At 6:00 p.m. after a full school day, I'm sitting in the windowless conference room of a Los Angeles Unified School District office with 14 new elementary and secondary teachers. Our straggly circle of folding chairs brings us so close that our knees almost touch; hands and laps, for once, are empty. Our circle is restfully quiet. Although we are all tired and somewhat distracted by scraps of muted conversation from several similar teacher groups clustered in the large conference room, no one watches the clock or checks their iPhone. My group listens intently as Linda, a middle school teacher in an inner-city immigrant community, talks about her shock at learning one of her students is pregnant and her struggle to show support.
I'm leading this group in a Way of Council gathering in my role as facilitator with California's Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment program (BTSA), a two-year program that enables out-of-state or emergency- credentialed teachers to gain full credentials while teaching full-time. In our district, taking part in Way of Council—a structured, adult version of the sharing time common in kindergartens—is a required part of BTSA, incorporated into seminars throughout each year.
Two trained facilitators are guiding our group, but as we pass around our talking piece—I use a quartz heart, whereas other facilitators may choose a ball, seashell, or other token—it's impossible to tell who the leader is. Each teacher tells a story in response to today's prompt: "Tell about a time you were challenged to meet the needs of a particular student."
After everyone has shared a story, we witness; each person in turn simply restates a few words or themes from someone else's narrative that resonated with that person, without responding in detail or giving advice. This gives each person the chance to be deeply, actively heard. Hearing your words chosen and echoed by others, frequently strangers, is an experience that promotes deep connection. Sometimes the group also tries a "response round" in which anyone in the circle can respond to a story or question someone else shared.
If the facilitators hear a problem that we think needs to be addressed we might interject a comment, but in general we wait until the round of responses finishes. The leaders then refer the teacher to our instructional specialist who coordinates the BTSA program; that specialist might speak to the teacher's administrator, provide extra mentoring, or offer similar help, although resources are slim. Facilitators make clear that what's shared in our sessions is for sharing, not evaluating, and remains private. Our hope is that just knowing another person shares your experiences and cares provides relief and promotes resiliency.
Speaking and Being Heard
Way of Council became part of our district's new teacher support program when several facilitators with previous experience using it suggested the practice might benefit fledgling teachers. We believed that, much more than new material to master, beginning teachers need an opportunity to personalize what they're learning and share their experiences. Specialists at BTSA agreed, so we launched a program to train several dozen facilitators in Way of Council basics.
Over the last 25 years, the Ojai Foundation and its Council in Schools program has developed a protocol for Way of Council sessions.1
This protocol outlines behaviors that lead to the authentic communication so characteristic of the program: Form a circle of participants, pass around a talking piece and honor the rule that only the person holding the piece speaks, and train a skilled leader to provide a safe and nonevaluative space for stories and the feelings those stories evoke. Participants agree to honor the four "intentions" of Way of Council: (1) speak authentically from the heart; (2) listen respectfully as though the speaker's story were your own, suspending preconceptions and judgment; (3) speak spontaneously, without planning your story while others speak; and (4) keep it lean to be mindful of time limits.
Honoring these rigorous intentions enables us to build a web of empathy that supports the storyteller and his or her emotions. Although each session is only an hour long, sessions model caring relationships that build resiliency. As we discipline ourselves to speak only when we hold the piece and to listen compassionately, we act out the behaviors we hope to promote when we ask students—or ourselves—to pay attention, speak up, or think about how other people feel.
In sessions that fit within the BTSA seminars, we try to keep the same group of 15 or so teachers together for all six sessions. The teachers meet three times a year, for two years in a row. Each group often includes several teachers from the same school (who enjoy hearing one another's stories in a new context), but teachers from other schools will also be mixed in. We find that it's most energizing to use mixed-grade groups.
Facilitators structure this experience by developing prompts that elicit authentic stories and that speak to participants' needs as new teachers. Leaders carefully model the body language of respectful listening. At the beginning of each session, the group leader explains that the leader's role is to support each participant—not to evaluate or report back to an administrator.
Leaders tell their own stories first, modeling what they expect from others. They choose a story that new teachers will find provocative and that will motivate them to share—perhaps one that involves ongoing questions, a mistake the leader made in the classroom, or a moment that kept him or her going. These stories make clear that perfecting our craft is a lifelong process.
Probing the Mysteries of Teaching
Many of our prompts derive from participants' authentic questions. Facilitators initially invite group members to share the mysteries of teaching, those questions that linger on teachers' minds at the end of each day. While sitting silently in the circle, group members write questions anonymously on index cards and drop them into a basket. The cards are shuffled and the basket circulates; each teacher draws out a card and reads a question aloud, often accompanied by nodding heads and quiet "uh huhs."
Typically, new teachers' questions address pedagogy and craft, the lack of social and governmental support for education, the need for social justice reforms, and the effect of a demanding career on one's well-being and personal life. Questions have included the following:
- How can I help students who are years below grade level make progress toward grade-level standards?
- How can I give students who are not meeting standards accurate feedback without discouraging them?
- Between planning, grading, meetings, and learning new material, how can I have time for a personal life?
- Is this the right career for me?
- How do I share my time among students so I don't neglect the quiet ones?
- Why do so many teachers no longer care for their students or their jobs?
- Why is the teaching profession devalued in America?
- How can I help a child who dreads going to school?
- Why do teachers judge one another?
Before each Way of Council session, facilitators meet as a team to share the questions their groups generated at their initial meeting, explore what seems to be on these new teachers' minds, and identify any underlying themes. Drawing on these themes, facilitators develop open-ended prompts that they hope will inspire storytelling—usually just prior to each session, to keep the sessions spontaneous and avoid carefully rehearsed stories. For instance, the prompt "Tell about a time you wanted to meet a student's individual needs" could invite a response about success or failure. (Stories of mistakes are welcome in the circle and are met with great sympathy.) During a one-hour Way of Council session, facilitators may have time for three or four prompts, including witnessing after each round. Over the years, we've developed a list of prompts that have generated particularly meaningful sessions, such as
- Tell about a time you felt challenged by a particular student and what your relationship is like now.
- Tell about a time you felt challenged by a relationship with someone at your school.
- When have you felt inspired in your teaching?
- Describe a time when you knew your students had learned something of value, academic or otherwise, in your class.
- Tell about a time you had difficulty negotiating between work and personal life.
- Tell the story of a time you needed support.
Benefits for All
Just being able to talk about teaching dilemmas with nonjudgmental peers helps new teachers cope, even when the group has no easy solution to deliver. I recall one teacher, in only her second month in the classroom, who was distraught because she had humiliated a young man in her class by acknowledging that his size made it difficult for the student behind him to see; he had never returned to class. I've heard joyful stories about the trust between teachers with adjoining rooms and stories about how wounding it is when a busy or unsympathetic administrator doesn't acknowledge your efforts. A Muslim teacher shared that some students taunted him, calling him "terrorist."
Sometimes group responses help a teacher see fresh possibilities. One teacher talked about her despair of ever getting her students to stop talking among themselves; she wondered what would happen if she simply stood silently in front of them. During witnessing, a fellow teacher described doing exactly that and shared that her students quickly began shushing each other so class could start. A young woman spoke about how frightened she was when young male students larger than herself broke into fights in her temporary classroom that was isolated from the main campus. As the talking piece progressed around the circle, another woman offered one way she has dealt with challenging, potentially violent students; she invited a young school security guard to stop by during her most challenging class period to hang out with these youth and encourage them.
Swapping tales with teachers from different schools, content areas, and grade levels gives new teachers a broader view of the landscape and a sense that everyone—just like them—has both struggles and something to contribute. One participant said, "Listening to others and being able to verbalize our feelings and thoughts allowed me to see what was 'normal.'" A charter school teacher told me that he appreciated learning what teachers at noncharters were thinking and feeling about teaching. Listening to these teachers' stories cleared up some of his misconceptions about noncharter schools. One kindergarten teacher liked being in groups with secondary teachers because she got a feel for where her students were headed after they left elementary school.
Veteran teachers who lead sessions also benefit. Facilitator Daniel Miyake noted, "Council gives me an opportunity to reflect on my own practice as I listen to others and allows me to collaborate with educators with whom I wouldn't normally have a chance to work." Another leader, Elsa Gutierrez, said, "I learn new techniques to help me cope. Even when I go to Saturday trainings, I look forward to our day of sharing, listening, and relaxing."
Beyond New Teacher Support
The Way of Council protocol can easily be replicated in classrooms, faculty meetings, and with wider decision-making groups, such as school site councils. Those of us involved with Way of Council in Los Angeles have seen the practice spread. One indicator of the strength of the approach is the number of teachers and facilitators who have begun using it with students. Through a Council in Schools pilot program at several California schools, a cohort of teachers at each school receives mentoring and some training in facilitating council sessions with students; they also try the council approach at staff meetings and other activities. Council in Schools provides weekend trainings in using Way of Council in public school classrooms or administrative meetings. Training takes at least 16 hours, and the Los Angeles Unified School District pays teachers who take the course; 273 teachers have gone through this weekend training so far.
I have used Way of Council with 3rd graders at Wonderland Avenue Elementary School, with great success. Wonderland Avenue teachers have also passed the talking piece to discuss what accommodations they might use for students receiving special education, to determine the priority of budget appropriations, and to share concerns about parking spaces, among other issues. Teachers use Way of Council–style storytelling rounds to build students' concepts of plot, character, and detail.
This nonhierarchical communication style appeals to the social justice orientation many new teachers bring to the profession. As principal Donald Wilson said, "Waiting for the talking piece limits the back-and-forth arguing that can be such a problem in public meetings. We promote equity when everyone—not just those with the loudest or most insistent voices—is able to participate."
The Way of Council protocol may be simple: Choose a topic, form a circle, and have one person talk at a time while everyone else listens. But it has the power to build authentic communication and relationships.