Teacher Stories: Learning in Community

Teacher Stories is a quarterly blog highlighting the experiences of educators practicing creative engagement in New Mexico.

Eileen Stapleton has been a Santa Fe Public School teacher for 20 years and a participant in the Academy’s Institute for Teaching programs for the last 10 years. Inspired by her work with the Academy, Eileen partnered with her colleague Stephanie Hubley to start a Wisdom Circle at Piñon Elementary School where Eileen is currently a fifth-grade teacher. In this edition of Teacher Stories, Eileen shares how she and Stephanie created a space for peer-to-peer learning and creativity in their monthly Circles then conclude with stories of community and connection from current Wisdom Circle members.

This interview was recorded, transcribed, and edited for readability by Lisa Faithorn and Hanna Negusie for a more in-depth overview.

Wisdom Circle Beginnings

I had been going to Wisdom Circle at the Academy from the beginning, when it was first facilitated by Patty Lee, so I think it’s been 10 years now. I was just so grateful to have something like the Teacher Renewal Program, that was the first thing, and then when it evolved into the Wisdom Circle that felt really supportive. I thought that was a great idea.

At a certain point, four or five years ago, Stephanie Hubley, who also participated in the Academy’s Wisdom Circle and who is now Principal at Kearny, approached me on starting a Wisdom Circle at our school.  I was all for it, so we actually started this together. I would recommend that if somebody is starting a Circle, to have a buddy.

After a year, Stephanie moved to another school as an Assistant Principal. I really liked the teamwork so I asked another teacher, Lizette – who I work closely with and who had been coming to the Circle. She was very interested, so we’ve done that for several years together now. My hope is when I retire this year that she’ll continue to lead and that someone else who is really connected to this will jump in and continue with her. I hope there’s that longevity.

Lizette’s classroom is on the other side of the building. She’s in the lower grades. This side, where my classroom is, are the upper grades. Sometimes we’re so busy, and it feels like I never see anybody over there. and the Wisdom Circle is sometimes the only way the upper grade teachers are getting some more personal time with the lower grade teachers.

In order to start our Wisdom Circle, we needed to get the Principal’s support and she was all for it. She has seen it evolve through the years and she’s been even more supportive, because she’s seen the value in it. So that’s important. You want the school principal supporting you in this.

After getting the support of the principal, I sent out an email to everyone at the school. In that first email, I described what the Wisdom Circle was about. I explained this was a one-hour meeting after school on the first Wednesday of each month. I shared that and explained that everyone was welcome and then we just waited to see who came. It just evolved from there.

Each month, I send out a reminder that goes out to the whole school, so the offer is always there to everyone and people don’t forget that it’s happening.

When I talk about what happens in Wisdom Circle, I usually use words like support for each other, sharing of experiences, sharing of stories, support for coping with all of our challenges. I generally use words like that – also gaining insight and ideas as to how to move forward.

Some of the teachers have been part of the Wisdom Circle for many years. They keep coming back. And those are the ones that, you know, the Circle really speaks to. I have other colleagues and the Circle is just not their cup of tea. They’re not interested and never come but no offense is taken at all. It would be too big if everybody came.  Five to eight is a good size.

When we meet I use the same group agreements that we use in the Academy’s Wisdom Circle. And then I say you know we might want to share something that’s bothering us, but let’s not take it to where we’re just complaining the whole time. I think the focus question that I or Lizette bring in really helps with that.

Then the check-in we do at the beginning tells me how people are. It’s a temperature reading for me and a way to see if somebody’s really in a very difficult place. So the Circle participants have been very respectful. It’s never resulted in just a total complaining.

 Learning Together

In the Circle we share ideas. If somebody has a situation she is dealing with, somebody else will offer some solutions. Or someone will see an art project they want to try and we’ll talk about the poetry we’re doing right now with the I Am From poems. Then that will spark someone who wants to try something like that and they want to know more about it. These new ideas do get taken out into the school, because I’ve heard teachers say, oh I tried doing that and it really worked, or have you tried this?

Sometimes you get so much into your own classroom, and you do something a certain way, and it works for you so you don’t try anything else – you kinda’ get stuck in your ways. One of the things that’s hard about staying in your own classroom, is you often don’t get to hear other ideas or hear what people are doing. But even this year in Wisdom Circle , I’ve seen some things and go oh, I want to  try that, I hadn’t thought of that.

For instance, we have these little sticks that we put the kids’ names on, so you’re not just calling on the kids who raise their hands. At the last Circle I called them popsicle sticks, and one of the other teachers called them equity sticks. And I said, I’ve never heard them called that, I like that. It’s showing you’re not just always calling on that very verbal kid, but you’re also giving other kids a chance to speak too. So there’s just hundreds of little things teachers do like this, but I loved that I never knew that these were called equity sticks. It came up in Wisdom Circle as a teacher was telling a story. So many things like that happen in Wisdom Circle where somebody’s talking about an idea, and somebody says, “oh, I like that!” And they want to use it.

I have gotten to know people at a much deeper level and have been more connected to them because of the Circle. Sometimes it’s teachers I’ve known for a long time, but then they share something that I never knew about them, you know, that’s like wow. It’s pretty amazing. At the last meeting, something funny happened. Lizette is having a baby in April, and she had put it out there. I thought everybody knew, but when we were closing our Circle and I acknowledged the baby, two women at the Circle had no idea. They were so excited when they found out. Things like that happen. You just see that person from afar and go, I think she’s having a baby, but…

It’s been a very congenial group. I always leave feeling uplifted and glad that I’m part of the Circle even though there’s some days where I think,  “oh, I gotta’ get ready for this, and I haven’t had a breath all day!” But after the group leaves, it does the same thing for me. It helps me to slow down, be calm and listen. And then even if I don’t get a lot of things done, I feel like it’s valuable.

How Does Wisdom Circle Build a Community?

Countering Isolation

  • It reminds me that you are not alone. Sometimes you get caught up or sometimes even discouraged. You think am I doing this right? Is this what I’m supposed to be feeling? Am I reaching the students? Or you think I forgot to turn this in, I forgot to do that, or didn’t keep up. Sometimes when you come [to the Circle] and you hear how other people are handling, you remember OK we’re in this together.
  • It is nice to come in and see with each other and know that we’re in this together. We’re in the boat together rowing and singing – it’s been a glue for me.

Building Connections

  • I feel like I have good relationships with everyone here, but there’s definitely a connection [with people in the Circle]. You just see each other in the morning and it’s almost like you understand each other better. There are a lot of things that we share that, oh wow, I didn’t know you’ve been through that, or I didn’t know you were planning on taking that on. And you just have a better understanding of who you’re literally working next to every day.
  • I started coming to Circle last year. It was the very first one of that year. I didn’t know very many people. I really wanted to be part of the Piñon community and get to know people a little bit more, rather than just saying hi and passing by in the hallway. [Wisdom Circle] really helped me to create a community within our larger community, because I felt like I was able to make a stronger connection with the people I share this space with every day.

Providing Mutual Support

  • I think [Wisdom Circle] does allow us a moment where we can share freely and safely. We know we can speak without it being said to other people and can share our feelings – but it always resorts back to the positive – there’s always somebody or something said that’s just uplifting you or reminding you of something maybe you didn’t even realize. Oh but I saw that you did this, or I saw how you were with your kids…We share these ideas and lift each other up. It reminds you of why you are doing the job that you do, and why you choose to teach every day. When you see that love for teaching in other people around you, I think it makes you happy again.
  •  I remember an activity we did last year, and this is my 3rd year coming to the Circle, where during our time together we chose a student that gets us down. And we kept them in our heart, you, Eileen, kept saying keep them in your heart, keep them in your heart, everyday. They are your trial, so keep trying every day. Just knowing there were other people doing those same affirmations in the morning…and just knowing that I wasn’t the only one going through this [made a difference]. I know that every teacher has students they struggle with, and in Circle we gave each other ideas to help. We all talked about what was going on and we had some similar things and that support has been really helpful.
  • I see everyone’s strengths in here – I know I could go to Kim for this or to Lizette for this, if I needed that – to be able to call on people is super helpful.

Learning with and from Each Other

  • You guys have really helped me look at things more creatively – seeing the activities you do that break the routine, the schedule – doing what we’d like to do in the classroom and letting go of the routine.
  • Every time we come to Circle, we have a specific focus. It’s always towards the positive and it really helps me say ok I might be having these issues or these challenges, but let’s look at the positive and see what impact I’m making. And to remember that impact and to get my thought process going to recognize these are the progress points that are being made with myself and maybe my students. [Wisdom Circle is] a time of reflection for me that I look forward to.

 Impacting Others beyond the Wisdom Circle

  • I do feel that we impact our staff – our positivity – because we support each other. We see other people who are struggling and we aren’t afraid to say let me help you – what can I show you, what do you need, or even just sharing the positive things we share and trying to share this with them. Although we aren’t reaching out on a huge scale, we are sprinkling a little bit here and there and hopefully getting them involved and maybe eventually they might want to come to Circle.
  • I see the positivity that you sprinkle throughout the school – the positivity emanates from you. It’s not just here in the circle – it emanates out. When I see you in the hall – I see the positivity energy that emits from all of you.

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