A Tale of Two Meetings: Practicing Presence Over Planning

In this time of continuous scenario planning, adaptation, ambiguity, and shifting sands, I feel like I have many opportunities for the “do-over.” For readers that have been following the story, this blog-folio is really a quest to lead differently. And holy cow, that is easier said than done. Let’s take a moment to see how it’s going by examining two different meetings focused primarily on the same outcome: how do we sustain a quality learning experience for our students?

Meeting 1: Oh, the possibilities!

I walked into this meeting pumped up. This was the moment. The challenges of COVID were putting pressure on education systems across the globe. My career of dreaming and working towards new models of schooling was prime for prototyping at this special little school in central Switzerland. Our task was to rethink how we would come together as a community now that the stay at home order had been lifted. In advance of the 3-hour meeting, I encouraged principals to sketch out possibilities to start the conversation. I crafted a flow of engagement for the team to help unveil critical uncertainties that we needed to consider in the development of scenarios. Tossing one design structure in after the other, I landed on a set of protocols to shape the dialogue as we moved through a PESTLE analysis unveiling the external factors that could impact decisions made inside our organization. I knew they were tired. I didn’t want to waste a minute of their time. I made sure to intentionally structure the meeting for optimal impact on the lives of learners

We always begin our meetings with a check-in – sometimes extended, sometimes with a quick question to bring us into the space together and to build relationship. I can’t remember the exact question, but it was in the spirit of “what is a possibility you see at this moment?” Their answers, as expected, highlighted key lessons we were learning at this time — the importance of community, of seeing learners through a multi-dimensional lens, of partnering with parents in new ways, the importance of agency… I was so excited for the conversation. From the check-in, we moved to partners to share their initial ideas as a starting place. I imagined from here, we would dip into experiences that would stretch that reality, returning to the starting place to revise, expanding our model of learning.

But that’s not how it went. At all. We would transition into some of the tasks, conversation rich with ideas, then return to their plans. I anticipated the translation of their creativity to integrate into the initial structures, but instead, they defended the original plan. They dug their heels in, they raised their voices. They were frustrated. And, I was crushed. We weren’t really going to change much at all. Three hours later, they left with the exact same plan they walked in with, and, admittedly, I walked to my office and cried. All those plans, and no difference at all.

Meeting #2: Oh, the possibilities! (Take 2)

I walked into this meeting curious. The challenges of COVID continue to put pressure on education systems around the globe, and school leaders everywhere implement, shift, cajole and cheer educators, families, and children hoping to sustain a quality learning experience for all students. This time we were building scenarios for a possible closure, for hybrid models, for alternative schedules based on the rising cases in Switzerland. As before, I asked them to sketch out ideas to start our conversation. I knew they were tired. I didn’t want to waste a minute of their time. I made sure to intentionally structure the meeting for optimal impact on the lives of learners. The only thing I did to prepare was to explore digital tools that would ensure that all participants, in and out of the room, had equal opportunity to contribute. [I landed on mural, which I love, by the way].

As always, we began with a check-in. Instead of priming the pump, I just wanted to know how they were stepping into the space. I wanted to know how they were really doing. And I needed to take a moment to acknowledge how I was stepping into the space. Using Junto’s Wheel of Emotion, we shared our words and what was leading to the emotion. “Hopeful, proud, excited…” I was surprised. My word? “Nervous.” The last meeting wasn’t great. From the check-in, we moved to partners to share their initial ideas as a starting place. Then, I asked them what they needed next.

The blank digital whiteboard filled up with post-its, highlighting what would make this time a win for them. Dot voting led to prioritization and we dug into the conversation, working through the co-constructed agenda items one by one, solidifying agreement, raising questions to tackle, pushing back on each other’s ideas. I worked the board. I captured their ideas, continuously shaping new pictures of a response system, altering it as they worked through different schedules and alternative decisions. A continuum emerged that would serve as the foundation for community communication, next steps with teams, and a guide for our own decision making moving forward. It took 90 minutes.

I was relieved they found the time effective and valuable. I was satisfied that there was shared clarity. I wasn’t inspired. I didn’t see the seeds of innovation taking root, but compared to the last meeting, I felt a little bit of triumph. I got up to leave, thinking they would as well.

Instead the conversation continued. Not at that moment, but in the meetings that followed. They started asking how a hybrid model might push us to think differently about the curriculum. They started thinking through new schedules to carry into the “next normal.” This meeting opened up a conversation we’re still having that landed on the same possibilities I’ve been eager to explore.

When reflecting on these two experiences, it’s clear how much of a barrier I can be in the cultivation of a generative social field. For decades I’ve been building a toolbox of facilitation strategies, from design thinking activities to visible thinking protocols. I pull from pages of ideas I’ve been collecting over time, planning and crafting an experience. The protocols themselves lend to collaboration, to critical engagement in ways that I’ve always felt were successful and are often celebrated. What I haven’t been cultivating as much is trust. What I haven’t been cultivating is the balance between my own vision (full of blindspots), with the hopes and aspirations of a community. What I haven’t been cultivating is patience and presence. A protocol is not going to sufficiently change education. People authentically working together might.

in medias res.

Photo by Manuel Polo on Unsplash

In medias res, (Latin: “in the midst of things”) the practice of beginning an epic or other narrative by plunging into a crucial situation that is part of a related chain of events…

The Write Practice

More than twenty years in and I’m not sure I can even recall the beginning, but you’ve got to start somewhere, right? If I was doing this right, our scene would open at the end of the journey (insert The Odyssey here) building a driving need to know: How ever did we end up here, like this? But alas, nothing quite so elegant for these pages because I find learning is messy, sometimes poorly timed and most often understood in retrospect.

Our story opens in the space between a quick classroom conversation (yes, we’ve reopened our campus) and a Zoom meeting (hardly a unique setting these days). First, the Zoom meeting. Ninety- eight educators, leaders, and community organizers from around the globe committed to understanding and utilizing the Compassionate Systems Framework. The conversation, launched by Peter Senge, begins with a brief meditation before shifting to the focus of our gathering: generative social fields. In brief, generative social fields are the relational spaces in which we all live. This Zoom call is part of a weekly exploration of how shifts in these spaces can lead to the transformation of individuals, families, and organizations. (For a full explanation, head to Boell and Senge’s School Climate and Social Fields).

Through engaging in this call, I was reminded of the importance of knowing how I show up because how we show up matters. I didn’t slip in that we started with meditation to be “on trend.” I called it out because it’s essential for people (adults and kids alike) to pause and become aware of their emotional, physical state – to make explicit, the implicit. I am of greatest service to the teams and schools I work with when I understand the place from which I (the leader) operate, as Otto Scharmer would put it.

I now know why a quick conversation with one of our third grade teachers gave me pause and hope for the change we are capable of in education. In a conversation with her students, this teacher called out in a very authentic way that it “feels weird” for her to determine how they plan their time when they’ve had such independence. “Does that even make sense anymore?” she asked.

I imagine students scoffing at the idea that they would pick up where they left off. Then, the crucial question emerged, “if we continue to do our work independently, now that we’re back at school when should we come together and why?”

Why, indeed. It does beg the question what is the purpose of school. Why come together and in this way? It also highlights that these students (like so many others) are poised to help us discover our best self as a community when placed in the generative social field like the one this teacher is cultivating. How will we show up in this space we return to? Will we recognize we’ve changed in simple and sometimes fundamental ways? Will we allow for authentic questions to emerge and new voices to respond?

When coming together in generative ways, Senge noted, “We don’t have to work too hard. We just have to look.” And, I would add, listen.