Icebreaker. The one word that can make or break a staff gathering. When done well, icebreakers can set a tone for engagement, support, and encouragement that might set the tone for the school day. On the other hand, if an administrator is googling “icebreakers” five minutes prior to the meeting, these activities can feel like a waste of time and can negatively influence the tone of the meeting. Honestly, I’ve never been a fan of activities beyond the traditional meeting agenda. I am the type that likes to get in, get to business, and get back to work.
When I started the school year as the principal of Austin Online Academy, however, I knew our staff meetings needed to look different than they would in a traditional brick-and-mortar school. I also wondered if we could incorporate meaningful activities that were a checkup on how each of us was doing with online teaching. I began searching for ways to integrate social and emotional learning (SEL) into staff meetings.
SEL for Staff
I wanted to find ways to integrate SEL in a way that not only shaped our teaching practices but also brought our team closer. Using CASEL’s 3 Signature Practices Playbook as a model, I started to brainstorm activities in these three categories:
- Welcoming and Inclusion Activities
- Engaging Strategies, Brain Breaks, and Transitions
- Optimistic Closures
This frame helped me start to map out the different types of activities, the importance of each, and how I could incorporate them throughout the school year.
By midyear we called this the “warm and fuzzy” part of our meeting, complete with a picture of a cute cat as the leading icon in the agenda.
Ideas for how to bring SEL into meetings
Celebrate successes. Early in the year, I noticed that we were fixating on the mistakes we were making in this new learning environment instead of celebrating our successes.
In one episode of the Breaking Up with Perfectionism podcast, Matthew Matheson shares his Church of Fail strategy: creating frequent opportunities for members of organizations to share a “fail.” The process consists of asking the following three questions: What did you fail at? How did you cope with it? And what did you learn from it?
After my faculty listened to the segment, we created our own Church of Fail. We each shared our biggest work fails, and at the end we applauded each other for sharing and learning.
Remember your “why.” In one meeting, we watched a video called “Be the Reason,” featuring teachers from Roseville Middle School who wrote cards to students explaining why they were their inspiration for coming to school every day. After watching this video, each of our teachers reflected on a student who was their reason to come to school every day and sent the cards home in the mail. This activity helps teachers recover their “why” in the middle of a messy school year. Along with note cards, I suggest bringing tissues to this meeting.
Be a participant. So I mentioned at the beginning that I might have been the teacher who sat in the back, or had an IEP that ended right after the icebreaker (darn!). As a school leader, not only did I start to believe in the importance of this work—I learned to become an active participant as well. Instead of shying away from sharing three things not on my résumé with a small group, I now participate and enjoy hearing the stories my colleagues share. Instead of looking at these activities as something we have to suffer through, I now see them as a way to build relationships and get to know who I work with outside of their title.
Learn as a leader. Leading SEL activities means you have to learn more about them—and yourself in the process. Finding resources to help with executive functioning and organizational systems is key for leaders, staff, and online students. During the fall, we were finding that many of our students were struggling with the transition from a traditional seven-period day to the flexibility of an online schedule. The students had more time to go deeper into content but struggled with how to start—and keep going. I was finding myself in the same rut. I needed a new strategy to get deep work done during the day.
I started using the Pomodoro Technique, a time-management tool that has you identify the task you want to complete, set a timer for 25 minutes, work, and then take a five-minute break and repeat. Before I shared it with staff, I tried it myself. While implementing, I ended up finding that I did better using a YouTube video in the background instead of my phone as a timer.
By the next staff meeting, I was able to confidently share not only the tool, but also a few different ways I had learned to use it. The next week, staff came back and shared that not only were students liking it, but they themselves needed a strategy to help with the time between connecting with students and building the engaging and relevant content that kept drawing our students in online.
Build a support wall. When shifting the focus of meetings to include a social and emotional component, we also wanted a way to visually remember all the activities we engaged in during the year. Enter the Support Wall.
In our office we have a large column where we post all of our SEL during the year so that we can reference all the things we have learned that have enhanced our classroom practices, our connections with our students, and our relationships with each other.
Share resources. I make sure to include each activity in our online meeting agenda with any additional resources so that staff feel comfortable taking these back into their virtual classrooms. This also becomes the repository for all of our past activities if we want to go back to them.
We are now in quarter three, and I am honestly starting to look forward to the warm and fuzzy part of the meeting. I have noticed that as a staff, we are more in tune with each other. As leaders, we are always learning, and the social and emotional well-being of those we serve with is important to embed into work we do every day.