A circle of support for female leaders in education

Curious about how The Circle Way can be used to support leaders? Read along as former school principal Kathy Toogood shares her experiences co-hosting a monthly circle to support women who lead.

A Circle of Support for Female Leaders in Education

I had just finished my doctoral studies, having multiple conversations with female principals about their journey through school as students, teachers, and leaders. I learned so much from each conversation; from their experiences, and the meaning they constructed of those experiences. At the end, the participants expressed their gratitude for the opportunity to be listened to, and to discover their own values and wisdom in the course of reflective conversation. I wondered how I might take those lessons with me outside of a research context. Soon after that, when my friend Katharine Weinmann became aware of emerging leaders who felt alone and overwhelmed, we decided to call a circle, to gather female leaders together to reflect on their experiences and share their stories.

We used the principles of The Circle Way (2010), articulated by Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea in establishing safe spaces for meaningful conversations. We began as circles must, by sharing the agreements that create a safe space. We committed to

  • Confidentiality
  • Speaking one at a time, with intention
  • Listening with attention and compassion
  • Surrendering the need to know or give advice
  • Asking for what we need; and offering what we can
  • Honouring our professional code by speaking our truth, not talking about others

Certain elements helped set the tone for a productive and meaningful circle conversation:

  • We would create a center, including a candle, to hold our energy.
  • The host would offer a poem or piece of prose to inspire or provoke thought.
  • We began with a simple check-in to introduce yourselves and either leave something behind or set an intention.
  • Then the host would ask a reflective question that caused the participants to consider their experiences & values, and then move around the circle, once or twice, letting each person speak.
  • Some reflective questions:
    • Tell about a childhood experience that shaped your sense of vocation
    • Share a children’s story that illustrates something you value in leadership
    • Bring and talk about an artifact that represents who you want to be as a leader
  • We finished with a check-out that briefly captured the learning, or an aha moment.

There is something sacred and wonderful that happens when female leaders come together in a circle to speak their truth and bear witness to each other: they become more fully themselves, even as they are united in community. They find their voice, and the courage to act on their values and priorities. They can process the emotions that come from caring for students and staff, while seeking to lead effective learning communities. They discover they are not alone; rather, they find a community of like-minded friends and colleagues who can stand with them when they feel tired and overwhelmed. They can gain perspective and strengthen ethical practice. They can connect who they are with what they do. They are inspired to contribute what they uniquely have to offer the world.

Photo by  Sabri Tuzcu  on  Unsplash

Photo by Sabri Tuzcu on Unsplash

We met like this, in someone’s home, for about three years. There was a core group of members who remained the same-while others departed and new women joined. For me, it was a safe place to renew my focus, be grounded in my values, and be inspired to go back to my work and be fully present for the people around me. And it created a community for us, in which we really knew each other and felt known. I felt a bond with these leaders. I felt safe when I saw them at district meetings, knowing they had my back, and they knew the intention of my heart, while also knowing that I am human, and I couldn’t possibly meet all the expectations I felt daily, in the complex work of leading a school. I felt the sustaining influence of this circle for three challenging years as a school leader. Our circle came to an end, after I moved on to other work. But I have remained connected to many of the members.

My experience suggests that circle is a valuable conversational process for coming together as like-minded professionals to support each other. Sometimes if our group was small, and we were visiting over wine and snacks, someone would say, do we need to go into circle? I would gently suggest that we should. And the conversation shifted. There is something qualitatively different when we sit in a circle, light the candle, and enter into a sacred conversation guided by agreements. We each think more deeply, share more intentionally, and listen more carefully. And we are changed in ways that we aren’t when we simply eat and talk and laugh together-not that that doesn’t also have value.

I had a wonderful opportunity to share about our circle of support this spring at #uLead17, a conference for educational leaders, attended by more than a thousand leaders from around the world. At the pre-conference, focused on Women in Leadership, a group of female leaders gathered to launch a virtual community on Twitter, #WomenEdCanada. We were joining in a #WomenEd network established in the United Kingdom by Hannah Wilson, @The HopefulHT, around 8 C’s: Clarity, Communication, Connection, Confidence, Collaboration, Community, Challenge and Change. Our women leaders circle served as a wonderful example of collaboration: showing one way that women can come together to support each other in their leadership journey. The idea of the circle was well received, and we are hoping to re-convene with a group of women who attended the pre-conference from our area to continue this conversation.

I am fortunate to have a group of friends who are committed to circle practice and skillful in hosting meaningful conversations. I have participated in, and hosted many circles, with diverse groups of people. Recently, I sat in a circle of women from our city who wanted to harness the energy from the Women’s March in January to support women from diverse backgrounds in our city. I continue to find that when we come together in circle, whether as friends or strangers, with a clear purpose, or just a desire for connection, something significant happens.

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Kathy Toogood is a learner and a leader. She is grateful for the many opportunities she has had to grow and contribute through her career in education, as a teacher, consultant, principal, and now civil servant. She completed her Doctor of Education degree in 2012, conducting narrative research on Living the Complexity of Female Leadership, which forms the foundation for her speaking and writing. She continues to embrace learning through reading, reflecting, writing, listening, teaching, and facilitating conversations.