationship-building and jumps to goals and expectations may find him- or herself driving a train with no passengers.

A faculty that comes together with a strong sense of purpose and a shared vision is on its way to building a strong community. And such a school community enhances and energizes the life of the people in it. A strong faculty community is more than one where the teachers get along. It is by definition a learning community, where teachers talk regularly about teaching and learning, where they feel safe to observe one another, to share with a spirit of generosity, to plan together and to evaluate their work critically. A strong faculty community embraces the opportunity to expand its professional capacity in the company of colleagues and is energized and sustained by it. And according to Roland Barth, founder of the Harvard Principal’s Center, there is evidence to suggest that since students tend to model the collaborative behaviors of their teachers, the quality of the lives of children in schools are directly proportional to the quality of the adult relationships in the building they share. Academic achievement can be positively impacted as a result.

We can look to our Sages to outline a powerful imperative for school leaders to foster trusting relationships around learning communities. In Pirke Avot, Rabbi Joshua ben Perachyah says, “Provide yourself a teacher, get yourself a companion, and judge all men charitably.” I have come to think of this as more than just three separate, declarative statements, but rather three ideas sublimely interconnected. If you find yourself a teacher, and study together, you may begin to share more than your knowledge and insights, but ultimately those pivotal life experiences that have colored the way you see the world and act in it. These conversations of personal revelation can nurture a trusting and intimate friendship, and in this friendship, you may find greater empathy to accept others with more compassion and understanding. Teachers learning together build both professional capacity but also friendships. Friendships lead to trust, collaboration and hopefully a general sensitivity to the efforts of others. In day schools, learning together around Jewish texts reinforces the sense of purpose and values of the school community.

Creating an atmosphere among faculty where trust is possible is the school leader’s responsibility. In my most recent leadership practice, I ended every teachers meeting with a powerful ritual, inspired by the work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey (How We Talk Can Change the Way We Work). I ended each meeting with P & G—Praise and Gratitude. This was the opportunity for teachers to regularly and publically acknowledge the work of their peers and to express their appreciation for the support of their colleagues. Admittedly, this took time to catch on. Sometimes there was only silence. But I modeled the language and persevered. What began as an artificial exercise became a natural and essential feature of our time together and enhanced the relationships in our building. If I forgot to do it, someone always reminded me.

School leaders must make building strong faculty communities a priority, as important as raising test scores, minimizing bullying, building enrollment or controlling tuition. The initiatives must be relevant, intentional and scheduled, supported by a school’s resources and time. Opportunities abound through regular team building activities, teacher learning cohorts, action research projects, summer professional readings, professional book clubs, use of meeting protocols, faculty field trips, and the abundant opportunities for Jewish text study. What about the naysayer who stares back at you with skepticism? I say look away and move on. Good leaders are not afraid to take some risks when the projected outcomes are worthy.

Not everything I have tried over the last thirty years has been successful, but I have come to some reliable conclusions:

  • Start with building strong relationships with teachers
  • Address the quality of the lives of teachers in the building (mosquitoes)—re: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—in order to
  • Clear the way for the important work (elephants)
  • Articulate a relevant shared vision
  • Identify pertinent Jewish texts as a path for learning
  • Create opportunities to establish voluntary learning cohorts
  • Use substitutes, specialists, teachers’ aides to allow learning cohorts to meet, plan, observe each other during the school day—This is how important it is!
  • Model your own professional development—become a part of your own professional learning cohort
  • Use teacher leaders to create and help move initiatives forward
  • Create rituals to reflect the values of the community
  • Use memos for “nuts and bolts” items and faculty meetings for learning
  • Make time for sharing and celebrating teacher learning
  • Build in regular faculty teamwork activities—Ruth Charney (Responsive Classroom) recommends this for kids daily!
  • Food—it never hurts

One last thought—it helps if the initiatives are introduced with a bit of humor and creativity, like a good set induction.

***

Different school. New year. The signs were everywhere, tucked into the drawers in classrooms, the cabinets in the teacher’s lounge. “Watch out for mermaids!” The teachers were back after a generous summer break, busy with the start-up work that characterize the opening of a school. “Watch out for mermaids!” Surprise and curiosity drove discussions in the hallways. What’s with the mermaids? What’s going on? I shrug my shoulders and walk on.

The faculty is gathered for our first official meeting before students arrive. Much like first impressions, I have only one chance to bring the group together around a shared vision for the school year. After a few whips around the room to share best books of the summer, best vacations, best movies, best surprises, I take out a familiar and well- worn book and begin to read. “The Mermaid,” a story in Robert Fulghum’s popular book All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, is about a child who insists she is a mermaid in a game reserved for giants, wizards and dwarfs. How Fulghum deftly handles this child, with both honor and wit, is the point of the story. What to do with the mermaids? Fulghum asks. “All those who are different, who do not fit in the norm, and who do not accept the available boxes, and pigeonholes? Answer that question and you can build a school, a nation, or a world on it,” he writes.

There is quiet in the room, each of us perhaps thinking about the mermaids we have known and loved or those we have known and shamefully ignored. Some of us may be fidgeting to hide our own fishy tails, tucked discreetly under our seats. This will be The Year of The Mermaid, I say. We will watch for them, we will honor them and we will build a school where giants, wizards, dwarfs, and mermaids can learn and play and live together.

An engaging story. A shared vision. A good start. ♦

Susan Cook was the Head of B’nai Shalom Day School in Greensboro, North Carolina, for 20 years and the Principal of Sager Solomon Schechter of Metropolitan Chicago for 9 years. She was one of the early founders of RAVSAK and served many roles in the organization, including National Chairperson 1993-1995. She can be reached at goodcooks@comcast.net.

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Strengthening Community

What do we mean when we call our schools a “community”? How does the Jewish diversity that typifies community day schools coalesce into its own community? What happens when the various communities that exist both outside and within the school come into conflict? Discover ways of understanding and strengthening the community of your school and its position within the larger surrounding communities.