Friends School has been sending faculty and staff teams to the National Association of Independent School (NAIS)’s annual People of Color Conference (PoCC) on and off since 2003. This conference equips educators from teachers to trustees with resources to enhance the interracial, interethnic, and intercultural climate in their schools. This national gathering also provides a safe space for leadership teams to discuss issues that matter to them and their students, and to better prepare them to address the academic and social-emotional outcomes for students and adults alike. As we’ve seen over the years, this conference has been very helpful in providing professional development (and networking opportunities) for faculty and staff of color, along with their allies.
This year, SF Friends School’s team of attendees included Middle School Humanities Teacher Raymond Artis, Director of Admission Yvette Bonaparte, PE Teacher Sunné Clarke, and Director of Community Engagement Guybe Slangen.
Guybe says: “My first PoCC was in Boston in 2007 while I was at the Head-Royce School in Oakland. I remember being overwhelmed (in a good way) by all there was to absorb. From the speakers to the workshops, and from the networking to the affinity groups, I came back informed, inspired, and ready to do the work to make my school more equitable and inclusive for all. Since then I have attended off and on, and while the locations have changed from year to year, the impact of the conference remains strong. This year in Anaheim was PoCC’s 30th anniversary with over 6000 attendees from around the country, including over 1,500 students. I was grateful for the opportunity to engage with and learn from others, hear amazing speakers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Kimberlé Crenshaw, all the while refueling my commitment to help move our school community forward.”
“I find the People of Color Conference useful, refreshing, and it definitely helps me to learn more about myself and the people I work with," says Sunné . "This is my eighth year attending, and every year I come away with some new and exciting goals to pursue. For instance, I’ve learned how to start and collaborate with colleagues at Friends to create affinity groups. I’ve also developed a nice network of people from other schools where I can lean on to gather more information. It amazes me that every year the workshops are always so different yet relevant to the work I do as an educator. POCC has also inspired me to develop skills to work in a leadership role. My hope every year is not only to attend the conference again but also to inspire others to attend because anyone can benefit from this wonderful conference.”
Established in 2016 with generous support from our community, the Cathy Hunter Fund for the Future (CHFF) supports our faculty with transformative professional development experiences at key moments in their careers. Encouraged to think beyond workshops and conferences, teachers submit an application seeking support for a professional development experience that will enrich future programs, our school culture and greater community.
In 2016, humanities teacher Jodi Pickering sat down with former Head of School Cathy Hunter to brainstorm on how to make her 25th year of teaching “transformative.” Deciding to set aside time to study writing and publishing while also teaching, Jodi developed a better writing practice that culminated in a reflective journey to England and France, where she visited Quaker sites and joined Meeting For Worship abroad. Below is just a piece of her writing from that experience.
Relying on the Silence of Strangers
After an hour of driving, we turn onto the Avenue des Quakers. It is the second-to-last day of our journey, and my plan to have my family attend Meeting for Worship here, the day before we tackle ten hours of driving and two flights, does not seem as wise as it had when I was mapping out our travels months ago.
It is hot, around 95 degrees, and we are early. With no town center in sight, we wander into the graveyard. As my husband reads words on the gravestones, my daughter and I walk briskly around, moving our legs in anticipation of the 60 minutes of sitting that await us.
Sweaty now, we enter the gate of the Quaker House to look for the Meeting Room. An older woman is bent over a browning end-of-season garden and, without looking up, she says to us, in English, “It’s through there,” as if people come through looking for the Meeting Room with some frequency. The room has the feel of a conference room, with books on the shelves, pamphlets on the table, and a door leading to the kitchen. About 15 chairs form a circle, many occupied by quiet, older people. In an effort to seat us together, my husband approaches two chairs that have been stacked, one on top of the other, and begins to separate them. A woman leans forward, smiles and shakes her head, asking him not to, whispering that that chair (or set of chairs) is for their friend with the extra long legs. She shifts her seat so that three chairs might be open side by side.
And so we join them.
There is no fan, but the door is open and in a few minutes, the gardener enters and, after her, a couple joins them. They too try to separate the chairs and are told of the not-yet-arrived man of long legs.
I often have trouble settling into the silence, and that day is no different. My curiosity is peaked and my stomach is rumbling an embarrassingly loud rumble, a rumble which everyone save my daughter pretends not to notice. Desperate to settle, I focus my energy on conquering the growl, but my stomach roars and my sweat is now a nervous sweat.
The friend of the lengthy legs arrives. His legs indeed are long and his hair is surprisingly red; he shuffles his way to the stacked chairs and settles in. Watching him, I have given up trying to control my stomach grumblings and they stop. We settled into the silence together. Strangers bound by tradition.
For me, it is not silent long. The voice of my inner teacher begins to make itself heard. Slowly at first, a reassuring soft voice quietly reassuring me that I will find my way after I send my daughter off to college. There is more to me than mother and wife, the voice reminds me. My daughter will depart soon after we arrive back home, and my thoughts shift to reviewing our two-week trip, and soon a cacophony of inner teachers are shouting, each urging me to examine a truth. One urges me to go ahead and call myself a writer, another pushes me to find ways to teach the stories of those behind the scenes, and yet another yells at me for not being present.
I turn my attention to the possibility of a new identity. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I’ve been ashamed of my lack of ambition. If you read, you’re a reader. If you write and get published (I thought), then you’re a writer. I wrote my first children’s book, Larry the Land Shark, when I was 18, and since then I’ve written essays, short stories, and a young-adult novel, but I have never called myself a writer. Until this past year, no one but close friends or family had ever seen my words. With a week-long conference and four workshops and dedicated time set aside for writing, I worked diligently to transform from caterpillar to butterfly, and there, listening to the silence, I realize that I have my wings. One of my teachers had started her course by lauding us all for being there, encouraging us all to shed the scales of insecurity we carried with us. She asked how many of us considered ourselves readers, and all of our hands shot up. Shifting the question to ask how many of us considered ourselves writers, a smaller number of hands raised, many of them with trepidation. “If you read, you’re a reader,” she said, “and if you write, you’re a writer.” And with that sentence, I was free to love my writing for the joy it gives me and not carry the weight of responsibility to publish or even to share if I didn’t want to.
I think about how this freedom opened the door to sharing. I shared Larry the Landshark with second graders to get their feedback; I shared short stories with friends and bosses who are friends. I pushed myself to write seven short stories for the seven sins, and though I may never share “Lust” with anyone, I think I can share “Wrath” with my seventh graders next year as they tackle their own short stories.
I reflect on how, when traveling this summer, I wrote daily, most often first thing. I remember most fondly the Gulf of Poets in Italy, chosen because I wanted to write where D.H. Lawrence, Lord Byron and Percy and Mary Shelley had written years ago, and it was immediately evident what made the place so fruitful for them. The light, the boats, the cliff hugging homes—they all slowed life down. I rose early and wrote, and there the words flew more quickly.
I flush with pride at the memory of easily reaching my daily goal of 1,000 words and how, with extra time before the family awoke, I added to my morning routine a swim. Across the empty plaza, chairs stacked up at the restaurants that had been so lively before. I had walked down to the harbor to a spot on the rocks where four old women in bikinis were socializing. Presumably a swim was also in their future, but their day began together. They welcomed me with a nod and “Bongiorno” and smiled as I gasped a bit, sliding into the water to began my swim.
I remember how this idyllic scene at the harbor had been tainted when I learned that, in the 16th century, the Jews of this picturesque town were locked in a ghetto, blamed for the plague that had struck the city. The quaint gate I had passed was no longer quaint. The inner teacher reminding me that we have to learn the stories of those behind the scenes begins to clamor for my attention.
I shift in my chair and wonder if anyone else’s mind is racing. I see one man’s chest rising up and down, up and down. He’s going to speak soon, I think, and sure enough he begins. He speaks slowly and sadly, and it is all in French. I hear something that sounds like civilization and then Egypt? Did he just say Egypt?
History teachers are often drawn to must-sees, must-knows. At the beginning of our trip, when we were headed to London, I was eager to go to Westminster Abbey, the site of all coronations since William the Conqueror in 1066. However, my husband, ten years older than I, had not set his alarm clock for 4:30 in the morning on July 29th, 1981; had not sat mesmerized watching Diana walk down the red carpet, long train trailing behind her, on her way to becoming Princess Di. And though my daughter could capably demonstrate her Friends School learning, remembering Henry the VIII and some other medieval facts, she, too, wondered what the fascination with royalty was. With their help, I ditched the sites of those whose stories are often told and saw instead the Roman walls, the rocks and those who had put them there and the Museum of Fashion, filled with one woman’s story of realizing a dream to incorporate history into textile and send it down a runway for the world to see while she stayed behind the scenes.
I find myself wondering how anyone ever decides what history to teach. In the midst of a city that had literally thousands of years of tales to tell, how did the Brits build their curriculum? What was it about that monument that we stumbled upon as we walked along the Thames—a monument to a group of low ranking fliers who fought for twenty days during WWII to protect London from Germany— that was so captivating to all of us?
And then, my small voice reminds me, there was the Pont du Gard, a Roman Aqueduct, a site we almost skipped because we were tired of touring and had already seen Roman arenas and crypts. Yet again we were all entranced. Yes, there was appeal in the grand expanse, its golden color and the cool swimming waters underneath, but what awed us was its functionality. The idea that an instrument of engendering could transform a few river-sided cities into a connected empire. When we later saw pipes that were used to continue the path of the water over valleys, we wondered how they did not get lead poisoning; it was the power of the engineer, not the emperor, that was the story we wanted to hear.
The man in the Quaker meeting room standing finishes talking and sits down. I have missed most of what he has said, but he looks up at my three-person family and asks if we would like him to restate it in English. He had spoken for a while. My husband, without looking up, shakes his head no. The implication that we speak French hangs there for a moment, and I feel the three of us stifle a laugh. We are bonded in a way that we weren’t before this trip.
I enjoy the rest of the silence, feeling the wisdom of the voice telling me to be present, to notice and appreciate the way a member of the group stands and retreats into the kitchen, returning through the swinging door with a tray carrying a pitcher of water and a stack of glasses. I am not brave enough to reach forward to take one; I consider that lack of courage.
The meeting ends, and instinctively I want to run. The end of meeting always makes me feel that way, and the feeling is intensified by the awkwardness I feel in having shared an intimate moment with strangers.
Be present. Okay, I will, and I wait for someone else to leave first. Not quite present, but a start. Only no one leaves.
Instead, one woman suggests, in English, that we introduce ourselves. When it is my turn to speak, I reveal that we do not speak French. This is not news. The man with the long legs claims to be the most Quaker of all: his Parkinson’s a testament.
One member remarks to the others that we should let our visitors know that an ancestor of the original Quakers is with us, and all eyes turn to a woman who does not smile. She is French and does not speak English; we learn the story of those before her from others that seem to know the story well. We learn that that the English had come and pillaged Congenies, and that a man had regretted the actions and written the townsfolk explaining that, as a Quaker, their actions did not reflect their beliefs. We learn that someone wrote him back and told him that they weren’t Quakers but that they were interested in meeting a man of such integrity and would he like to come visit?
They tell the history without speaking over each other, and without the awkward pauses that come when people wish they could interrupt but are too polite to do so.
And, the man with the long legs adds, this is how these Quakers also came to leave the door open because it is the English Quakers who do that. When Quakers have had to hide, they met behind closed doors, but true Quakers leave the door open to new truths.
It is still awkward when we leave, but less so than it would have been had we run out immediately after. I feel giddy as we make our way to car. Our trip is over tomorrow, but I no longer look at the travel day as just a day to get through. Tomorrow, as all days, will be a day to leave the door open and to be present. By doing this, I might get lucky and learn some hidden history. And, once having learned it, I’ll do my best to write it down.
"Coaching is the art of creating an environment, through conversation and a way of being, that facilitates the process by which a person can move toward desired goals in a fulfilling manner."
During the 2016/17 school year, I had been fortunate enough to receive professional development funding from the Cathy Hunter Fund for the Future (CHFF), which enabled me to begin a coaching role that will take me through the end of this school year.
I used the time and opportunity to explore and work with my colleagues as their “coach." This experience has allowed me to strengthen my relationships with my colleagues, getting to know them in and outside of the classroom. I also learned that, even though I may not be able to teach middle school science, I can identify common threads in childhood development and student behavior. Whether it is individual coaching, peer coaching, or mentoring new faculty, I have opened doors and made connections that will only strengthen the greater school community over time.
You might imagine that being surrounded by 22 students and a teaching assistant all day is highly social, sometimes noisy, and never dull. All of this is true, but teaching can also be isolating, particularly when working in a self-contained classroom. I have been drawn to mentoring and coaching at this point in my profession as an aspiration to share experiences and observations collaboratively, but also to stretch my own teaching. What better place to do this than with other dedicated and skillful teachers in their own spaces?
It is abundantly clear now that a valuable resource is right here within the four walls of 250 Valencia—each other.
My journey has included working with teachers outside of my classroom at Friends School since the spring of last year, as well as visiting others in the East Bay, where I also supervise and mentor trainee teachers with the Bay Area Teacher Training Institute (BATTI).
For most teachers, coaching is a valuable feedback tool. It complements nicely the relationship teachers have in place with their direct supervisors. It carves out more informal time, is driven by choice, it allows for reflection, sharing of ideas, and ultimately insight into how to improve the learning experiences of students. Teachers can meet to discuss pedagogy and curriculum, utilize me as a second set of eyes in the classroom, or allow me to be a sounding board.
So far, I have worked with a range of both middle and lower school teachers and also specialists in varying roles. In the first semester, I observed in an eighth grade science classroom for the first time with a little trepidation. What did I know about middle school science? It was extremely reassuring to find the familiar aspects to nearly every classroom, no matter the grade. Whether in first grade or eighth, sometimes transitions are slow, some students are focused and engaged, while others prefer to chat to their table buddy. What is most important, however, is that the teacher being observed is clear about the goal of their observation and feedback. Then it doesn’t matter who or what I am observing, the focus can be directed to where it is most needed.
Along with many other professions, the job of an educator is never done. There isn’t ever a moment where you say to yourself: ‘Well I think I’ve learned everything there is to know now.’ As someone who has been teaching for many years now, that has never been more apparent than when visiting a colleague’s class. Although my role has been as coach and support, I have walked out of each classroom several times thinking, ‘I can’t wait to try that out,' or, 'I think I can adapt that for first grade.’
I noticed that last year, for example, Anil Chopra (former SFFS middle school science teacher), would give immediate feedback to students in the midst of a project. This created an environment where students were more excited about making a revision in the moment. And rather than students focusing on making a mistake, they viewed the feedback more as a piece of the process.
It is abundantly clear now that, indeed, a valuable resource is right here within the four walls of 250 Valencia—each other. Many of us want to take advantage of opportunities to see one another teach even more.
Like most busy professions where there is a lot of contact time with others, moments to share and have someone just listen are in short supply. Hence a large part of my work has been to provide that space. Albert Einstein once said that, if he had an hour to save the world, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and five minutes finding the solution. This suggestion resonates for me; it’s a reminder to slow down and and deeply think about the situation before offering a way to remedy it. I also want the colleague I am working with to search and find the solution, with my role guiding and hopefully providing questions that make the path a little clearer.
The Professional Development Committee has met to discuss the way that “peer coaching” support our goals. Our plan for the 2017/18 school year is to continue to incorporate coaching into the professional development experience of Friends’ teachers. Using feedback from teachers who have been involved in coaching this year, and incorporating new ideas, we are working to build a program rich in professional discourse that continues to nourish and sustain teacher’s professional growth.
Here is just some of the feedback from my colleagues involved in this journey. They inspire me to continue lifting up how important this work is for our school:
I believe that new programs need multiple years of commitment. I was rejuvenated, I was encouraged, I was refocused on old, bad habits and newly focused on new deficits that we discovered. There are many teachers who will benefit from having a coach.
~Anil Chopra, former SFFS middle school science teacher
It was nice to have another set of eyes in the classroom and simply a fresh perspective on the day to day...WE NEED THIS. Whether it be in more of a peer coaching format or a roaming person like Erin. Generally, it seems that coaching is missing from our professional development repertoire and it felt really important to my own development as a teacher.
~Jake Ban, SFFS third grade teacher