Our Experience in Omaha
Last October, my sister-in- law Kathryn and my friend Martina went to Boston for TeachCollab. TeachCollab is a community of teachers interested in growth through the questions and challenges of education. I was jealous. It sounded amazing. However, Boston is far from Omaha and expensive to get to, and October is a difficult time for a teacher to take days off, so I passed. When my friends returned they were glowing with a renewed sense of vocation and from the people they encountered. I was jealous again and now kicking myself for not having attended. I started scheming a little and proposed, “What if we had TeachCollab here, in Omaha?” I really wasn’t sure how others would respond or if it could actually happen in the foreseeable future. I mean, who would come to Omaha for a teaching conference in the middle of the school year? Was it just going to be a couple teacher friends and I drinking coffee talking about a few “neat” ideas we had? Nevertheless, Martina responded enthusiastically and we begun planning.
As we extended the proposal to other teachers in the area, they jumped on board. We had Kelly in David City, Rachel in Omaha, Brianne and Jonathan in Denver, Maria in Kansas City, and Amanda in St. Louis working with me, Martina and Kathryn on prepping the Midwest TeachCollab. Then, to my surprise, the folks from Boston and Washington (Jose, Carolina, and Liliana) agreed to come out to Omaha to help facilitate the event. This was turning into a much bigger deal than a few friends sitting around a coffee house. We planned over email, webcams, and phone calls whenever we could find a spare hour. This was really happening. Others were actually willing to give much of their time and energy to this. Why?
We needed a space. I timidly asked my principal if we could rent out the school for a weekend in late April (Prom weekend actually). I half-expected a “No,” or a “Yes” with many conditions. He asked me what this TeachCollab thing was all about. “Inquiry as learning, meaningful questions…” I tried to explain. He loved it. He gave us the space for free and then some. I couldn’t believe what we were given when we asked. We had the space, now we needed housing. As it turned out, we had planned the weekend during a huge event for Berkshire-Hathaway in Omaha. Hotel rooms were either booked or their prices were inflated by hundreds of dollars. My gut-reaction was that no one would come now. Part of me didn’t trust that something I wanted would actually work out.
Thankfully, others thought it would. Our friends in Omaha immediately offered their homes for the travellers, so that all the participants coming from out of town - from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Louisiana (who drove all day and night for this brief weekend) - were able to stay with us. I was already blown away that the event had come together as it did. It all started with a desire and a question-- but it had to be asked for. I was a little anxious as folks started arriving, still uncertain about how the weekend would unfold. When I finally saw the others I had been working with from a distance, I recognized them like friends, like friends that I had missed but never even met in person! Meeting the rest of the participants felt different too, far from the grumbles of teachers piling in for a mandatory Professional Development day. They wanted to be here. They recognized a need for this as well. I started to appreciate community more than I have in a long time.
We read an excerpt from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Will o’ the Mill, which portrays a curious boy with a desire to know and his relationship with two “teachers.” This set the foundation for the weekend. What are we doing? Are we pointing to ourselves and some tidy answers that explain away everything or reality as it actually is? Do we try to temporarily satisfy and move on or do we lead on further into the Mystery? These questions led into Master Lessons by Jose and Carolina, who taught how to teach and how to ask questions that connect with another’s humanity and curiosity, not just help them fill out a worksheet. Even they were open to critique, questions, dialogue. Everything pointed beyond us.
Carrying these new provocations, we then taught our own lessons to small groups. We learned how to give meaningful feedback-- nothing that destroyed another or gave them some useless warm-fuzzies-- but helpful, constructive, true. When it was all said and done, I was deeply struck by the fact that these people came from all over the country and that I was part of this amazing community that helped plan the weekend. I reflected on why these people came. They came because there was something here that was essential to their lives. Something beyond just the desire to get better at their job.
While I shared this recognition, at times it was overshadowed by my own doubt and my own worries over how it went. I didn't even know what I was bringing into the weekend because I was planning so much. But during those two days I was woken up by the encounters that I had with all these people. What was beautiful about the weekend was that it was not about learning great tricks, but rather it was about who we are as teachers and who our students are. What do they need? What do we need? What are we asking for? This weekend didn’t give me those answers in a nice, neat package. It gave me an awareness that still carries me in my teaching. And so, I am excited to go back to my own vocation with the awareness of that experience, because now I know what I am hoping for.