Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Lessons Learned At My Staff Retreat

Tuesday Slice of Life can be found at the Two Writing Teachers blog

   I believe our new head of school must have been a very good teacher because we had our first staff retreat with him last Thursday evening and all day Friday, and it was a memorable experience.  I had fun with colleagues, playing and working.  I learned something and didn’t feel too much pressure to work or think fast.  We came away with goals completed and plans for next time.   There are good parts I can bring away from the days to apply to any lesson.

   On the retreat, we have the pleasure of spending the night in a beautiful place at the YMCA of the Rockies outside of Estes Park, Colorado.  They have several kinds of places to stay according to the group’s size.  We stay in what is called a family cabin.  Just imagine a regular-type cabin—rustic fireplace, wood beams and walls, leather sofas and chairs—but one that houses fifty plus people.  It has the beautiful mountain views, so special in the fall, elk roaming through the land outside the cabin(s), chipmunks, and lots of mountain birds.   Most staff members leave right after school ends on Thursday for the two-hour drive up, but some of the administration staff have gone earlier to take the food for snacks and all the meals.  All the rest of us provide the drinks we wish to have and to share.  We have read a few articles in preparation for the coming day of conversations on Friday, are excited to be a part of this important work we do on this day, only wishing it was more than one day.  It’s important for teachers to give students lead-time to prepare for the work planned in class, especially if there is content to be read, studied and considered.  Also, even for a lesson within one class period, giving students time to think before discussing or answering questions posed – wait time – is critical for ensuring every student has a chance to get ready for an activity.
  Thursday evening is relaxing and fun, time to sit with staff members we rarely see for long conversations, to laugh and play games, for some to bring their guitars and sing with us, to relax and enjoy each other for the hours we usually don’t have during the regular school week.  We are fortunate to have this opportunity.  We rested our brains for the more difficult thinking to come.  Even in a short few minutes at the beginning of a lesson, offering the chance for the class to share personally or to celebrate a special something helps to relax the brain to get ready for its next workout.

   Friday morning, all of us gather for the work of the day.  In the past we have had a day of conversations about the asynchronous qualities of giftedness and meeting those challenges, racial and economic diversity-when we developed a rubric for self-evaluation, and writing-when we spent the day experiencing the beginning of a staff writing workshop (which I had the privilege of leading with a colleague).  Today we will tackle a new topic, one that has been chosen as a priority for the year, creating a new model for professional development and evaluation.  We were given an agenda well ahead of time so we would know what to expect of the day.  Although there are times when changes are appropriate or needed, keeping to an announced schedule helps everyone keep on task and to get ready mentally for what’s next.
   The meeting for the day held three parts, with every staff member included, divided into groups of about twelve.  We had challenges as icebreakers, getting to compete for the prize of a standing ovation by the losers.  Because of time constraints, this might be similar to the sharing time discussed earlier.  But when there is a longer period of time available, even at different times during the year, it is important for the class to play together, with different people and in different groups.  Building community in shared experiences is important for successful learning to take place.
    We had quiet reading time to read and annotate articles concerning recent research that show the attributes of current and successful models of professional development and evaluation.  This gave us additional topic knowledge as a reference when we talked.  If all must be done in class, teaching students how to prepare for an activity (read and annotate with sticky notes, highlight key points, familiarize oneself with available materials, etc.) and giving time to prepare is important for optimal success. 
   We met and brainstormed lists of different traits that were thought to be important to include in our model, and then we argued, explained, talked some more, found examples, and finalized the list.  Each group had a designated facilitator, who then reported the group’s conclusions to the larger staff when we gathered after each session.   Each person in the individual groups contributed to the conversations whether new staff or veterans.  The facilitators chosen were mostly new staff.  Giving students in a class experiences with new kinds of groups, or random groups with different people taking leadership roles changes the dynamic of the group, offering chances to those that don’t always contribute.
     Finally, all the notes were written, reports given, and our head gathered the notes from each leader, with the purpose of synthesizing the notes from all the groups into some kind of whole document, to be examined and discussed again at the next staff meeting.  At the end of a lesson, it’s good practice to end with the future plan, what will come next. 
     At our school, what’s good for the staff is good for the students, and vice versa.  There is an emphasis to giving lots of choices at school, which I have written about in an earlier post here.  Personal input will occur during the final goal-setting for each staff member, just as each student is considered unique in consideration of personal needs and wants.   The retreat days gave us the time to reacquaint ourselves as a community, and to devote quality time in determining what will work best for the culture of our school and for each staff member.  WE HAD A GOOD TEACHER!


  1. It was indeed a lovely retreat, and for all the reasons you listed. One theme that kept floating through the Friday discussions was that our approach to professional development should reflect our philosophy and approach with students - what is good for the goose is good for the gander :-) All those good teaching practices we know work with adults too!

  2. Wow, it sounds like you had a really good time at your staff retreat. It is always nice to get away and spend time bonding with the staff and reflect on the work that you do. I like how you made applications to the classroom in blue about the work that was done with the teachers.
    --Jee Young

  3. Sounds like you learned a lot and had quality bonding time with your fellow teachers. What a wonderful principal you have (to facilitate this retreat)!

  4. It sounds that the retreat was packed with thinking. You have added one more layer. I like how you structured the text. Using the two colors helps. thank you for the thoughtfulness.
    We haven't had such retreats. The meetings we have include discussions but it always feels that there isn't enough time. Our PD model is becoming more flexible and individualized each year. We are currently struggling how to balance teacher evaluation and the personal approach to PD.
    I'd like to share your slice with my colleagues.

  5. WOW, I'm soooooo jealous of you right now for having a staff retreat! What an inspiring, relaxing, and exciting way to collaborate and learn! You obviously have a wonderful principal, and you're right; he/she must have been a great teacher!

  6. Oh, my! What a wonderful modeling of what you are to do in a classroom. Loved the way you brought the two together. Such a nice, well thought out retreat. And location, location, location!

  7. You are very fortunate to have such a gathering. I like your processing as you recant the day's activities. This post will possibly help other schools/teachers come together to evaluate what is good for students is good for teachers. Thanks for letting me know my post didn't come through with my pictures! I have a lot of trouble with the new blogger.com. I end up going back and using the old version. I appreciate your comment about what is important in a retirement relationship--a good focus point.

  8. What a unique opportunity for professional growth and collaboration. It is clear from the way you processed the experience (with deepened reflections to apply to the classroom highlighted) that you made good use of the time!

  9. This is a model for how teachers should be treated and it was wonderful to read your processing reflections as you moved through the experience. Wonderful to read and see. Smart leaders, respect for teachers,

  10. Wow--I am envious of this retreat! I agree with BK--this is how teachers should be treated. I loved how you connected what you were doing for this retreat with how it relates to your classroom teaching. Just goes to show, learning about teaching happens everywhere!


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