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August 12, 2021
Vol. 16
No. 24

Why Icebreakers Are Underrated for Deeper Connections

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School Culture
Credit: By Leon from Unsplash
Most educators remember learning about the importance of the first days of school. You get to know the students and build a classroom where students feel part of a community of learners. The same is true for adult learners, especially at the beginning of the school year—and maybe especially at the beginning of this school year. Every staff member has experienced uncertainty, anxiety, isolation, and turnover in different ways. Now, as another year gets underway, the need for community among educators, who feel seen and valued as both humans and learners, is crucial.
To do this, we often turn to icebreakers, which have gotten a bad rap—perhaps justifiably so. We’ve all been in meetings with colleagues who have worked together for years when a facilitator announces a “get to know you” activity. Nothing can elicit bigger eye rolls from a group of tired teachers.
Activities like these can often feel like a requirement to check off before getting down to the real reason you’re together. But that doesn’t mean that we should scrap them. In our role facilitating professional learning for teachers and leaders for an intermediate school district, we’ve learned that these connection-building activities are, in fact, essential. When paired with sustaining practices throughout the school year, they can provide a much-needed foundation for a supportive culture through equitable participation and social connections.

Determining Group Needs 

To establish connections at the outset of a meeting, it’s important to reflect on questions that help ensure your activity meets the needs of the group: 
  • Are we connecting with content, each other, or both? This question essentially gets to the heart of the matter and is often one of the first ones we ask ourselves when planning for facilitating.
  • How connected is our group already? Even though people may teach across the hall from each other every day, you can’t take for granted that they’re socially close. It’s important to think about what kinds of daily interactions they have.
  • What group dynamics might impact equitable participation? Take stock of the social and structural dynamics of the group, including whether there are new hires or people who may be part of an “old guard,” and what kinds of racial, cultural, and gender dynamics might affect each member’s ability to share their ideas.
  • How vulnerable is the day’s learning? How might we expect this to surface? Even if participants work together often, it’s still important to connect with each other as humans first before you get into the content. This helps educators feel more comfortable sharing with one another.  

Choosing Connectors that Fit Your Needs

Once you’ve asked yourself these questions and have a better sense of the why behind your icebreaker, it’s time to plan for how to make it happen. We’ve found that most connector activities fall into one of the three categories: 
1. Conversation Starters
These are typically quick activities with the primary purpose of getting people talking to each other. They can help participants ground themselves in the learning or shift focus after a long day. You might use them when your group is going to engage in new learning that will ask them to process together, but that likely won’t challenge their own beliefs too deeply.
When professional learning shifted to online spaces, we found that the need for this type of connector was especially important. People who were comfortable talking to each other in a room were nervous to be on camera or to unmute themselves, and conversations could be quiet and awkward.
One of the networks we coordinate is the Job-Embedded Professional Learning Network for instructional leaders. In one meeting, we had participants joining from across many districts and roles across the region, so we modified an in-person connector we’d used many times. In person, we’d typically ask a series of questions and have participants stand if it was true of them and to make eye contact with someone else who was standing. In online facilitation, we did this by asking everyone to turn their cameras off and then turn their cameras back on when we said a statement that rang true for them. When we said, “I work mostly with elementary school teachers,” several coaches turned their cameras on and waved to each other. The act of turning cameras on brought their pictures to the top of the grid view on screen, and the waving was just silly enough to elicit some authentic smiles.
Though a conversation may not be started through this activity, people get more comfortable with each other and the technology. In this way, it can be enough of a connector on its own, but we’ve also paired it with sending participants to random breakout rooms to briefly introduce themselves and connect over questions like, “What brings you here today?”
2. Team-Building Connectors
These activities are helpful when facilitating a group that is working toward a common goal because they can serve a few functions:
●        Help team members see each other’s strengths.
●        Set the stage for initial conversations about how their team functions. 
●        Recognize and develop the many roles within the team.
 Team-building connectors go beyond simple discussions to engage participants in activities in which working together as a team is necessary. Whether engaging a group in a timed challenge or a puzzle to solve, asking learners to work together toward a common, fun goal can help participants reflect on teamwork skills in a concrete way. These connectors are often light in nature and may not be enough on their own to prepare participants for the difficult conversations that are inherent in meaningful teamwork, but they set the stage.    
What we’ve found to be most important in making team-building purposeful is to help participants reflect on how the activity connects to their time together as a team. For example, when we facilitated a professional learning lab with administrators, we chose to have participants stand back-to-back and take turns giving verbal directions of an abstract image for their partner to draw. After they compared images to see how they’d done, we debriefed by reflecting on what skills it took to be successful and in what ways they might carry those skills forward throughout their day. As a result, they developed some group working agreements: 
“There is power in different perspectives.”
“Be specific and clear.”
“Listen carefully.”
“Ask questions if you’re not sure exactly what someone means.”
3. Reflective Connectors
These connectors help educators see their own and others’ experiences in new ways. They are often a good fit when you’re planning new learning that might push participants out of their comfort zones and want to bring them into a space where they are more grounded, open, and ready. 
One way to engage learners in reflecting is in looking forward. Asking people to think ahead to goal setting or where they’d like to be at the end of an initiative can set the tone for aspirational thinking. In a series of learning labs that we facilitated with principals, we typically started the day’s learning by celebrating points of pride in each participant’s school. For a goal-setting lab, we asked principals to imagine what they hoped their points of pride might be at labs in the future. This reflection required them to think about problems they were trying to solve from an asset-based stance by assuming that they would be successful and imagining what that success might look like. 
Looking backward can prompt reflection on the experiences that participants bring to the learning. In a learning lab where we were studying instructional shifts in language arts classes, we wanted principals to connect the new to their known, so we started with a reflective connector that asked them to think back to their experiences as students in language arts classes and describe what a typical day or assignment might have looked like. Sharing these reflections helped participants to connect around their common experiences and lay the groundwork for understanding the shifts in instructional practice that their teachers were making.
Looking inward is a way of reflecting that is rooted in beliefs. This is critical if you’re developing teams or leading significant change so that learners can connect with themselves before they connect outwardly with others. When we first brought together a group of principals from across buildings and grade levels, we wanted them to see each other as members of one team. We facilitated a reflective connector that asked participants to take a survey that matched them with their leadership style. The results placed them in categories that labeled their leadership style as an animal with particular attributes. This was playful enough to break the ice. Once participants knew their leadership style, we grouped them with peers who had different identified styles to answer questions and reflect on what each leadership attribute brought to the team. This also helped to leverage diversity in leadership styles.

Developing Community

We can’t guarantee that every connector you try will be immune to eye rolls. But we’ve found that by taking the time to plan for activities that are designed with the group’s dynamics and needs in mind, connectors can move away from being a dreaded requirement to being a welcome part of developing a community of professional learners. Whether you’re starting your school year leading learning remotely or in a physical room together, you’ll know that your thoughtful planning for purposeful connection has paid off when the learners you lead go deeper in their conversations, feel more comfortable learning with each other, and strengthen the relationships they need to get through even the hardest of school years.

Further Reading: Principal Labs

The authors’ book (cowritten with Carly Stone), Principal Labs: Strengthening Instructional Leadership Through Shared Learning (ASCD, 2021), is available now.

Samantha Keesling, EdS, is a mathematics consultant in the leadership and school improvement unit at Oakland Schools Intermediate School District. In addition to 13 years working with students and teachers in the classroom, she served on the executive board of the Detroit Area Council of Teachers of Mathematics and is a past president. For the past nine years, she has led teachers and administrators in implementing student-centered math instruction. In her role at Oakland Schools, Samantha works with Megan to coordinate the Job-Embedded Professional Learning Network, which supports instructional leaders across the region in studying, designing, and facilitating professional learning.

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