What if schools are communities that learn and not just places where content is delivered to students? What if school systems could truly draw on the wealth of wisdom and intelligence it has access to through all its students and staff as collaborators? What if we didn’t just use the word collaboration but lived it till it meets its full potential?
This is an inquiry Mike Ritzius and Rich Wilson have been in, not just recently with the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), but in one form or another over the course of their varied careers.
Attending an Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter training in Minnesota in March 2015 not only helped them, each in their own way, make sense of bits and pieces of practices and fragments of things that had shown up over time, but also gave them more options and greater vision for what is possible.
Rich says he has been practicing “advocacy” for 30 years. “For twelve of those years,” he shared, “I lived in an impoverished community and became involved in community organizing around education issues, working with college students and volunteer tutors. This eventually took me into the political sphere supporting community leaders as they moved into political office.”
“For the last 15 years I’ve been working with the LGBT community to create safe spaces for students and teachers.” Rich is now Associate Director of Professional Development at NJEA and in the last couple of years has been focused on teacher evaluation, a topic with many points of view, some of them divisive. He works in partnership with Mike , which is how he became aware of EdCamp, a derivative of Open Space Technology. He and Mike had been monitoring the AoH website looking for opportunities for a training when they saw the Minnesota offering. He took it to his Director who said, “I’m not sure the organization is ready for this but trust you enough that if you think it is valuable you should go.”
Mike’s journey into education came from a very different background. He said, “I’ve backed my way into every chapter of my life. I am a molecular biologist. The lab I worked for had to do some teaching in mid-school and I got tasked with it. Turns out, I liked teaching better than research.” He certified as a teacher in 2000 and started working with students with special needs. “It was different for me. I was frustrated with the way teaching happened, so I ran for my local office and won.” That began a change-making journey.
Mike encountered Open Space Technology at a technical conference called Bar Camp and fell in love with it. From there, Ed Camp was created. The first event was in Philadelphia with 100 people. It is now 500,000 strong across the globe. The Bill Gates Foundation gave $2 million to the charitable foundation that runs Ed Camp.
Two years ago, Mike took on the position of associate director. His focus was on professional learning as well as teacher evaluation. “I loved Ed Camp and it was hard for me to reconcile how it, or processes like it, would be useful in the classroom,” he said.
During our interview for this post, Rich and Mike gave quite a few examples of where and how, internally and externally, Art of Hosting patterns, practices and methods have been used and they will be the subject of a couple more posts. They include experiencing the Chaordic Stepping Stones for planning for the Division, bringing World Café and Open Space to a meeting of Union Executives in the District Office, using Levels of Listening and Talking (from Theory U), offering engagement processes for a group of teachers and parents known as HOPE (Helping Out Public Education) to use across the State, for mobilization in the 2016 election and on the controversial topic of evaluation.
And it has inspired both of them to be on the calling team for an Art of Hosting offering in Philadelphia in February 2016 called The Art of Collaborative Leadership: Leading Together in Complex Times. The calling question is: How could conversations of possibility shift your work? This is a question they have seen manifest in remarkable ways in their work.
What surprised them the most since bringing more collaborative and engagement practices their work?
For Rich it is, “How quickly other people have embraced the processes. Four more people went to a different AoH training. Others have done their homework and come to talk to us. I am surprised at people’s creativity, where they are using the practices, the questions people are asking, the interest that has been sparked. The ‘coalition of the willing’ keeps growing. It is affirming.”
And Mike came to the question from a different perspective. “The effect it has had on me. I look at things from a very different perspective now and it’s evolving fast. I am more intentional with the way I say and do things and in analyzing my own actions.”
What’s the hardest part? “Trusting the process and not second guessing things,” Rich reflected. “Fortunately, having experienced the training together, Mike and I support each other in bringing new processes. I am not feeling that I have to control every little thing. What needs to happen is what is going to happen.”
“I agree with Rich,” said Mike. “We work with not bringing an agenda every time – to bring process rather than content. This is tough when you are employed as the expert and people want us to show up and tell them what to do rather than engage their own wisdom and knowledge.”
What is their greatest hope arising from their experience with these patterns and practices?
“I’d like to see a few more people feel like they have more voice,” said Mike. “To know they can contribute, bring their ideas forward and build a better community together. Schools are communities, not just about content delivery and it would be great to get away from the notion of ‘hero educators’. All voices have value and are valued.”
Rich agreed. “All people in schools count. This could be the beginning of an examination of what schools should be and they should work. If we get more people beginning to talk about it, we can leverage it into change. Where we don’t just use the word collaboration but it reaches its full potential and we are using hosting practices to bring it about.”
What if schools are communities and not just places where content gets delivered? What if school systems could truly draw on the wealth of wisdom and intelligence it has access to through all its collaborators? What if we didn’t just use the word collaboration but lived it till it meets its full potential?