Through participating in The Circle Way training hosted by Edmonton Public School district, retired high school counsellor Mary Frances Fitzgerald describes how she and her colleague, Melinda McNie, boldly applied its components to structure a new and effective way of engaging their partners in service of youth at risk.
Stepping In with Courage and Commitment - Bringing The Circle Way to Our Work
During the Spring of 2017, my colleague Melinda McNie and I embraced the opportunity of The Circle Way training offered through our Edmonton Public School Board. We are both retired School Counsellors who are still working for our school board as part time consultants mostly focused on mental health and a suicide awareness program, Community Helpers (CHP). Community Helpers was created in 2008 to address the high youth suicide rates in Alberta. It teaches nine strength-based modules to students who are identified as ‘natural helpers’. Melinda has been the Manager of Community Helpers since its implementation with Edmonton Public Schools.
Research tells us that students go first to their peers for support rather than trusted adults, teachers or school counsellors. “Natural Helpers” are those ‘go to’ students who peers naturally trust and it is those ‘go to’ students we want to educate about limits, boundaries, helping and listening skills, resources and healthy help seeking behaviors. Not only do we work with the students at school sites, we also train the adult site facilitators and site educators who students have also identified as natural helpers. In this training, we recognized opportunities to insert Circle Way practices.
BEGINNING CIRCLE INFUSION
In June 2017 Melinda and I hosted a year end Community Helper Facilitator Day in Mackay Avenue School, the Edmonton Public School Board’s archival museum. In this wonderful aged building we bravely introduced The Circle Way to our participants. Melinda, a former physical education teacher, and me, a former drama teacher, are familiar with applying circle routines to teaching. Using The Circle Way offered a focused, guided, and nuanced rhythm to our design.
Melinda and I were fortunate both to have had our Circle Way training at the same time and to have worked together as school counsellors on different projects during our careers. We know the value of taking time for thoughtful preparation to visualize how to use The Circle Way our work and agreed to experiment at this June Facilitator Day.
At first, we were concerned with practicalities such as replicating the setting provided by our Circle Way trainers; creating an attractive center; inviting participants to bring personal objects; appropriate talking pieces; designing the appropriate ambience; note taking; chime ringing; how to work within our allotted space using power points; scheduling and inviting guest speakers into our circle. All this aside, truthfully, our hesitancy was more about introducing The Circle Way to ‘traditional’ educators. How would they react?
OUR FIRST SESSION
Our goal with our Facilitator Day was to create authentic conversations that considered questions, challenges, changes and wishes arising from the past school year’s facilitation training and supports, and then building ideas around:
- online curriculum development
- CHP Veteran support
- Suicide Awareness Day/Week
- Community of Practice
- CHP youth training
- CHP adult training
- provincial CHP meetings
- mindfulness practice,
- introducing the Circle of Courage program
- understanding the Aboriginal perspectives on suicide and the use of ceremony
Yes, we had an abundance of material to address in one day and we wanted our colleagues to be the idea leaders contributing directions for the program’s future.
Prior to participants’ arrival, we enjoyed staging our setting, appreciating that both our contributions would create a unified intention and ambiance. As people arrived, they were welcomed with light pastries and morning brews, and gradually started to sit in the circle. We observed curious glances between attendees as they sat waiting with expectation. Melinda and I coupled our energy, joined the circle and settled in our chairs. I chimed the beginning and after welcoming our group, we introduced The Circle Way and its relationship to Edmonton Public Schools. Melinda shared this was our first circle and that we would be learning with our participants. We started by introducing components of The Circle Way, including ringing the chimes, passing the talking piece, lighting the candle, adding to the center, the purpose of the center, the agreements and the right to pass.
Our introductory check-in question was simple: ‘What are you grateful for?’ and after that we shared our personal articles to be placed in the centre. Both activities helped us understand one another in a different light. The wonderful result of such an opening allowed participants to engage thoughtfully and deeply with one another.
In the afternoon we had a unique opportunity to hear one of our guests share the Aboriginal principles of the youth program “The Circle of Courage” - belonging, mastery, independence and generosity. This was like having a circle within a circle, or a circle sitting atop another circle, or circles intertwining. Not only was our learning enhanced by this story, but we were enacting a provincial quality teaching standard of informing teachers’ foundational knowledge of First Nations, Metis and Inuit cultures.
Our circle way was further graced by the visit of an Aboriginal Elder and his son who came to smudge our meeting room. As you recall, our session was held in an archival school museum that was built on Treaty river lands in the early 1900’s and served non-aboriginal residents of this new city. Throughout this school museum, there are relics and photographs of the school property surrounded by teepees, campfires, horses and city homes of the times. Our complex cultural and historical relationship was overtly surrounding us. As we sat in our circle within this building, our Elder smudged to purify the energies of our meeting room, and the building. The cleansing smoke with our thoughts and prayers are meant to rise to the Spirit World where the Creator resides. Our Elder spoke to us about Aboriginal beliefs and understandings of suicide. As such spiritual teachings are typically not linear, they are contained well within the circle, to be received and applied to our work with youth at risk from all cultures.
At the end of this session, our Elder’s teenage son went from person to person inside the circle and smudged with each participant. Individually, we were invited to scoop the smoke up around and over our heads and acknowledge our “being-ness” together at that moment in our circle. As such, we strengthened the interior space of our circle, gracing it with spiritual ceremony and honoring history.
Our Elder came into our circle with an appreciation for and tradition in the circle way. He shared indigenous ceremony - smudge and story. To be honest, as hosts we felt some hesitancy coming from an awareness and recognition that we might be perceived as co-opting his culture’s notion of circle. However, our worries did not arise once our Elder was greeted and seated. It was magical and sacred time for us all.
We closed our day with circle reflections. All agreed it was an enlightening day, full of deep appreciation for our individual and mutual engagements within the circles. As hosts, we received positive feedback and our guests felt deeply valued.
In preparing this article, Melinda and I recently sat together and cast our memories back to ten months ago. Our compatibility is apparent in our work, with each of us appreciating our different strengths. We remembered our nervousness and concern with getting it right. Then, we started by listing our preparations for implementing The Circle Way, in the proper manner. Now, we surprised ourselves with our list of accomplishments, realizing we met far more than our stated goal of engaging our colleagues as “idea leaders.” We had created a meaningful day of engagement and learning for all, using The Circle Way. Melinda was delighted that Community Helpers now has a new way of conducting sessions. Marlene Hanson, our supervisor and champion for bringing The Circle Way training to Edmonton Public Schools, realized the promise of The Circle Way when working with educators.
On a lighter note, I learned that one must have discernment in chiming! Because I thought so many expressed thoughts were worthy of a chime, I did!
Mary Frances Fitzgerald M.Ed: Mary Frances had two specialties during her teaching career, drama instructor and school counsellor. Now retired from the classroom, she stays involved in education by consulting for a large public school district working with Community Helpers - a mental health and suicide prevention student- focused program. She is Vice President of the Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA) Provincial Council of School Counsellors and facilitates professional learning for teachers across the province as an ATA instructor. Her passion is reducing stigma, creating awareness and building capacity with students and educators.
Melinda McNie M.Ed: Melinda is the Coordinator for the Community Helpers Program, a suicide awareness and intervention program for youth with Edmonton Public Schools. She also is an educator for the Institute of Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta, Faculty of Education. She taught and counseled in schools for over thirty-five years and for eight years, facilitated Gay/Straight Alliances (GSA’s). Melinda is a certified Emotional Fitness Coach, Go-to Educator, and Circle Way practitioner. She practices yoga, hikes, snowshoes, is an ardent lover of travel and adventure, striving to participate fully in her own life.