SAIS Collaboration Series
The Think Tank
Published May 2014
By Sarah Stewart
It began as an experiment, a voluntary meeting of educators. There was no set agenda, no expected outcome, no mandatory notes, and no deliverables. The group would simply meet to ask questions and consider possibilities. It would be an environment where people from different disciplines and departments could feel safe to explore ideas. And so, the Think Tank was born at Saint Mary’s School in Raleigh, NC.
Shortly after being appointed Head of School in 2012, Dr. Monica Gillespie began to envision a way that Saint Mary’s faculty and staff could participate in appreciative inquiry together. She had witnessed the power of such groups at other schools, and sent out an invitation to anyone who wanted to join Saint Mary’s first Think Tank. Thirteen people from different departments, some new to Saint Mary’s and others longtime employees, responded.
Due to its open nature the Think Tank’s agenda follows the interests of its members. Thus far, its members typically meet five or six times during the school year in a casual setting such as sharing a meal or visiting a nearby attraction, and of course, they explore questions and discuss their challenges. Sometimes they read or research a topic together, and then share their impressions. They also take an annual “field trip” to a different city to visit independent schools and learn about what they are doing.
“As educators we know that ongoing professional development is critical to living out our mission,” said Dr. Gillespie. “By using appreciative inquiry and outside resources, the Think Tank develops the capacity to use positive questions as a catalyst for brainstorming, reexamining assumptions, considering multiple perspectives, and on the whole, generating ideas regarding best practices in thinking and learning.”
Dr. Robert Belknap was one of the first members of Saint Mary’s Think Tank. He had been teaching English at the school since 2000, and was excited about the opportunity. As with many teachers, his daily duties in the classroom consumed the bulk of his time and energy, and at times he felt disconnected from others in the school or the greater independent school community. The Think Tank was a welcomed outlet to learn more about his colleagues and other schools, while thinking critically and creatively about Saint Mary’s and independent school education.
“No one really knew at first what to expect or who would show up, but we had an interesting cross section of people in our school, and together, we shared questions that you can’t quite ask elsewhere in a faculty or department meeting,” he said. “We asked philosophical questions and experienced a process of sharing that was really quite enjoyable and took on a life of its own.”
Sarah Hanawald, Saint Mary’s Dean of Teaching and Learning, also joined the Think Tank. One question she wrestled with and hoped to explore was the importance of student autonomy versus the consistency of student experience. She says she enjoyed learning what her colleagues were thinking in casual environments where people could be open. She recalls an early meeting where the group cooked dinner together at Gillespie’s home. Such gatherings she said “recaptured a feeling and energy and excitement about learning and exploration, like when you are in an incredible class in college or having a late night debate or discussion with colleagues.” Hanawald was also new to Saint Mary’s so participating in the Think Tank helped her quickly gain deep connections with her colleagues and an understanding of the school’s culture. “It’s huge for relationship building. It’s like starting the game on third base.”
Think Tank member Scott Orvis, Saint Mary’s Director of College Counseling, also enjoyed getting to know his colleagues, plus learning how other schools are operating. “It’s been incredible to meet together as a group, go out and do the visits, and gain a greater understanding of where other schools are,” he said. “And there’s a lot of similarities, a lot of consistency in the challenges that independent schools are facing.”
Saint Mary’s Think Tank took its first field trip to visit independent schools in Washington D.C. last year, and this year, Think Tank members visited schools in Atlanta. When Gillespie reached out to each school and explained what the group was doing, she was met with a warm and welcoming response. “The willingness of our colleagues and other schools to allow us to come, and for them to give generously of their time was inspiring. We are so grateful for this network and to have these reciprocal relationships with so many diverse and amazing schools. We can’t speak highly enough of the schools we visited and hope we can reciprocate the hospitality in the future.”
The Think Tank members carpooled to each destination city and spent two or three days visiting schools and talking to other educators about everything from their pedagogies, to the things they tried that worked, to the things that didn’t work. They chose different types of schools so they would gain a wider breadth of experiences. In D.C. they visited ten schools including St. Anselm’s Abbey School, Cathedral School, Washington International School, Sidwell Friends School, and The Madeira School. In Atlanta they visited six schools: The Westminster Schools, The Ben Franklin Academy, Atlanta Girls’ School, Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School, The Lovett School, and Pace Academy.
Recalling the first trip to D.C., Belknap said, “a lot of us weren’t sure what was going to happen so there was a lot of excitement, but also nervousness. We had some overarching questions, but more or less we wanted to get out of our bubble and see how other schools are doing what they do,” he said.
The group quickly found the experience to be positive and even rejuvenating. When talking to the people at the schools, Belknap felt like he was encountering long lost relatives who were excited to show them their house and catch up on things. “We met some wonderful people and we talked about aspirations and setbacks and accomplishments and let the people talk about their programs and what was working well, and how they made it work well. It’s wonderful to talk to people who have had different experiences, plus you realize that you aren’t alone in your challenges either. Then we would come back and debrief with each other and share some of the takeaways.”
While the Think Tank is only two years old and is not intended to drive change, it has already led to a number of new developments at Saint Mary’s. Inspired by a visit to North Carolina State University’s James B. Hunt Jr. Library in Raleigh, the school decided to redesign its own library to better fit how students create and share knowledge in the digital age. The school also launched “Exploration Days,” three-hour programs on Saturdays where students and faculty pursue projects or curriculum that can’t be covered in 50 minutes in a classroom. Past programs have included a discussion of heroines through the lens of the production “The Wiz” and well-known movies such as “Star Wars.” Another Saturday the girls were divided into groups of six and went Geocaching in Raleigh. Geocaching is a worldwide treasure hunt where participants use a GPS device (such as their phone) and specific coordinates to find a geocache, a package in a hidden location filled with notes left by the people who find it.
Hanawald said, “The Geocaching day was a great success. It engaged the students because it’s fun, but it also taught them problem solving, technology use, and group dynamics. It is the type of thing you can’t do in an hour in a classroom; you need more time and flexibility. That’s what Exploration Days are all about.”
The school also decided to add some new items to their curriculum based on the Think Tank trips, namely marine science and a computer design and engineering course. The school has also been tinkering with its schedule in an effort to give teachers more time for professional development and students more free time to work on current projects, or pursue new ones.
Next year’s Think Tank will focus on residential life and how to improve the student experience. More than 50 percent of Saint Mary’s students are boarding students. The group plans to visit other boarding schools, and is even considering inviting a group of students to join them.
Reflecting on Think Tank, Gillespie says she would recommend it to any school as an incredible form of professional development that is inexpensive, rewarding, and effective. She also says she was glad she participated. Previously she had not participated in similar endeavors because she didn’t want her presence to impede the process. However, in this case as a new head, it helped her understand her school and faculty on a level that could not be attained on campus. And personally, Gillespie found it rewarding to step outside the traditional role of leader, and be part of a group of colleagues where she was supporting, following, and collaborating.
“In a school day, we don’t often take the time to sit and talk about how we do things,” she said. “The Think Tank commitment to spending time together is empowering and transformative for all of us and reminds us why we got into this vocation in the first place.”
Saint Mary’s School was founded in 1842 by an Episcopal priest, Rev. Aldert Smedes, and is one of the oldest all-girl schools in the country. Saint Mary’s housed the daughter of Gen. Robert E. Lee and a family member of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. Many of its buildings and its chapel are Raleigh Historic Properties and its campus is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its campus is also part of the North Carolina Civil War Trails. The school is located in downtown Raleigh and enrolls 263 residential and day students, grades 9 through 12.
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