Connecting the Dots and Circling the Wagons

423066292_9921e44eeb By Peggy Wuenstel

There is an exercise, one that I have completed   several times, in several different contexts, that requires you to place your name in the center of a piece of paper. You then proceed to draw increasingly larger concentric circles around the name, labeling each of the groups to which you belong. This might be to increase your sense of belonging, to map the resources at your disposal, or to identify areas for volunteer work.

The largest circles, Living Thing, Child of God, Female, don’t offer much personal definition, but the smaller ones, family, workplace, circle of friends can give us great insight into who we are and who we want to be in the future.

I recently was given the opportunity to join a new circle. Newly re-elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Tony Evers has convened an advisory council of Wisconsin Educators who have been named Wisconsin Teachers of the Year. When these eighteen individuals met last month in Madison to learn along with state leaders in the areas of the upcoming Educator Effectiveness Evaluation system, implementation of Common Core State Standards and the potential impacts of the proposed state budget on Wisconsin’s public schools, I was amazed by the competency and commitment present in that room.

While much of the day was about listening, our questions, comments and sense of direction were also valued. We left with a sense of purpose, which is still coalescing into action on these important issues, but with a sense of obligation to use our collective voices to make a difference in the lives of Wisconsin’s students.

I left with a greater appreciation of the concept of collective voice and the desire to use it more effectively. When we speak alone, it is often difficult to be heard above the background noise and the howling winds of change. When we join together to create a mission statement or speak as one, not only is our voice louder, but the audience who is paying attention is also increased. It is just part of human nature to want to be in on what is happening. No wonder laughter is contagious, and a person staring at the ceiling for no apparent reason is soon joined by others who want to know what is so interesting up there. It’s why our favorite parties are usually the most crowded, busy affairs where there is no room to sit down. It is also why we can be convinced to do things in a crowd that we would never do alone.

That is not to say that this is always a good phenomenon. The cyber-bullying that occurs when students post hateful comments with anonymous screen names seems to encourage a level of meanness that would be unthinkable in face-to-face interactions. The same is true for the comments and personal attacks on websites and in chat rooms that encourage public responses. It is hard to imagine some of those messages being delivered if the writers’ faces were visible and their real names replaced their screen names. Mob mentality, riot level violence and becoming carried away by the maddening crowd are all potential pitfalls to letting the group speak for you and not with you.

That is why it is so essential that our classroom groupings be the right kind of circle for our students to find homes within. With the guidance of a compassionate teacher, students at all levels learn to understand and support each other, to acknowledge and celebrate differences, to mend conflicts and encourage life-long relationships.

Programs such as TRIBES, The Compassionate Classroom, and many others give an outline of setting up these structures in schools all over the country. My Professional Development Plan for this year involved the creation of two social skills groups for students who needed help establishing, maintaining, and evolving within a school-based group of peers. Some are students with special education needs, some are not. Some need help to feel comfortable speaking in a group. Some need guidance on how to let others speak. Our Friends on Friday groups have grown into another circle of support for these students, one that we as teachers helped to draw around them with compassion and skill support.

I participated in a book study group last year organized around the book Creating the School Family by Dr. Becky Bailey.  (Yet another circle to draw.) She offered some outstanding ways to create an oasis of caring and support for students. One of the things that struck home the deepest was her reminder that we must focus on using someone’s name in developing even temporary relationships. It serves several purposes: 1) retention; so that we are less likely to forget in subsequent meanings, 2) acknowledgement; where we demonstrate the value we place on the interaction by personalizing it and 3)  the connection that comes from simply using the personal label that is a person’s given name.

Almost all educators have experienced the increased effectiveness of redirecting behavior by using a child’s name in the hallway vs. a generic “Hey You.” As long as we realize that this school family is an additional circle, not a replacement for the family circle in which the child lives, we are adding to their support system, not creating a competition for the child’s loyalty and attention.

Our abilities to move between and within the circles we inhabit may be a key to our mental health and sense of self. I relish this new circle of educators that will meet several times a year to plan ways to participate in the conversation that must happen if schools are to be supported in Wisconsin. I am truly grateful to have joined the circle of voices that post on the Marquette Educator site. I am a parent, a child, a teacher, a student, a reader, a writer, a thinker, an activist and a dreamer, all at the same time. I am a lover of polka dots. They make me smile, maybe because they represent these wonderful circles of my life.

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