Monday, December 21, 2015

Building Capacity & A Positive School Climate: The Staff Social

Recently I was asked to lead our annual holiday luncheon at my school. My administrators took care of ordering food and the rest was left to me. Typically what this means is decorations and utensils, but I wanted it to be much more than that. I had the vision of the staff luncheon becoming an opportunity to contribute to building a positive school climate. A huge portion of our staff is new to the school this year (including me).  I thought this staff luncheon would be a great chance for people to get to know each other in a low pressure environment.
One of the first things I did was contact my very good friend and former colleague Kamini Kamdar (, @kaminikamdar). Kamini is a very talented FDK teacher and has a strong understanding of Reggio Emilia and how the environment acts as a third teacher. I didn’t just want there to be plain old decorations on the walls, I wanted staff to be inspired, feel their learning is represented and be invited to explore. With Kamini’s help we went shopping for some high quality materials that could be used to help foster this.
As I was beginning to plan the luncheon, I was also planning for activities and learning in my classroom for December. Out of a conversation I had with two very strong colleagues of mine, Mary-Su Lilly (@lillymsu) & Mike Titus, we decided to use a big idea of gratitude in our classrooms. Gratitude has one of the strongest links in promoting mental health. One of the mini tasks we had asked our students to do was explore gratitude quotes and create posters of inspiration. I asked both of these teachers if I could use their finished posters for our staff luncheon which they happily obliged and suddenly our theme for the luncheon was born: Season’s Greetings & Gratitude. Student learning & well-being would be at the heart of the staff luncheon. Staff well-being is directly linked to student well-being. So, it really is important to consider our staff when creating a positive school climate and this was our opportunity!
 I wanted staff to be engaged and feel part of this planning experience. If staff felt they were part of the process, then they were more likely to buy-in and say positive things to one another about the overall experience afterwards. This helps create momentum in our over-arching goal of building a positive school climate. So, I enlisted the help of my friend Laura Gregoire (@laurs_10) and together we created a “secret mission” which was to take photographs of every staff member in our building. When staff asked what it was for, I tried to spark their curiosity and excitement and would say things like “I’m taking pictures of my friends!” There was buzz and wonder in the school for what it was for and staff started to perk up and play guessing games! It was quite fun!
Once Laura & I collected all the pictures, we made a whole night of it! We ordered in food and got to work writing an appreciation for every staff member in our building. We made them specific. It was not easy because it highlighted to me who I needed to get to know more and connect with and forced me to put names to faces. If I felt this way, other staff must have too! In the end we created a gratitude wall—pictures & names of staff and how we thank them for their specific contributions to our school. Staff were now represented and appreciated. We knew this would create positive energy in the room.
I wanted all staff members to feel included and personally invited to the luncheon. I’m not sure about you, but I am much more likely to go to a party when I am personally invited. So, I teamed up with Stephanie Dunn (@stephaniendunn) my brilliant teaching partner, and we created invitations for each staff member and hand delivered a large portion of them.  The remaining invitations went into mailboxes of each staff member.
Listening to music can be such an emotional experience, which is why we needed some upbeat music to keep the energy up in the room. I sought out the help of another one of my colleagues Raj Bhatnagar. He made sure he took care of bringing speakers and music.
An easy way of creating a team experience is to recognize the strengths that each staff member or student brings to the table and to highlight their strengths. When you ask someone to help you with something that they are strong at doing, they will feel recognized and are more likely to contribute.
Finally, our amazing librarian Alicia Bishop (@mesha2222) has been working incredibly hard at transforming our learning commons into a Makerspace. I know some teachers through conversation were wondering how they could bring that idea into their own classrooms. So, for our “interactive” portion of the lunch I created an adult makerspace where each staff member could create their own ornament. This helped start conversations and hopefully peak imaginations.
I was feeling quite crummy when trying to set up for the lunch. After a division meeting when I was supposed to do this, so many helping hands could see I was in a lot of physical pain and stepped in to help. This is the true hallmark of a team. When one player is injured, the rest will step in and compensate. This is what literally happened and you could really see how much people cared for one another in that moment.
During our yummy lunch a lot of thank-yous were spread amongst staff and holiday cheer. The smiles on the faces of so many made the whole experience worthwhile. If even one staff member takes back an idea into their classroom or even the big idea of “gratitude” I will feel like the luncheon was an overwhelming success! However personally, my relationships with staff members are stronger than they were before. To me, teaching is all about relationships. I am so grateful for building mine and that is my personal success!  

Happy Holidays!

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