“What greater gift to give ourselves and then the children we teach than being able to wisely and thoughtfully manage the hectic, almost frenetic nature of their lives? In an age of testing and logical thought as a measure of worth, it is imperative that our children comprehend the beauty and grace of true community, thoughtful self-reflection and the deep connections gleaned in a trusting, caring environment.”
Debby Neely retired this spring, after her 28th year as a middle school English teacher at Moses Brown. Born in Paris, raised in Cameroon and educated in Egypt, she imparted her appreciation of other cultures to her students, cultivating their engagement in multiple perspectives and appreciation of multicultural literature. Jared Schott, head of the middle school, sums up the many reasons Debby is held in such high esteem: “Debby consistently set the standard for cross-divisional collaboration and curriculum development. She has modeled creativity, self-reflection, and the importance of meaningful connections with students, while demanding excellence, and hard, critical work from her students and herself. Her impact on thousands of students during her career is truly remarkable. As a friend, colleague, and teacher, she has been instrumental in framing our program and imparting her wisdom, creativity, and joy of learning and teaching.” The Rhode Island Council of Teachers of English named her their Teacher of the Year in 2004.
Recently Debby considered how Moses Brown has grown during her 28 years here, as well as areas she believes can grow even stronger. “In my old age, I’m eager to have things change for the better,” she said. Three years ago, she attended a Quaker-inspired spiritual retreat using silence, reflection, journaling, questioning, poetry, music and small group discussion designed to foster reconnection with your authentic self. “Everything I learned there pertains to what we seek for Moses Brown: community building, intentional listening and support, protocols for bringing issues to the fore.” In bidding farewell to Moses Brown, she shares her learning from the workshop to build an even stronger and more genuine community.
The conference was entitled Reconnecting Who You Are With What You Do, and based on A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer, a Quaker educator and philosopher. The workshop culminated in a “Circles of Trust” exercise: a member shared a personal dilemma and through honest, open discussion was helped to come to a resolution. From the outset we were encouraged to “hold a space to listen to the authentic self, listening to the heart and not the head.”
I was drawn to the word “trust” since that is a key for meaningful human relationships and a crucial building block for a supportive learning community. After a long teaching career, I feel the intangibles of love, trust and genuine connection are the most vital components of teaching. I wanted to see how to develop more trust and effective communication among community members. I loved the idea of connecting “soul to role,” reconnecting with my deepest convictions in order to offer more depth and authenticity to my role as teacher.
We began the conference with some clear boundary markers for fostering effective communication and creating a safe space: “Be present as fully as possible…” “Listen with compassion and non-judgment…” and surprises, like “When the going gets tough, turn to wonder.” Listening was a key component to the workshop, listening to ourselves through silence and reflection, as well as listening to others with thoughtful, respectful silence.
The Circle of Trust originated with the Quaker community as “a clearness committee.” When a decision needed to be made, four or five trusted “friends” were called together to hold a safe space and ask open, honest questions with the aim of clarifying the thinking of the person making the decision. A Circle of Trust can result in a greater self-awareness for every participant. In our experience, a circle of trust was a highly structured, confidential exercise used to help a group member achieve clarity around a dilemma or decision. We practiced deep listening and sitting in silence with each other so as not to jump into “fixing” problems. We practiced asking reflective, helpful questions intended to add clarity for the presenter of the dilemma rather than satisfy our sense of curiosity.
The workshop reawakened in me the sense that trust, love and communication propel us to our best, most authentic life. Trust, reflection and deep listening are so often skipped over in our lives as we strive to do, accomplish and achieve. We are left aching for genuine connection and community. What greater gift to give ourselves and then the children we teach than being able to wisely and thoughtfully manage the hectic, almost frenetic nature of their lives? In an age of testing and logical thought as a measure of worth, it is imperative that our children comprehend the beauty and grace of true community, thoughtful self-reflection and the deep connections gleaned in a trusting, caring environment.