The following is an edited transcript of a conversation that Tana and I had with my sister Turi Nilsson. She is the Director of Instruction and co-founder of Southwest Baltimore Charter School, a place of great inspiration and learning for us. We’ve written about it in previous posts.
RENNIE: What would you say are the organizational practices that have most contributed to creating such an engaging culture at the school?
TURI: I guess it would be really appreciating people for who they are and encouraging them to share their gifts in a non-judgmental and open way. If a teacher has a gift or a talent, it is really looked at. There is not a box that the teacher has to fit in. We create the shape that works for the person so that those gifts can be given. Then the person is just growing and flowering and happy and, I think ultimately, intellectually curious…curious and offering at the same time. Also, when people come in, there is a really open environment where people’s voices are heard, where they can have positions of power and a role in finding consensus. And as a result, they just become more open and start sharing. A lot of people are finding it a transformative experience, including me.
RENNIE: One of the things that really struck me when we visited was the parallel between how the teachers were experiencing the school and how the students were experiencing it.
TURI: I’d like to think that it is the same for the kids. This year particularly, the number of kids who are deciding that they want to start up clubs during and after school is really exciting…I think we’re just starting to hit our stride with kids feeling the same way. I had a fifth grader tell me what books to order and what day to schedule her book club. Another student just told me that she is going to start an after-school club to help kindergarten kids with their letters. And there was an overwhelming student-initiated response to the earthquake in Haiti. We’ve pretty much gotten used to staff taking this kind of initiative…but seeing it take off this year with kids…that energy of feeling empowered and having a voice…it’s amazing.
TANA: Had you not experienced this kind of initiative on the part of kids in other schools where you’ve taught?
TURI: No, not in my experience. I’ve never seen kids take this kind of leadership role so quickly. And I would hate to generalize because I’m sure there are tons of places that can bring this out in kids. But in the most traditional school settings where everything comes from the top – from the administration to the teachers to the kids, and that is the expectation, and that’s the culture – it just doesn’t breed creativity and enthusiasm in the same way.
RENNIE: You’ve mentioned to me before that the way you wanted to treat the kids ended up influencing how you treated the staff. But you’re talking here about the reverse – that it sank in with the staff first and is now translating down to the kids in a whole new way. I imagine that as the staff got more comfortable with themselves being treated that way and having that kind of freedom, it became easier for them to do the same with their students. Anyone can say, “Oh I want the kids to develop their own way of thinking, their own projects, or their own approach to learning.” But it is different when you actually experience it yourself on a daily basis as a staff member. It’s an interesting circular phenomenon. It can come from either direction.
TURI: Thinking back to the first year, it was a very strong intentional move to say and then to make it be that we were going to treat kids with kindness all the time. That this wasn’t going to be a place of yelling. And then adopting Choice Theory, which focuses on meeting kids’ basic needs so that they’ll be happier and more fulfilled and less needing to act out. The idea of the engagement, of freedom, of really being able to pursue what is interesting to you…that’s something we’ve built on over time. And then I guess you’re right; as teachers felt more comfortable being in an environment of experimentation and conversation – knowing that everything didn’t have to be perfect – then it’s easier to allow that to happen in their classrooms as well. If you stop worrying about getting things right so often, being willing to engage in a good reflection after it goes well or doesn’t go well, you can then feel you can ask the same of your kids, so yeah, I guess it’s pretty circular.
RENNIE: Back to the theme of appreciation- of really appreciating people for who they are and for their gifts. How do you do that?
RENNIE: I know, that sounded like a Chris Farley question (laughter).
TURI: I don’t know…It’s not something we write down much. It just becomes habit, the culture of the place. If everyone is doing it, it begins to take on a life of its own. But it was really, really intentional in the beginning, the idea that we wanted it to be like that. It was sort of like willing it to be so. When we wanted to be pissed off or frustrated because a teacher was not meeting expectations in certain ways, we would be like, “Okay, well let’s think about what she’s really doing well and let’s think about how to help her.” Sometimes it’s shifting jobs or hours or giving a buffer or a time off or something that a particular person might need. Maybe it’s two or three weeks of lowering your expectations because they are going through something at home and you have to help them weather it. Or this job description is just not working…this person just needs more freedoms and needs to not have to worry about that kind of structure within the classroom. It was asking ourselves these things even though we might have originally wanted to respond in the traditional way.
TANA: I’m imagining a common reaction to this being, “Are you saying that the school never lets anyone go, that you always just find a way to work with the person?” I know you’ve had situations where people have left because it just wasn’t working, so how does that decision come about?
TURI: I don’t have a great answer for that because I still think it’s really hard to do. I guess we are getting a little bit better every year about being kind and honest at the same time. So if something is not working, we’re seeing the best in the person and trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, but we’re also talking about what concerns us early on. We are more successful when we can raise issues and investigate issues together with the person early on. And I think what has happened for us is that often, not always, the conversations we have about why something is not working and what would make it better help the person to be thinking about what they really want, which sometimes isn’t us. Sometimes it’s just not going to be in our framework, even if we are creative and flexible about job descriptions, which I think we really are.
RENNIE: You’re getting ready to move into a building of your own and to dramatically increase the size of the school. How’s that going?
TURI: We’ll be moving this summer and adding on a middle school and a kindergarten. It looks like we’ll add up to 140 middle school students and also a new kindergarten. We’re 260 now, so that’ll take us up to about 450 students.
RENNIE: That’s exciting.
TURI: The thing that is cool, although not surprising, is that the people who have been brought in this year are on fire. Watching them get lit up and coming to do extra stuff and brainstorming about what they are going to do in August is really exciting. It’s going to be like Erika and I felt in the beginning when we started the school, but this time it is a whole new group of people who are helping spearhead the start-up phase of things. A while back, you guys talked about the lifecycle of organizations. Like a tree has a time when it’s dormant and not growing as much, I feel like I’m weathering a year of wanting to be a little more introspective and not having the same amount of energy. The amount of energy you can put into something kind of comes and goes in waves. In my normal pattern, this would be the year that I’d leave and go do something else. But I’m not going to do that. I know I’m going to get re-energized with the energy of the new people. I’m already feeling it.
RENNIE: You guys have – more than any organization I know – a finely tuned sense that people’s down times and weaknesses matter. At the time you might think that you’re just living with it – someone is depressed for two weeks or whatever- but actually to be creative you need to have things you’re uncertain about. You need to feel weak, vulnerable, sad. I know you guys accept it grudgingly at times, but you know that you’ll benefit from that personally too down the line. A healthy system needs people going through different phases. And if they are all doing it at different times, it’ll be okay. And it can be many things. It can be emotional, but it can also simply be practical failures through experimentation and learning. There are lots of different levels of coming apart and re-organizing yourself.
TURI: I think where we are with this is that it is time to talk about it. We have talked about most of this stuff ad nauseam but I don’t know if we have talked about this aspect of how we work yet. I’ll feel more comfortable when people get that it’s not just because we’re nice that we’re putting up with someone being depressed for a few weeks. At times people have a hard time when they feel someone isn’t pulling their weight and is getting special treatment. They get really mad. And that is a tiring thing. It’s tiring for that person mostly, and it’s tiring for me, because I often have a feeling of having to defend why I’m not disciplining someone. I’d like to get more of that out there – that this is a natural cycle that is feeding our creativity and energy and that we’re all benefiting from working this way.
TANA: And everyone is different. It’s not like people will take up equal time. We’re not all the same.
RENNIE: I’ve thought a lot about the organizing power of ‘kindness’, or whatever word you want to use- ‘compassion’, ‘love’. It’s very muscular. It’s not simply a way of making everyone feel good. There are literally things that happen from it that help to create healthy system dynamics. It’s not just that we’re all going to hold hands. I’d love to be able to trace this productive quality quite concretely and in a rigorous way. I’m interested in expanding people’s sense of permission so they go, “Oh, so if I am kind and I do these things, this is what happens and this is why.”
TANA: And it is less, “If I am kind,” and more, “If I feel kind.” Because it’s so easy to instrumentalize it.
RENNIE: Right, kindness isn’t a particular behavior. Any number of behaviors might be kind or unkind depending on the context. Kindness is a mode of relationship. It’s the blurring of the line that separates you from someone else. It’s the sweet spot. It’s the place where I’m going to start to understand your perspective more because it will be our perspective.”
TANA: Thanks, Turi, for taking the time to share your experience with us. We hope to get down to see the school in it’s new expansive form before we leave for Zimbabwe.
TURI: It would be fun for us to have you visit.