Circle Conversations Build Capacity- by Noa Daniel and Christine Chin


When we first began Conversations to Build Capacity, it was a means of responding to the needs of educators who had been asked to pivot so quickly to something that seemed completely unknown. That was in March was the pandemic forced us into quarantine, and educators needed to tool up for emergency remote learning. We knew that we had the chance to provide teachers with the opportunity to be supported in their learning by building connections with other educators, which is the foundation of our work at The Mentoree. Yes, there were and are many webinars available. You could go, sit, listen, and get information. Under the Conversations to Build Capacity umbrella, though, we offer something a bit different.


All Conversations to Build Capacity (#C2BC) are interactive and rely on participants to drive the conversation. A Responsive Presentation is closer to a webinar, but the participants can ask questions, weigh in, and even direct the conversations. As such, the presentation, itself, moves and flows in response to the group’s expressed needs. Circle Conversations are are both simple and complicated. These intimate gatherings of no more than 10 people intended to give everyone a voice and opportunity to share and learn from each other. There is a subject and some thought catalysts, but there is no predetermined content and no stated goals. They are and become whatever the group wants or needs them to be, and they are often surprisingly powerful and even moving. Mostly, they are intimate and interactive gatherings around a topic our Mentors, who facilitate them, find relevant in education.



Circle Conversations are what they sound like. Educators who participate pull up a chair to conversation, ask their questions around a given topic, and are supported by the other educators at the table. There is a sense of safety in a circle. If they are well-facilitated, there is vulnerability and openness because everyone feels safe to share in ways they wouldn’t normally share of themselves. Circle Conversation are reflective our Core Values of:


Community

Caring

Choice

Collective Efficacy

Connection


Circle Conversations are not about imparting knowledge. They are about sharing knowledge and ideas and creating opportunities for educators to express themselves and build on each other’s insights and ideas. Each person takes from each Circle what they want or need at the time. It holds time for rumination and ideation in a small, informal gathering of strangers who come together and often feel more like a community by the end of the hour.


After collecting some feedback from our first round of Circle Conversations in the spring, we knew that we had something special. Participants loved the approach: the facilitators who were there to help prompt the conversations, and teachers loved the ability to have their voices heard. Above all, the feeling of support that came from the group was palpable. As Rashmee Karnad-Jani, one of our Mentors at The Mentoree and a C2BC facilitator on Anti-Racist Education noted, “C2BC are not the place to convince someone of how right you are… [They are about becoming] a better me from one conversation to another." Circle Conversations are powerful learning experiences.




Christine Chin (Operations and Digital Development Coordinator at The Mentoree):


Last week I was honoured to have the chance to participate in a Circle Conversation led by Hélène Cormier about how to support the well-being of educators in these challenging times. At first, I was concerned that maybe I shouldn’t be participating in the session. After all, I was a teacher and this session seemed more appropriate for Administrators. I was really there to host Helene as a representative of The Mentoree. After reaching out to Hélène, she assured me that I need not feel worried and that my presence would not hinder the conversation.


I began the session worrying about how I might fit in, but that soon vanished. In going through the norms and chatting with the other participants, I felt comfortable right away. Hélène’s prompts afforded all of the participants the opportunity to participate regardless of their role at school or having ever met each other in real life. The intimacy of the group allowed us to honestly share the challenges of this school year. The vulnerability which was demonstrated in each of our answers, allowed us to really explore what it meant to foster well-being in authentic ways. There was never a feeling of “Do this to enhance well-being at your school”, but rather a feeling of “This is what I’m trying…” I finished the session feeling inspired about what I could do to support my colleagues’ well-being and excited about the new connections I had made with other educators.


Noa Daniel (Co-Founder and Executive Director at The Mentoree):


I have had the privilege of hosting many Circle Conversations. Since their beginning, I have hosted Circles on Building Community, Beating Burnout, Supporting Staff, Anti-Racist Education, and more. Most recently, I hosted a Circle Conversation led by our lead Math Mentor, Jordan Rappaport. Even though we had reached our 10 person limit, only half of those who signed up were there, and only 1 wrote to let us know that something had come up for them. Our Mentors work so hard to create space, and those who were at this session gained different things from the experience. Participants shared that the Circle made them rethink their Math teaching to be more focused on "Relationship building and creating safe spaces for students to take risks." Another wrote that their next step was "Connecting with parents to create a growth mindset around math for them." Circles have a give and take, and they are built upon the ideas of the educators at the table of conversation.



Circles are powerful. From mathematics to cultures across the world, circles are universal symbols of cooperation and potential. That is why our discovery and evolution of the Circle Conversation has become so important to us at The Mentoree. It is a model of supportive mentorship that we invest time in and support our Mentors in planning and leading. Their uniqueness has be welcomed on the educational landscape as a reminder that making time to speak can be a remedy for feeling stuck or unsure. They are also a great reflection of the collaborative professionalism that invites everyone to share what they know and build on each other’s ideas in a board-less and borderless group.


Conversations to Build Capacity are not webinars, and Circle Conversations require a different understanding. The format seems to surprise new participants each time, even though we remind them when they sign up that this is a small gathering with everyone, cameras and mics on. We send email reminders that we cap the group at 10. If people can’t make it, we encourage them to tell us so we can let more people join. Their seat matters, and holding it empty remains one of the great challenges of evolving the understanding of this unique offering and seeing the bigger picture of how one person's actions or inactions impacts others. When someone signs up for a Circle Conversation and doesn’t show up, their seat remains at the metaphorical table. We want the seats full and the room flowing with ideas and perspectives. We want to strongly encourage those who sign up not to do so indiscriminately, but to go with eyes and minds open. That is when and why conversations really do build capacity for shared leadership, productive idea sharing, and developing consciousness around a topic.



Circle Conversations are about speaking with and learning authenticity from each other. We hope, like the shape it is modelled after, these opportunities will be never ending at The Mentoree. We are all equal in the circle and we all have our gifts to share.