North Carolina teacher Cristie Watson describes her experience at the Rising Leaders retreat held in CTQ’s offices July 16-18.

Stallone. Statham. Banderas. Li. The Expendables 3 will be released in a few weeks, and the summer preview for the film contains the usual impressive list of names. This franchise is an embodiment of the notion that “more is more”–especially in terms of explosions, body counts, and action stars who emerge from disasters with a wry quip and a mere scratch on the cheek.

I don’t reference the movie to critique it, though. Rather, it helps explain how I felt when I opened an email invitation to attend CTQ’s Rising Leaders retreat. When I saw the list of educators who would be in attendance, their names towered before me, just like those in an action movie preview.

BAM! Justin Minkel. Wow. Didn’t he have lunch with the President this summer?

BAM! Jessica Cuthbertson. Oh my gosh. Her cheery face and Common Core teaching tips greet me everytime I log in to the Collaboratory.

BAM! Brad Clark. The eyepatch guy!

I knew most of the other attendants from CTQ blogs, Collaboratory posts, or webinars– and I was amazed to find myself included on the invitation list with them. It was as if my name had popped up on the screen after “Schwarzenegger.”

Nevertheless, last Thursday I found myself in CTQ’s office, surrounded by profile pics and Twitter handles come to life. So, what does one do when faced with the superstars of one’s profession? Well, in my case, I blushed a little, stammered a lot, and prepared myself to learn as much as I could.  Here are a few of my “takeaways” from the event.

1. Dream Big

Prior to the retreat, each participant defined a challenge to address throughout our time together.  We were asked some great, thought-provoking questions like, “What is your passion?” and “What keeps you up at night?”  The latter, in particular, sparked many ideas for me, but ultimately I chose my heart–literacy. How could I help foster a love of words in my school and in my community?

One of the activities designed to push our thinking was to pair up and brainstorm as many potential strategies for addressing our challenge as possible in a short amount of time.  My partner and I scrawled ideas on sticky notes while CTQ staff members encouraged, “More is more!” “What if you had unlimited funding?” “No judging!” “Dream big!”

My brain initially rebelled. How could I possibly look beyond the constraints I know exist? However, the pressure to fill up sticky notes kept me writing, and I found that each new idea knocked aside another concern or fear, allowing me the freedom to come up with more.

Indeed, the experience felt freeing–exhilarating, even.  Teachers are so used to having to do “more with less.” It was fun to imagine the more that could truly be accomplished if resources were unlimited.

When time was up, I noted excitedly that several of the ideas my partner and I had come up with were actually quite feasible.  I could host a book club for families at my school each month–I even thought of other teachers who’d be willing to help. We could have a poetry writing workshop and coffee house one evening for parents and students alike.

Suddenly my “big dream” of a literacy-rich community no longer seemed an impossibility, but the inevitable result of a creative plan.

2. Listen with Empathy

Another partner activity required us to take turns speaking about our challenge and vision, then listening to our teammate and taking notes on an empathy map. For five minutes, my job was to strictly listen to Brad Hurst from Iowa discuss his ideas for creating assessments and a grading system that are more meaningful and motivating for his students.

As he spoke, I jotted down key phrases and his movements in order to make inferences about his thoughts and feelings. Then, I was given time to ask him some questions in order to deepen my understanding of his initiative. I enjoyed this activity and appreciated the important life skill it reinforced. Listening with empathy–during student conferences, parent conferences, PLC meetings–gives the listener a better grasp of a person’s needs. Thus it makes the resulting action steps more purposeful or targeted.

I also thought of a classroom application–using the empathy map as a pre-writing activity. So often my students say they don’t have anything to write about, when I know they do. Perhaps an in-depth discussion with a partner, documented on an empathy map, would reveal to the reluctant writer his/her value and potential stories.

3. Find “Your People”

The initial ice-breaker (or, in CTQ-speak, “warm up”) was to share a description of “your people,” and our group revealed a variety of interests. In our midst there were readers and runners, hikers and travelers, shoppers, dog-lovers, sports fans, and a motorcyclist.

But as we designed and discussed, challenged and channelled our ideas, it also became evident that our common drive is to make our classrooms, schools, and communities the best we can for our students.

My initial intimidation faded; I was with “my people.”

There were many other takeaways from the retreat: a greater appreciation of Twitter; how to gather evidence to support an argument; the significance of a warm welcome, laughter, and a van loaded with swag.

However, the greatest takeaway was definitely the importance of coming together. While I don’t know that more box-office heroes makes for a better movie, I do know that a group of people, united by a common passion, is a powerful force.

Teacher leaders: find one another. Get together. Not just as a committee with a preconceived agenda, but with the purpose of dreaming big. Share. Listen. If you feel like you are alone in your building, know that you are not. Reach out on the Collaboratory, and allow the encouragement of others to refuel your drive.

I was so grateful to spend three days with such inspiring educators. The intensity of our discussions and time together left me both exhausted and rejuvenated, as well as ready for the coming school year.

Thanks again, CTQ. And, hey– “I’ll be back.”

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