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Sustain the Spark How We Plan to Empower Educators

By Josh Cobb, Head of School
“The nature of relationship among the adults within a school has a greater influence on the character and quality of the school and on students than anything else.”
- Roland Barth, Founder of Harvard’s Principals’ Center
Another first day of school, and I feel the butterflies again. Since I was five years old, I have experienced the nervousness of beginning school. Now, as an educator, my first day comes a week before the students’ first day. It is August 17, 2022. At 8:30 a.m., I stand up to welcome the faculty and staff back to another school year. As I grab the handheld mic from its stand and look over the assembled educators, I sense such a positive energy that my anxiety begins to evolve into excitement.
There is a buzz among them that is reminiscent of first days of the past, August 2019 and earlier. Before I begin to speak, I quietly take a moment to acknowledge their effervescence and dedicate myself to reflect it in my speech and beyond, knowing how important it is to sustain this type of enthusiasm throughout the year.

Educating children has often been called a vocation, “a calling,” or even for some, “a higher calling.” There is a nobility to this idea that I embrace, but from my own experience as a teacher when I was younger, I was drawn to teach not because it was my predetermined destiny to serve others but because it simply was fun. I loved being around ninth graders, their irreverence and sense of humor suited me, and I also found joy in creating lessons that engaged them and helped them grow. Was I called to teach? Maybe. Did I love teaching? Definitely.

Vocation or not, over the past three years, from March 2020 to now, education, for many in the field, became less of a calling and more of a job. There were moments, for all of us, whether teachers, administrators, or staff, when the work didn’t seem as joyful. For myself, I remember a colleague from the Association of Colorado Independent Schools (ACIS) reaching out to me in May of 2020 and asking, quite simply, “Are you ok?” Even over Zoom, he could see a flatness in my eyes, a lack of the spark that he had come to expect from me over the years. His genuine curiosity and kindness reminded me that I couldn’t take for granted the joy and purpose I had found in my career. At times, I had to rediscover it.

Later that morning, on August 17, I introduced to the educators—administrators, faculty, and staff—who were gathered in Anschutz Commons the main concepts of our new strategic framework: Inspire Students, Empower Educators, Engage Families, and Cultivate a Culture of Belonging. Considering my audience, I spent most of my time focusing on the “Empower Educators” goal to:

 “Cultivate a dynamic community where our entire team of educators—faculty, administrators, and staff—are dedicated to growth, collaboration, and innovation. By accomplishing this goal, every educator thrives with purpose and agency while creating engaging growth opportunities
for students.”

As I detailed the strategic objectives and tactics that would lead to this goal, I stressed how the effort to empower educators would spin the pinwheel, the visual representing the strategic framework, and impact both students and families, all generating the thriving that was central to the entire plan.

That morning, there was much laughter as I detailed the framework. One of the teachers who was at the table in front of me had the gumption to announce that she was going to count the number of times I said the word “thrive,” and it became our joke throughout the presentation (the final tally: 23). Still, as fun as it was to laugh together, ensuring that educators thrive is no laughing matter for our society and for Graland. COVID has exacerbated two troubling trends—more educators, whether teachers or administrators, are leaving the profession, and less educators are entering it. To meet this challenge, the strategic plan details several action steps to ensure recruiting and retaining the best talent, and most of those efforts relate to fostering purpose and joy. 

The primary initiative this year to help meet this strategic objective is the extension of the professional growth partnership concept to all employees at Graland. Working with an outside consultant, Ali Waggener ’94 Boyd, we are training seventeen administrators to each coach eight members of the faculty and staff throughout the year. These professional growth partnerships are non-evaluative and rely on active listening and open-ended questioning to help educators envision and ultimately realize their own professional trajectory, full of agency and fulfillment. By supporting educators on their unique journey of growth through reflection and connection, this program will help them master their craft, all while contributing to our overall mission to foster intellectual excellence and strong character in our students. Very much like that conversation with my ACIS colleague in 2020, these interactions, full of curiosity and compassion, will elevate our understanding of ourselves and others, ultimately building the collegiality so essential to a dynamic culture of professional growth.

During my teaching career, my relationships with my students maintained my enthusiasm for teaching. Then, after I moved into administration, my relationships with adults sustained me. Ultimately, the professional growth partnership program is about relationships, as it is through those relationships that we often find our professional purpose. Yes, education may be a vocation, but it is not a one-and-done epiphany that propels one’s career from that moment on. It must be nourished again and again, through the kindness of colleagues, through self-reflection, and ultimately through a deep commitment to children.

The new strategic framework relies on a synergy between all four focal points. By empowering educators, we plan to inspire students and engage families, all supported by a culture of belonging. Roland Barth, the founder of Harvard’s Principals’ Center, captures this dynamic connection when he states:

“The nature of relationship among the adults within a school has a greater influence on the character and quality of the school and on students than anything else.”

Throughout this year, for our students, we are committed to sustaining the positive energy I felt so clearly that first day with faculty and staff by building relationships through the professional growth partnerships and more informally through the daily work that we do, innovating and collaborating to empower educators, inspire students, engage families, and cultivate a culture of belonging. It is through these inclusive and authentic relationships with students, colleagues, and families that we will continually find meaning and joy and create a culture to support our strategic journey to achieve
our mission.
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Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1924, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.