Using circle practice with school leaders

The Circle Way is becoming embedded within Edmonton Public Schools, the sixth largest school district in Canada. Cohorts of district leaders and consultants have been trained in the practice to support the creation of respectful spaces for conversation and learning, from classrooms to staff rooms. Below, Joanne Bergos, supervisor of the district’s leadership development services, describes how she uses The Circle Way in her monthly support and learning meetings with new principals.

Using Circle Practice to Create Connections and Community with School Leaders

After attending an inspiring three-day workshop on the Art of Hosting, where The Circle Way was introduced as the pattern holder both for how we gathered and learned each day, and for the methods taught, the possibilities for using circle practice in my work facilitating groups of school leaders kept emerging. Finally, I gathered my courage, let go of judgments and assumptions, and introduced circle practice to a cohort of new principals I lead as a way to begin our monthly professional learning sessions. And guess what? They embraced it with grace and presence!

Now three years later, circle practice is embedded into the structure of the day for each of the leadership cohorts I facilitate. For the new principal cohort, the circle has served a variety of purposes: from check in to check out – helping us all make the transition from and back into the busy and complex demands of our daily work, into this space designed for professional support and competency building - to deepening our relational connections through the sharing leadership stories, to intentionally making space in our day to pause and reflect.

The circle creates equity among people regardless of their years of leadership experience. Egos are left at the door. The energy in the circle always holds space for the principals to share their powerful, vulnerable, positive, humorous and authentic experiences so vitally necessary to their leadership development in their immense roles. We experience the value of giving time and space for joy, frustration, celebration, despair and hope. Always, at the conclusion of the circle, people know they are not alone.

So how did the circle evolve into such a powerful practice? Over time, gently, fearlessly, and mindfully applying the components of The Circle Way practice.

Chairs in a circle

We have been fortunate to work in a space with enough room for groups to work at tables as well as to set up a circle. Making space for chairs to be arranged in a circle invites the participants to be one group where people notice all who are present, who is talking and who is listening.

Creating the centre

Depending on our day’s theme often, though not always, I place an object in the center to create a focal point. When the group first convenes, I invite the participants to bring an artifact that tells a story about their leadership journey or speaks to them as leaders. In this way, they make the circle theirs.

Setting the intention

The first time I set the chairs out in a circle, as anticipated, people entered curiously, cautiously and with some discomfort. Immediately they sat at the tables, a room arrangement that is more culturally the norm. Following my welcome, I explain the intention of using a circle to build a community of support where people feel safe, respected and capable. This has helped to create a new pattern of how we gather and work together.

Circle agreements

The “generic” Circle Way agreements and laws of respect introduced in the first circle have remained for the most part unchanged.

Our circle agreements:

  • Listen with attention, curiosity and compassion withholding judgment.
  • Speak with intention - stories, comments, and information is shared with relevance to the group.
  • We all contribute to the well-being of the group and consider the impact of our words and actions before, during and after we speak.

Our laws of respect:

  • Stories we share in circle are confidential.
  • From time to time we agree to pause to re-gather our thoughts.
  • We ask each other for what we need and offer what we can.

After several months when I reviewed these agreements, I asked the group if additional agreements were needed; none were suggested.

A signal to start

After reviewing our intention and agreements, I ring a chime with a single note that fills the room with a long, soft tone. People settle into the quiet, quickly finding their stillness and presence. Sometimes, I share a quote related to leadership or to the focus of the day before posing the question for the circle.

Crafting the question

Much thought goes into crafting and selecting a question that aligns to the purpose of creating a connected, caring cohort who provide support to each other for months to come. Additionally, I consider how to link the question to the content of the agenda, the time of year, and the anticipated demands of that month in schools. With time, as the participants grow closer to each other, I then pose questions that delve deeper and invite personal contemplation.

A guardian

Initially, I was both host and the guardian. However, as the participants become more comfortable with the process, I ask individuals to take on the role of the guardian to ring the bell upon my request when the emotion in the circle needs a pause or when an individual contribution needs reflection.

Check Out

The circle concludes with summarizing the salient themes heard in the circle. I express appreciation for the group’s willingness to work together in this way, recognizing there is usually some risk involved. The check-out also provides me with the opportunity to offer advice or wisdom from my experience in service of the group’s growing competency as school leaders.

It’s been a wonderfully generative journey embedding the circle practice into our professional development program to create the space for meaningful personal and professional connection and conversation among our new leaders. Supporting the growth of our principals in this way has reinforced our belief that we all benefit from the collective wisdom of groups nurtured in such safe and caring spaces.

Growth is never by mere chance; it is the result of working together.

— James Cash Penny

Joanne Bergos works in Leadership Development, Human Resources for a large urban school board in Alberta. She has served the jurisdiction in a variety of leadership roles initially as a teacher, then consultant and school principal. Currently she heads up the jurisdiction’s leadership framework for employees. With a Masters in Educational Leadership and certification as an executive coach with the International Coaching Federation, Joanne’s passion is coaching and mentoring leaders to unlock their potential so they can best serve their communities.