Working in a system rife with tasks and scarce with time is enough to drive anybody crazy. If endless testing, inflexible schedules, unfunded mandates, and unlimited paperwork are getting you down, then keep this quote from Henry Elliot in mind:
"If it’s sanity you are after, there is no recipe like laughter."
One thing that makes Critical Friends Groups qualitatively different from other types of professional development is that they unabashedly value building relationships--and humor can be a potent building block for enduring friendships both on and off the job.
The theme of the Houston A+ Challenge's CFG Homecoming last fall was "Sharing Our Stories." Besides using the Four A's Text Protocol to discuss "When have I experienced good listening?" by Margaret Wheatley and using the Making Meaning Protocol to share powerful learning experiences that were related to Critical Friends Groups, the participants created wacky homecoming souvenirs such as crowns and mums. Laughter filled the room as everybody modeled their creation. Written responses to the question "What is your take-away?" included "Laugh at things, lighten the moment, reflect on powerful learning moments" and "To do whatever works to get the juices flowing towards 'getting the work done' in our schools."
Indeed, laughter can help diffuse tension and energize a team. When was the last time you shared a laugh with a critical friend?
One of the active team-builders that often elicits laughter is "Group Juggle." As you may remember from your initial training, the objective is for a team to keep as many objects in the air as possible. Using a wide variety of balls and small toys can make the activity even more fun. As with any protocol, allow plenty of time for a debrief. Through the energizing laughter, your team will also have an opportunity to reflect about goals, leadership, effectiveness, and problem-solving strategies.
You can browse through many other team-builders in the "Teambuilding" section of the NSRF resource pages.
Dear Donna: Our learning community has lost several members over the years. Some have retired, others moved away, and a few have been promoted to work as administrators at other schools or at the district level. I know that I should be doing more to welcome new colleagues to my school, but I really miss my old friends. How do I build strong work relationships with all these new people?—MISSING MY OLD CRITICAL FRIENDS
Dear Missing: Your situation reminds me of the Girl Scout song that goes "Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other’s gold."
As you have already figured out, the success of a Critical Friends Group, and a school in general, is highly dependent on building strong relationships that foster collaboration in order to advance quality teaching and learning.
Pioneers in CFG work in the 1990’s found that groups built stronger relationships among members simply by DOING the work of exploring dilemmas and examining student work—fancy team-builders and icebreakers were secondary in importance.
That being said, there are a lot of other things you can do to strengthen your working relationships. Opening a meeting with "Connections" can help colleagues learn about each other. Including a new team-builder may help co-workers build new bridges of understanding. And never underestimate the power of bringing snacks to school or of meeting occasionally off campus!
Finally, make an effort to keep in touch with your critical friends that have moved to different places. You can use your shared experiences as a springboard to break down the isolation that’s endemic in our school systems. Like the old song says, that would be "gold."
If you have questions for Dear Donna, send them to CFGCoach@houstonaplus.org. Donna Reid is a Houston-based National CFG Facilitator and a consultant with Houston A+ Challenge.