Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Spinach Dip Recipe

Back in 1992, I left my first job in Palmyra PA, to become the Orchestra Director at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt MD. As part of my move from Pennsylvania to Maryland, I had to do some professional development to keep my teaching certificate up to date. This included two summer classes. One was in reading and the other was in special education. My new position was at a science and technology magnet school teaching orchestra. At the time, I was having great difficulty finding the value in doing this professional development and was dreading the classes. My colleague, the band director at the school, encouraged me to go and find any positive in the work that was required of me. In her words, I should "seek out a really good spinach dip recipe" as a result of my time in the classes. Her point was that we can find positives in virtually any situation. I used that phrase for many years when I opened professional development sessions I was teaching. Professional development is not ever going to hit every participant in the sweet spot. Participants must be open to the little benefits of a day or more of professional development. Sometimes we making a new friend, gain a new perspective, or, find "a really good spinach dip recipe" shared among friends. 

Last Friday, the Friday before Labor Day weekend, our students were gone for a long four-day weekend. The day was labeled a professional development day and the faculty at our school were required to attend a professional development session on Restorative Practices. I have to say, the timing wasn't good. It has been a trying beginning of the school year. Faculty are working hard to teach through masks. We are just coming back together as a community after being in a hybrid learning mode for over a year. Folks are worried about health, large groups, and the spread of the virus. In addition, there is much discussion in our community about self care, workplace flexibility, and the emotional well-being of our staff and faculty. And, lots of folks were ready to get out the door for a much deserved long weekend of rest and relaxation. In fact, I was planning a weekend trip to the beach and was in fact a little annoyed that I would be getting away from work so late on this final day before the Labor Day weekend. However, in spite of all of these factors, the professional development session on Restorative Practices from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. was scheduled and was definitely going to happen. The facilitators had been booked and paid, and the plan was set in motion. But, it would be fair to say that a large portion of our faculty was apprehensive about participating in the in-person sessions throughout the day, skeptical about the facilitators ability to understand our unique community, and not in a good place to receive the information that was being presented. 

It would be fair to say that many folks were not in a place where they could be looking for "a really good spinach dip recipe" on that day. In actuality, it seems kind of ironic that a professional development day on Restorative Practices could possibly have so much potential negativity surrounding it. But, this is where we found ourselves last Friday. 

I didn't know much about the topic. I had looked it up on Wikipedia briefly before the session. But, in actuality I was starting from scratch. Restorative Practices is an approach that proactively builds positive school communities. It is defined as a social science that studies how to build social capital and achieve social discipline through participatory learning and decision making. The day was built on providing models and a framework for implementing Restorative Practices in the classroom and school community. Our first meeting of the day was in a large room with our faculty split into "small groups" of about 30 to 35 people and a facilitator. These numbers of folks together caused a lot of concern among my colleagues from a health perspective. It really was too many people to be sitting in a circle in a room indoors when we have been so careful about the health of our community up to now. The facilitator was a really great guy. He had a history as a high school football coach, graduation coach, and has been working for the Department of Public Instruction for several years, teaching Restorative Practices. He was articulate, friendly, and very knowledgeable on his subject. That said, it became clear quickly that he was used to a very different audience than my school's faculty. As many of you know, I do not teach at a traditional high school. NCSSM is a residential high school of academically motivated students. Classroom management and discipline are not our biggest issues at NCSSM. We, as instructors, are focused much more on students social and emotional learning, health and well-being, and obviously, high level content for high achieving students. Much of the early stages of the presentation were built around classroom discipline, challenging students, and other common concerns in traditional high schools. At NCSSM, we tend to get the students who are not causing problems in class. So, understandably, our focus and concerns are different. We operate in a unique school setting for sure. (Hence, our mascot is appropriately, the Unicorns.)

About an hour into the presentation, after a couple of challenging and difficult interactions, I could tell that the presenter began to realize that he didn't truly understand our community. But, like the professional that he is, he let us know that he was trying to figure out exactly who we are, and move forward with an open mind and curiosity about our students, faculty, and environment. In truth, he handled it perfectly.

Throughout the rest of the day, our facilitator went on to explain many of the principles of Restorative Practices to our small group and led a sometimes difficult discussion. I was impressed with his ability to pivot and flow with the curveballs he was thrown throughout the day. I must admit, as the day continued, a small wave of positivity went through the room and I could feel participation become more open as the day went on. 

As for myself, I found a number of wonderful nuggets in the models of restorative practices that were presented that day. I knew I had a 4-hour car ride to the beach ahead of me with my wife and made several notes about topics I wanted to bring up with her to discuss in the car as they related to our relationship, our family, and our work. I had found my "spinach dip recipes."

One of the topics that I found to be quite interesting were the Nine Innate Affects as defined by the Restorative Practices Handbook. The positive affects were listed as interest, excitement, enjoyment, and joy. Neutral affects were listed as surprise and startle. Negative affects included shame, humiliation, distress, anguish, disgust, fear, terror, anger, rage, and dissmell. I considered these fairly deeply during the day. I believe that I live most of my life in the midst of the positive affects. I tend to begin each day with interest and excitement. And, for the most part I am open to, and seeking, enjoyment and joy in all that I do. As I considered these ideas, it occurred to me that my wife and I both live primarily in the positive affects. That is probably one of the keys to our 31-year marriage. I was anxious to share this idea with her in the car.

Another model that spoke to me a bit was the Compass of Shame which was presented to us. Mind you, shame is not an emotion I relate to a whole lot. But, it is part of all of our lives. The East/West poles of the compass include attacking others (on the west) and attacking self (on the east.) These are two very opposite reactions to shame. The north/south poles are withdrawal (on the north) and avoidance (on the south.) Again, these are very opposite reactions to shame. I would equate withdrawal to stewing in the shame and avoidance to denying the shame or moving on to other things in order to to mask the feeling. This was a lot for me to consider in my own life and as it relates to the lives of others. Interesting stuff. When do I feel shame? Why do I feel shame? And how is it changed over the years? Which poles are my default reactions to shame? I thought about all of this stuff a good deal throughout the afternoon. It was a good topic of reflection for me on this day. It also made for great conversation in the car on the way to the beach.

There were a few other concepts throughout the day that provided food for thought as well. I found the Social Discipline Window to be interesting and spent some time reflecting on it. If you want to know more about the Social Discipline Window, spend some time in the Restorative Practices Handbook for Teachers, Disciplinarians and Administrators, by Bob Costello, Joshua Wachtel, and Ted Wachtel. It is a comprehensive handbook and covers these concepts in detail.

In the end, the professional development session on Friday isn't going to change my life. It also certainly didn't kill me to participate. I left the day with food for thought and some interesting ideas to consider throughout the weekend. I thought a great deal about how these practices apply to the orchestra classroom. Also, it was interesting to consider how many of the philosophies I have developed over the years fit firmly into the ethos of Restorative Practices. I was particularly pleased to see how my concepts of "Essence" as a rehearsal discipline fit strongly into the model. I had a wonderful conversation with my Dean over lunch where we discussed these ideas. Another "spinach dip recipe!"

Isn't this the way professional development goes. Sometimes it hits a home run and other times it can be a strikeout. But, there is usually a "spinach dip recipe" to be found. 

As we move through the upcoming academic year, I wish you all the opportunity to find those spinach dip recipes. Keep an open mind and an open heart. Good things will come from our work. And, if you have the chance, check out Restorative Practices as a wonderful model and tool for your interactions with students, colleagues, and family. I feel certain you will find some value there. 



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