Windows and Mirrors: A School Visit as Professional Development

April 24, 2011 at 12:17 pm Leave a comment

posted by Alisa Algava ‘08, leader of a small Hudson Valley progressive school

Traveling through the world produces a marvelous clarity in the judgment of men. We are all of us confined and enclosed within ourselves, and see no farther than the end of our nose. This great world is a mirror where we must see ourselves in order to know ourselves.  ~Michel de Montaigne (French Renaissance writer, 1533-1592)

It was late on a Monday afternoon and our faculty meeting was almost over when we saw the flash of red in the tree outside.  “Pileated woodpecker!” one of our teachers exclaimed.  And every adult at the table jumped up to look out the window.  The bird danced and bounced around the branches.  Its shadow, especially the shape of that big red crest, appeared on the next tree.  We saw glimpses of it and some of us even saw the entire bird as it flew away.  It was a moment of shared wonder and joy.

Shared wonder had also filled one of our days the week before when our teachers had traveled together to New York City to visit another progressive school.  Manhattan Country School was founded in 1966, just three years after our school.  It is bigger than us with more students, teachers, and physical space.  They have more financial resources than we do.  They are more ethnically diverse than us.  But in so many ways, their school felt just like home.  It is a place where the adults care about children, where the curriculum is hands-on and meaningful, where community is important.  What we saw and experienced during the visit helped us appreciate who we are and what we do here, and, at the same time, inspired us to strive for who we can be and what we haven’t yet done.

The MCS admissions director and high school transition coordinator spent a good part of their day with us.  First they met with us to tell us about the school’s history and philosophy and mission.  Then we all split up and visited different classes from pre-kindergarten through middle school.  We observed the children and teachers and classroom environments.  After that, they gave us an in-depth tour of the entire school – from the classrooms on the fifth floor to the woodshop and art studio in the basement of their big brownstone building.  Yes, their school used to be someone’s home, too.  And then they gave us lunch, and we were joined by the head of the school and the lower school director for a reflective and substantive conversation about who, what, why, and how their school does what it does for their children, families, and teachers.  And, of course, we asked questions and shared our own stories.

We all felt so welcomed, so informed, so delighted by what we saw and experienced.  From our classroom visits to the wonderful lunch and dialogue, we felt a genuine connection and understanding with those educators.  And we’re already using some of what we learned about their school and about ourselves…we have a new “librarian” (a fabulous parent volunteer); we are thinking about our mission and how it is or isn’t reflected in our practice; we’re looking ahead to next year and our school’s traditions and their purposes; our Downstairs preK kids made wire/pipe cleaner sculptures that are hanging in the hallway.  And that was all in the five days after our visit.

Using a Teacher Work Day to visit another school offered us a unique opportunity to look more closely at ourselves.  That was my hope and that was what happened.  We left MCS holding up a mirror to ourselves.  Back at school on Monday, we had an enriching faculty meeting conversation filled with questions and insight.  Now we will continue to reflect on who we are, what we do, why we do it, and how we can make our own school better and better for children, families, and teachers.  And that sense of wonderment and joy we all felt when that pileated woodpecker appeared on a tree in the lower playground? That is exactly the experience we hope every child has here at Randolph School every day.

Alisa Algava graduated from Bank Street’s Leadership for Educational Change program in 2008. For the past 15 years, she has taught and learned in public, private, and charter schools in NY, NJ, and RI. She has posted on the Alumni Blog about her experiences leading and learning in a small progressive school. Alisa loves learning. She loves moderating The Alumni Blog. And she really loves her nephew.

Entry filed under: collaboration, community, dialogue, professional development, teacher education.

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