A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to take part in a retreat for educational leaders. While it was a bit disappointing to have to meet on Zoom again, the group quickly reminded me how rejuvenating it can be to simply be in the space of like-minded educators. In our first breakout room, we had the chance to check in and consider how we might learn from each other over the next day and a half.
One member of our group asked if anyone else was surprised at how challenging this year has felt. I know most of us had entered last summer thinking we were moving toward what people are now calling the “end-emic” stage, but that optimism slowly deteriorated over the next two months. We started the year in a better place than the previous fall, but our dashed optimism seemed to weigh on us more heavily than expected.
The weight of one other element jumped out to me during this conversation in a way that I hadn’t fully realized before. It was the idea that we refilled our spaces, both physically and emotionally. Humans tend to fill the space we are provided, whether that is our time in the day or the rooms that we inhabit. When I’ve thought about it before, I focused mostly on the filling of physical space, but conversations with my fellow school leaders helped bring our tendency to fill time and emotional well-being to the surface as well.
I remember listening to a podcast that discussed our tendency to fill spaces beyond their capacity; it is why storage spaces are everywhere. When we move out of our parent’s house, we quickly fill our new apartment space with furniture and decorations to make it our own. Often, we then move into a larger apartment or maybe we rent a house and we now have more space to fill so we add to those spaces. Over time we move into larger living spaces and continue to add, but rarely do we get rid of items. They might end up in a garage or basement, or even a storage unit, but mostly, we end up with lots of things we don’t need.
My wife and I actually felt lucky that in our last move, we went from a large basement (which not only housed some of our things but also family member’s items) to a small garage. We had to get rid of lots of stuff and it felt great. (We did not rent a storage unit.) Over the last seven years, we have tended to fill our garage, get annoyed, and then throw things out. Right now the garage is full. Hopefully this spring we will get rid of items and remember once again how nice it is to have space.
Last year, in full pandemic-school-mode, it felt like a version of downsizing. We were given permission to purge anything that felt unnecessary. Schedules were simplified, classrooms were redesigned, the curriculum was pared down, committees or meetings were eliminated. Because of everything going on, I don’t think we really took the time to appreciate the space we were providing ourselves, both physically and mentally. We tried. I imagine lots of schools did what we tried last spring; to ask the question of what we wanted to take forward from such a unique experience. We even wrote down a number of key takeaways and implemented a few this year. But we also started refilling those spaces. Our forced boundaries started to disappear and our hope to return to ‘normal’ meant putting most of the ‘normal’ things back in place.
Honestly, we needed to put lots of things back in place. But the pace of our return to ‘normal’ most likely added to the exhaustion we’ve been feeling this school year. I have been fortunate to be part of some changes and witness to others. Here are a few examples:
- Shoeless math – during a time in which students were taking in a short mini-lesson and then doing independent work at their seats, they were allowed to take their shoes off. It was such a simple way to help the students, and teacher, relax, while still accomplishing the goals of the lesson.
- Storytelling transitions – while walking through the hallway, one of our teachers led the line and told stories and jokes as the students listened intently and laughed with joy.
- Only purposeful meetings – we are working on assuring that each our faculty meeting times is purposeful and deliberate. This is still a work in progress, but having committees write mission statements and an agenda committee of teachers that can sign off on what is of highest priority is a step in the right direction. Simplicity is the key word as we attempt to help each other do one thing well rather than everything at surface level. At the beginning of each meeting I’ve been leading, I write out the purpose. Sharing that purpose with the group means we can hold each other accountable and stay focused throughout.
- A more fluid/adjustable schedule – this conversation has started in our early years and is the one I am most excited to see where it goes. The main question is, why does September have to look the same as January. We expect our kindergarteners to transition a good deal more than we do of our PreK, and we expect it to happen right away in September. Why? We are looking closely at two elements: the number of specials in their schedule, as well as the way we might create a lighter version of that schedule early in the year, and increase to the full schedule later on. While kindergarten has become a focal point, I imagine this idea may expand to other grades as well.
A new year brings the opportunity to restart, refresh, or recommit. My first step is to be more aware of the spaces that I and we are filling. Asking why to make sure it has a place and purpose in our day, including time to breathe and enjoy our community. On a personal level, it is working on an ideal schedule so that high priority items are accomplished consistently, and space is available at school and at home for things that reinvigorate me. At school, it might be visiting classrooms or workroom conversations. At home, it’s time to cook and eat dinner with family, and to exercise.
This post, and these ideas, are just a start. I would love to hear feedback from others who might be considering similar challenges, or potential solutions. How are you creating space in your school, classroom, or personal life? Have you found ways to manage your schedule, transitions, expectations, or other potential stressors? Whether it is a personal strategy or a school wide structure, I know it would be helpful to share ideas with others so that we might all benefit.