Teachers, just like their students, thrive when they are part of a safe, inclusive, and joyful learning community. This kind of environment allows us to feel free to take risks, be vulnerable with our colleagues, and work together to be our best for our students. How powerful is cooperation in reaching this optimal state?
We know that social-emotional learning (SEL) for adults and students has always been important, but there has been a renewed sense of purpose in the air. At Virginia Beach City Public Schools, we believe that the most meaningful classroom SEL is responsive to the specific strengths and needs of the students and staff. No two classrooms are identical—each classroom is a unique community.
Our division supports 86 schools. Although there are trends and patterns in programs, resources, and supports, our division does not have a mandatory SEL curriculum. Instead, we align our resources, supports, and professional learning to our Strategic Framework and our vision for SEL: “Each day students and adults learn about, develop, and openly practice their social-emotional skills in a safe and equitable environment that prioritizes the well-being of individuals and the collective community.”
Responsive Classroom practices, particularly Morning Meeting, have been steadily growing in our district for several years. The efforts started small, with individual principals sending a few teachers at a time to training. Three years ago, though, we began to feel a shift. We were receiving requests for more access and opportunities to learn about Morning Meeting and other Responsive Classroom practices. An inside joke began to circulate within our small team: “Whatever the question, Responsive Classroom is likely the answer.”
It was clear that principals and teachers were eager to learn more about using Responsive Classroom practices to support SEL, and this presented a dilemma for our Professional Growth and Innovation office. How would we support the professional learning for both principals and teachers across a large division while maintaining our steadfast commitment to equitable professional learning that is comprehensive, ongoing, and action-oriented? We knew that a one-and-done approach would not suffice and that any professional learning we supported would need to be grounded in our beliefs about adult learning.
Our answer was the first Responsive Classroom Academy (RCA). This year-long cohort was designed to support 60 teachers from 20 elementary schools across our city. Some of the important features in the development and success of the RCA included:
- An invitational approach. Schools were invited to apply to the academy.
- Goal-setting and reflection. Principals organized their school application, shared their hopes and goals for academics and SEL integration, and shared the ways in which cooperation and risk-taking lived within their school culture. Teachers reflected on relationship-building, positive discipline, classroom routines, and cooperative learning.
- Shared professional learning. School teams that were selected participated in a workshop with a Responsive Classroom trainer. Principals attended half-day workshops and the teachers attended the four-day Elementary Core Course.
- Ongoing coaching and collaboration. We met with teachers quarterly during the year for ongoing professional learning that included a coaching cycle with learning walks, feedback, and reflection.
From the beginning, the RCA approach has been to place the learning goals of teachers and schools at the center of our decision-making. At the heart of the academy live the skills of cooperation: establish and maintain relationships, foster social connection, work productively, engage in collaboration, resolve conflicts, and be a contributing member.
Establish and Maintain Relationships
Relationships are the mainstay of our effort, and our goal was to be sure they were nurtured and treasured. From the start, establishing solid relationships with and among this group was a priority. We were excited and embraced the responsibility to be intentional in the design of our professional learning sessions knowing that Responsive Classroom could be a game-changer in our classroom communities. We understood that with safe relationships established among RCA members, authentic collaboration would follow, through the use of two approaches:
- Modeling Responsive Classroom practices. If Responsive Classroom approaches worked when building relationships with our students, why not use them with adults? We found great benefit in incorporating adult Morning Meetings, brain breaks, interactive learning structures, and closing circles in our professional learning sessions. What Responsive Classroom believes about learning environments for students, we believe applies as well to learning environments for adults.
- Teacher-led collaborations. Great cognitive growth occurs through social interaction, as one of the Responsive Classroom guiding principles states (Center for Responsive Schools, n.d.). We offered face-to-face and virtual EdCamps to foster collaboration and promote an equitable learning environment that honored teachers’ voices and their choices. The topics were generated by RCA teachers and responsive to their learning goals
Foster Social Connection
Feeling supported and having a sense of belonging within your community can go a long way, and teachers realize they are learning and growing when in a supportive environment. Our hope was that any feeling of isolation would wither away as we came together and worked toward a bigger purpose. To foster social connections, we took the following two steps.
• School teams. During year one of the cohort, most of the 20 school teams in the RCA consisted of three teachers, which allowed for building-level support just a hallway away. One of our RCA teachers commented that “I like having other staff members in my building to bounce ideas off of when trying new things in the classroom.”
• Teacher agency. Teachers worked in focus-area groups during quarterly workshops. These groups were comprised of teachers from different schools, allowing for opportunities to collaborate across schools. Each teacher in the RCA chose from four Responsive Classroom focus areas (Morning Meeting, teacher language, engaging academics, and Interactive Modeling) and crafted a learning goal for the school year. We intentionally asked them to choose their focus area in October, after they were able to meet and get to know the unique strengths and developmental needs of their students. At each of the quarterly workshops, these focus-area groups were able to meet in small groups and collaborate about their specific Responsive Classroom practice.
There’s a famous quote often attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Tell me and I forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” We saw the impact that modeling had on the teachers’ learning and understanding during the four-day Responsive Classroom Elementary Core Course. Every moment we were together we felt driven to maximize opportunities for teachers to practice the skills and strategies they would in turn share with their students.
Do as we do. Modeling was a foundation of our design and delivery of professional learning. This was especially important when we would meet in our quarterly workshops. As teachers experienced the inclusive strategies together, they increased their capacity to implement their new learning in their classrooms. One of our elementary teachers shared that “I loved being able to try everything out as we learned. It made it so much easier to envision how I would use certain tools in the classroom.” Intentionally embedding core practices within the professional learning sessions sparked productive learning. The room was full of educators talking, laughing, and sharing: this is what joyful learning looks like, even when it’s adults.
Engage in Collaboration
With over 5,000 teachers in our city, we knew early on that the desire for learning about Responsive Classroom practices far exceeded our capacity to offer one-on-one training and coaching. Our hope was that the learning of these initial 60 teachers would have a communal impact. We began to wonder, how might we support teachers as they open their classroom doors to their colleagues?
Learning with and from other teachers. As RCA members continued to develop their skills in their respective areas of focus, we began to capture their feedback. What does a successful Morning Meeting feel like? What does reinforcing language sound like during small group instruction? What does it look like when students are collaborating and communicating effectively? This feedback was the starting place for the peer learning walk forms that we developed in partnership with RCA teachers. Over a two-month period we visited more than 50 classrooms with many of the participating school’s principal and engaged in collaborative feedback cycles to fine-tune the peer learning walk tools. What emerged from this cycle was a nonevaluative peer learning tool that supports a teacher new to Responsive Classroom practices in order for them to gain a foundational understanding by witnessing the practices in action. Honoring the intention of each practice and building skills with fidelity was central to our vision.
We witnessed great growth in the classrooms we visited, but from the cycles of coaching and feedback surfaced some challenges as teachers put their learning into deep practice. Creating space and opportunity for RCA teachers to air their concerns and identify their struggles as they worked to shift their instructional practices became a part of our journey.
Problem-solving circles. Beginning in early 2020, we invited RCA teachers to bring a problem of practice to our quarterly meetings. Using a restorative fishbowl strategy, small teams of teachers circled their chairs and practiced skills of deep listening, vulnerability, and collaborative problem-solving. One of our elementary teachers shared that “It was good to see others who were trying to engage in this learning and talk about the successes and the struggles.” This quarterly workshop was one of the proudest moments in our journey with the academy; we were standing back and watching the power of collective efficacy unfold before our eyes.
Be a Contributing Member
The adversity of COVID-19 challenged our community, and it brought the importance of social-emotional learning front and center. In March 2020, our state governor ordered the closure of school buildings. Our plans for school-level peer learning walks were placed on hold, and over one weekend teachers transitioned from in-person teaching and learning to virtual teaching and learning. As educators began to navigate this new learning environment, we heard a question echoing across the division: “How do we build and maintain relationships in a virtual setting?” Virtual Morning Meetings. As RCA members learned the Responsive Classroom approach, they emerged as leaders for other teachers. The internal cooperation within the academy bolstered member’s confidence and they began to provide ideas and strategies for all teachers in our division. To share strategies on leading inclusive and joyful Morning Meetings we created a dynamic online resource of motivators. This content was driven and inspired by the voices, examples, and tips shared by many of the academy teachers.
The end of the 2020 school year brought with it an opportunity for RCA teachers to reflect on our year of shared learning. What quickly became clear is that this team of teachers was not ready to be stop learning together. Again and again, we heard that they wanted more—more opportunities to collaborate and share, and more time to practice together. We said yes!
Hopes and Goals
Imagine walking into a classroom and hearing the buzz of genuine cooperation. As you look around, you see learners sharing ideas, asking each other questions, and engaging in rich conversations. The room is alive with an energy that is tangible. Now imagine that the learners you are seeing are adults. This is our ultimate hope for our ongoing work within the Responsive Classroom Academy. As we continue our program, our goals are to bring onboard another ten schools and support a cohort of our current RCA teachers as they earn their Responsive Classroom certification. We know that when teachers are thriving and cooperating, great social-emotional and academic growth can occur in classrooms. To connect with the team in Virginia Beach and learn more, email us at [email protected].
- Center for Responsive Schools. (n.d.). Guiding principles. www.responsiveclassroom.org. https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/about/principles-practices